An outstanding afternoon of Premier League football at the DW stadium saw former hero and youth system product Leighton Baines cap a man of the match performance with the most emphatic penalty finish in recent memory. He has always been a tremendously skilled player, but the fact that Everton have built their team around him - a left-back - is mightier praise than any words could offer. A slightly more muted celebration might have been welcome at the DW, but he remains a source of pride for those who witnessed his beginnings in Wigan.
Before the equaliser, the Latics had enjoyed a very good first half, filled with the kind of crisp passing, pace and attacking incision Roberto has been working toward for some time now. Everton were always dangerous - little surprise with the amount of quality on display - but had fallen 2-1 behind and were a bit lucky to remain on even footing after Marouane Fellaini appeared to elbow Figueroa in the face. He'd been growingly frustrated throughout the half as the Latics clearly sought to reduce his aerial threat on set pieces with a gentle shove here and there. The decision not to send him off was probably influenced by an earlier talking point. The Latics' first goal, an Arouna Kone header from a Sean Maloney cross, was marginally offside.
In the end, pressure told and Latics' rearguard were undone by panic and good attacking pressure by their opponents, giving away a penalty with three minutes of regulation time to play. Baines stepped up, and despite a late flourish from Wigan including a glorious spurned opportunity by Sean Maloney, the result stood.
The front three were in devastating form. Franco Di Santo showed no signs of rust after missing a game and a half through injury. His was a performance of pace, quality and intelligent passing and movement. His goal was well-taken, and he has now scored 3 for the season, despite missing the aforementioned game and a half. Arouna Kone put in his best performance in a Latics shirt and was a constant threat. He looks to have developed a good understanding with his attacking teammates and in this form, will never be far from the scoresheet. Sean Maloney was bright and dangerous all match, free to roam the pitch as lone playmaker, and might have sealed the win on a couple occasions with better finishing.
Particularly in the first half, the Jimmy Macs were showing the kind of energy and ferocity that led to the Latics' big results last season. First to every 50-50%, competitive but generally clean, they were a joy to watch. McArthur gave the ball away a couple times, McCarthy once - but in general their passing too, was of a high standard.
The lack of defensive composure to hold on to the result as pressure mounted. The McManaman-for-Di Santo substitution made sense but didn't amount to much. The bigger question was why an extra ball-playing midfielder wasn't introduced to try and regain possession when Everton were turning the screw. Still, Everton have the air of a team on the ascendancy. While always appreciative of David Moyes results on a tighter budget that their direct competitors in the upper part of the table, I've never been convinced of the type of football his teams display. But this is a side with real balance, understanding, and attacking flair. Credit where it's due.
We said in our preview that three points were needed. I'm personally satisfied with the result and performance, despite the disappointment of being unable to hold onto the three points. The way our attacking players linked up together in the first half in particular, but also in that late flourish, shows real promise. Sure, we are light on points, but there is quality in this side.
Kone has bedded in. It was bound to take a few matches, but his link-up play with Di Santo and Maloney was outstanding. His passing was intelligent and pace a threat.
Maloney is much more effective as the lone playmaker, as Jakarta Jack previously wrote about on this blog. He is a versatile attacker, full of invention, flicks and an eye for the killer through-ball. But it was his dribbling that left Seamus Coleman on his bum for the first goal. The freedom to move from one side to the other, identify and then run at the weaker defenders, brought out the best in him despite the missed opportunity at the end of the match.
On the surface, Emmerson Boyce's season has been below the high standard he set last season. His attacking contribution has been small. But even on a tough day like this one, the advantage of having him in the side was evidenced in the number of clearances made with his head from set pieces. When you are only playing with three at the back, having him act as a fourth centre back on set pieces is crucial.
Ali Al-Habsi: 8 - Made some very good saves; one first half dipper in particular, was world class.
Ivan Ramis: 7.5 - My pick of the centre-backs, this might have been his best match so far in blue and white despite facing the outstanding pair of Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines.
Gary Caldwell: 6 - Flustered towards the end.
Maynor Figueroa: 6 - Did okay despite the threat of the lively Kevin Mirallas, but might've ended up the villain if Kevin Friend had awarded a penalty aginst him in a 50-50 challenge with Jelavic.
Emmerson Boyce: 6 - No attacking contribution, which is entirely understandable when you have Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar running at you. Defended well on set pieces.
Jean Beausejour: 6 - Some nice touches, passes and deliveries in the first half, but faded with the rest of the team in the second.
James McCarthy: 7 - There was a moment in the second half when he misplaced a pass and the whole stadium seemed to gasp and groan at the same time. You just don't expect it. His pass completion rate is outstanding. He was immense in the first half but found it harder in the second.
James McArthur: 6.5 - Also fantastic in the first half, fading in the second.
Sean Maloney: 7.5 - Energetic, inventive 95 minutes from the little magician. Loses marks for uncharacteristically opting to shoot instead of squaring for an easy tap-in in the dying minutes of the match. Set up the first goal with a good piece of skill.
Franco Di Santo: 8.5 - Rarely loses the ball, and his use of it just keeps getting better. Developing into an elegant and mobile centre forward, with a vastly improved goals-per-game ratio.
Arouna Kone: 9 - Thoroughly impressive. On his own up front for large stretches for the match, but did a lot more than hold the ball up and knock it back - he seeks to create chances with his passing and running. A dynamic and highly promising performance.
Callum McManaman: Must be personally pleased to be chosen to enter the fray at such a crucial time in the match. Has leapfrogged quite a few players in the pecking order in the last few months. More to come, hopefully...