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Everton must continue striving for higher standards after Southampton masterclass


After two rounds of Premier League action, there’s no team that’s put in a pair of performances quite as contrasting as Everton.

A moribund, stagnant display gave rise to major concerns that had not been learned from the abject showings throughout 2014-15. Coupled with the lack of summer transfer activity, there was a stale atmosphere at Goodison Park for the 2-2 draw with Watford in Week 1. But the response away at Southampton seven days later was emphatic.

It’s wouldn’t be overblown to suggest this was a perfect away performance from the Toffees, certainly their best under Roberto Martinez, as they romped to a highly impressive 3-0 win. The manager set up his team in a cohesive defensive shape, but one that could transition swiftly into a fluid attacking force, accentuating the abilities of their key weapons in the attacking third.

It was a tactical shift that has been long overdue. So players like Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku, who were restricted against the Hornets, were enlivened against Saints. Aided by the impressive industry of Tom Cleverley and the intelligent forward play of Arouna Kone—who occupied opposition defenders wonderfully—the shackles were off both players, as they tore into Southampton time after time on the counter-attack.

There was clear intent from the Toffees to play their football in more dangerous areas, which made a refreshing chance for the traveling Blues. The indomitable Lukaku, who took his two goals superbly, raided down the left flank early in stunning style, while bullying the Southampton pairing with the space that was created for him.

In turn, Lukaku’s own rumbustious efforts made room for Barkley to swagger into. The England international is a remarkable sight at full flow and playing in a role which was a little more withdrawn, he was able to pick up the ball deep and charge at a Southampton midfield hampered by a Morgan Schneiderlin-shaped hole.

In addition, James McCarthy ratted around in the middle in synonymous style, giving Gareth Barry time to calmly survey the game and snuff out Saints attacks. It left the back four with plenty of cover, but when called upon, John Stones—unflustered by Chelsea’s aggressive and increasingly tiresome pursuit—and Phil Jagielka dealt with any danger with poise. Even the much maligned Tim Howard made a couple of key saves to cap off a rounded team effort.

It was 90 minutes that reminded Evertonians of what this group of players is capable of producing. Of course, investment is needed to keep the team from falling back into the chasing pack, but the spine of this side has massive potential should it be preserved and nurtured. When they synchronize, as was the case at St. Mary’s, the Toffees can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the division.

But it’s also a performance which must be used as a benchmark to aspire towards. For all the dreary displays Everton put in last season, there were some isolated showings of real composure, class and tactical awareness; most notably home (4-1) and away (2-0) wins at Wolfsburg and a 3-0 hammering of Manchester United late on the campaign. Sadly, those standards were scarcely met last term, certainly not with any great consistency.

Of course, the victory has added a dash of positivity to a fanbase that has grown increasingly volatile over the summer months. But the challenge for this a young side, who will instinctively fluctuate, is to replicate those levels with increased regularity.

SEE MORE: Will the real Everton please stand up.

With three matches against Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea in the next few weeks, there’s certainly an opportunity to replicate the template that was on show at Saints. All those sides aforementioned will be obliged to come at Everton and if the likes of Barkley et all can spring with the same incision, the Toffees will cause major issues for all three outfits.

After all, that’s when this Everton team are at their best. Players like Lukaku, Barkley, Kone and Kevin Mirallas are at their most effective when the pitch opens up in front of them; the problem for the Toffees comes when sides come deploy a defensive block, like their opening day opponents.

That’s something Martinez will have to formulate a plan for moving forward and those of a blue persuasion will be hoping a new signing with vision and guile will be a key part of that solution. But for all the talk of fresh faces, there was an intent about the Everton players—the manager too, for that matter—against Southampton which implied they were ready to seize some of the responsibility.

Of course, one triumph doesn’t change some long-term concerns that a lot of supporters have and with Chelsea’s unashamedly aggressive pursuit of Stones likely to keep supporters on edge until the end of the transfer window, tensions will remain high at Goodison Park. But this team have laid down a promising blueprint in Week 2; if they continue adhering to it so meticulously and with such distinction, a prosperous season could yet be in store for the Merseyside outfit.

Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball

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