A brilliant slice of Barclays between Sheffield United and Everton was just the thing for a sunny September Saturday lunchtime, and it was a game that ended as a bit of a philosophical puzzler.
All were agreed that even at this early stage, on just the fourth weekend of the season, this game represented a six-pointer. Neither side had a point coming into it, Everton didn’t even have a goal.
But was it yet a must-win game, or a more prosaic must-not-lose? As six tantalising minutes of added time stretched out to nine, neither side seemed entirely sure of the answer. Everton had certainly looked the likelier winners from the moment Arnaut Danjuma scored their equaliser 10 minutes into the second half, with Sheffield United’s attacking threat significantly reduced after the excellent Cameron Archer had given way.
In those final minutes, though, Everton certainly weren’t quite prepared to risk it all in a game that had been startlingly open and fast from the opening exchanges. Sheffield United appeared the happier to take a something-to-build-on point, perhaps because they’d already ticked off the ‘scoring just one actual goal’ building block already.
Yet it was United who nearly won it at the very last, with Oli McBurnie denied twice by a combination of Jordan Pickford and woodwork.
The England goalkeeper duly completed a memorable afternoon’s work, specifically in added time. In first-half stoppage time, Pickford was helplessly unfortunate when Archer’s shot came back off the post and ricocheted off him into the net. In the second half, he would somehow salvage a point. The first save he almost made a mess of if we’re being hyper-critical, but the recovery to make the second from point-blank range and then swing a leg on to the loose ball was extraordinary.
And it could be huge. It’s not hard to imagine the reaction of Sean Dyche or anyone of an Evertonian persuasion had their losing run extended to four games via a goal scored almost nine minutes into six added on. For all that everyone should now understand the meaning of the word ‘minimum’ it would have been desperately tough to take for a team and club already close to wit’s end. Having a fortnight’s international break to stew on it would only have made things worse.
As it is, both Everton and Sheffield United have their seasons up and running, and while we’re not entirely sure whether both or neither should be happy, they can each reasonably point at reasons to be cheerful beyond the removal of that 0 in the points column.
There’s undeniably a bit of chicken-and-egg about it all, but both teams at various points looked seriously threatening in attack. More than they have all season. But which came first? The attacking threat of Archer or Beto, or the woeful defending that will still leave both these sides in horrible bother if it doesn’t improve?
At the risk of riddling our arse with splinters, it’s a little from column A and a little from column B. Both teams were definitely more compelling in attack than we’ve seen from them this season.
Archer was superb for United, combining at times with Gustavo Hamer and Oli McBurnie like they’d been doing it for years rather than days. Hamer’s quick and precise passing and Oli Norwood’s longer-range pings for Archer’s runs already show plenty of promise and, with McBurnie there to pick up any scraps, United have a usefully dangerous and effective route of getting from back to front quickly and largely risk-free.
That’s key, because their other way of doing it mainly involved George Baldock rampaging from right wing-back and quite often being joined by Anel Ahmedhodzic on the underlap. Exciting, for sure, and there were times when the resultant overload of Ashley Young at left-back opened doors for the Blades, but it’s wildly risky.
Shortly after back-to-back crucial Premier League goals for Abdoulaye Doucoure – separated by 97 days – gave Everton the lead on 14 minutes it should have been 2-0, but Danjuma made a selfish waste of a four-on-two London bus of an overload counterattack.
At that stage, Everton appeared to be gaining some sort of control of what had been a breakneck start to the game, but United had shown plenty and admirably kept heads up and spirits high despite the obvious embarrassment of conceding a Premier League goal to Everton Football Club.
The equaliser was deserved and beautifully worked. Dyche will wonder – loudly and we imagine at punishing length over the coming days – why it was quite so easy for Hamer to cross and McBurnie to tee up Archer to send a crisp, precise finish past Pickford, especially as by then these three players had very much identified themselves as the ones Everton really needed to keep an eye on.
The second United goal just before half-time was wildly fortunate – and deeply unfortunate for Pickford – but again there was quality to it. A quicker break this time, and Archer’s shift and shoot was worthy of a goal. Again, though, Pickford had two reasons to grumble; first at his own misfortune, but second at the ease with which Archer had been allowed to take such an obvious option with so little hindrance.
Everton were better again in the second half, and there is no doubt Beto is going to be hugely significant for them. His may often be a thankless task of holding up play and bringing others into the game, but on this evidence he is well up for it.
We gently mocked his not-especially-rousing “I can’t promise goals, but I can promise effort” speech to the fans after his arrival, but he is a pleasingly old-school, pleasingly Dyche number nine, all pointy elbows and strong back and thighs like tree trunks.
Centre-backs will certainly always Know They Have Been In A Game when they come against Everton now, and there were a couple of lovely touches – most notably one late in the first half when he turned and sent a flick away that Danjuma once again should have done far more with – to show he’s far more than a one-dimensional battering ram.
In Archer and Beto, both these sides appear to have made smart additions in an area of the field where that can be notoriously hard to manage at a reasonable price.
But there was still enough about both teams’ overall play to make you think that by season’s end they may be looking ruefully at the two points they left behind today rather than the one they collected.
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