The opening two minutes of Everton’s 2-0 win over Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday were chaotic.
Everton launched it from kick off. Liverpool headed it out for a corner. The wind swirled. There’s a half-chance from the corner. They have some steady possession then bang it long. Thiago guided it out of play. Mason Holgate took a throw in twice. It bounced around in midfield. It bobbled everywhere. There’s head tennis. The wind continued to swirl. It was wild.
Then James Rodriguez got the ball.
And in his own gorgeously paradoxical way, he slowed things down and sped them up at the same time. Within seconds, there’s a heavenly touch, a dream of a pass and Richarlison is onto it.
The sound it makes as it hits the back of the net, the face he pulls as he wheels away in front of the Kop, the visceral roars from a mob of joyous converging team-mates – you’re up and you’ll remember it forever.
The goal set the tone for the subsequent performance and shifted the responsibility over to the lads at the back, who showed nerve, controlled aggression and immense concentration to get Everton over the line.
But it was those two moments of flair from arguably Everton’s two most gifted footballers that allowed them to breath in a fixture where so often they’ve been suffocated by the occasion.
In the 22 years that preceded Saturday’s success, the Toffees have conspired to lose matches at their former home in almost every conceivable way. It’s prompted plenty of threads of thinking as to what the primary issue has been. Refereeing bias? An inferior mentality? Plain bad luck? Or, as has been the case recently, a blatant gulf in quality?
Another is that Everton simply haven’t had enough top-level game changers. Footballers who dictate the course of a fixture with one piece of control and one perfectly-weighted pass. Players who will latch onto a weakness in an opponent and ruthlessly exploit it. Lads who don’t even need to look up when through on goal before slamming a shot in after three minutes. On the big stage.
In Rodriguez and Richarlison, Everton have those decisive forces. And crucially, as we look ahead to a run-in in 2020-21 that’s been ignited by the riotous 5-4 win over Spurs and Saturday’s overdue derby success, they both appear to be coming to the boil at the right time.
Rodriguez may not be as dominant as he was in the early weeks of the season, but after a lean start to the year he’s beginning to produce big moments in big matches. Not only did he calmly cut through the chaos on Saturday, he netted glorious goals against Leicester and Manchester United in important draws.
While finding a way to keep him in the side and preserve a rock-solid defensive structure still feels like a quandary for Carlo Ancelotti, the fine-margin football Everton have played recently requires someone who can produce moments of elite inspiration. Rodriguez has increasingly showed that if he’s on the pitch in a high-profile encounter, he will conjure something.
Richarlison was the beneficiary of that quality at the weekend and he will continue to be should he maintain the standards he’s set recently.
Of all Everton’s players, the Brazilian has been the most inhibited by empty stadiums, so it’s encouraging he’s found a way to rejuvenate himself in the previous month. Playing as a forward, he’s made conscious efforts to get into battles and win them. Getting the better of a centre-back in a duel has brought that trademark aggression back into his game and it’s no surprise the goals have flowed. The edge is back.
If Everton were ever going to be serious challengers for the top four and the FA Cup this season, they needed Richarlison to find his former self. It looks like he has.
Obviously there are other issues to eradicate before they can think of the Champions League and potential silverware. They are primarily in attack, where there needs to be more variety, more bravery and more directness to avoid nights like Leeds, West Ham, Newcastle and Fulham. By contrast, at the back, they seem secure; when this team knows they have to defend, they tend to defend well.
Richarlison and Rodriguez can provide that attacking variety when they’re at full flight, bringing the necessary steel and silk to the team’s final-third forays. Factor in a fit-again Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who was formidable in his 30-minute cameo on Saturday, and there’s no reason why Everton can’t rediscover some of their early-season flourish.
What the South American pair did on Saturday will be etched in your royal-blue consciousness forever, putting an end to one of the most painful chapters of results in Everton’s history. Whatever happens next, these lads have made joyous and vivid memories for us. And they look ready to go and make a few more.
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