Everton unveiled an expensive new recruit before kick-off and welcomed back Dominic Calvert-Lewin for the first time in four months but any thoughts of a fresh start for Rafael Benítez were quashed by Brighton’s first ever victory at Goodison Park.
Graham Potter’s visitors heightened the pressure on the Everton manager with a richly deserved victory, started and sealed by fine goals from Alexis Mac Allister. The Argentinian midfielder capped a confident Brighton performance with a stunning winner past Jordan Pickford.
Despite the best efforts of Anthony Gordon, who also scored twice, the new year opened with familiar torment and a dearth of inspiration from Benítez’s team. Everton had not played for 17 days as a result of three consecutive postponements due to Covid outbreaks. According to Benítez’s programme notes: “We have used the time without matches to prepare as intensively as possible for the challenges Brighton present. This means understanding how to make it difficult for them to impose their style and, equally importantly, knowing how to create the chances to win the game.”
Those words appeared ludicrous given what unfolded in the first half. Brighton were the more coherent, composed and dangerous side from the outset. They were aided and abetted by dismal defending from an Everton team that created next to nothing plus the approach adopted by Benítez himself.
The Everton manager started the first home game of the new year with a five-man defence that featured Seamus Coleman at left wing-back. France international left-back Lucas Digne was available but, having been ostracised by Benítez and seen the club purchase Vitaliy Mykolenko for an initial £17.9m from Dynamo Kyiv, he was left on the bench throughout. Pointedly, Digne received a warm reception from the Goodison crowd when he sprinted along the touchline in the 40th minute and handed his shirt to a young Evertonian after the final whistle.
Potter’s team swept into an early lead when exploiting the gaps that Everton’s shape was designed to eradicate. Joel Veltman had time to pick out Neal Maupay with a cross from the right that the unmarked striker headed over Michael Keane towards Mac Allister. The midfielder, also meeting no resistance as he arrived in the penalty area, placed a volley inside Pickford’s bottom right hand corner.
Everton’s defence was found wanting again when Brighton doubled their advantage. Mac Allister turned provider when he drilled a corner to the near post where Enock Mwepu connected with a glancing header. Dan Burn, all alone at the back post having peeled away from Keane, headed home gleefully from close range.
The hosts were handed a route back into the contest almost immediately when Mwepu was penalised for barging into the back of Gordon just inside the Brighton area. Referee John Brooks initially dismissed Everton appeals for a penalty but changed his mind when directed to the pitch-side monitor by VAR. Calvert-Lewin stepped up to announce his long-awaited return to the team in style but, after a short run-up, blazed the spot-kick over the bar.
A first half to forget for Everton ended with a predictable chorus of boos. Benítez’s often-stated belief in a stronger second half to the season is based largely on the availability of Calvert-Lewin. The Everton centre-forward had been absent since the 2-0 win at Brighton on 28 August, when he scored his third goal in three appearances before being sidelined for four months with a toe and a recurring thigh injury.
His physical presence, movement and finishing have been sorely missed for 15 matches and he will need time not only to recapture match sharpness, but to establish a rapport with those around him.
Gordon and Demarai Gray worked tirelessly around the England international and were central to Everton’s second half improvement, albeit as individuals rather than an effective unit. Gordon brought Everton hope shortly after the restart with his first goal for his boyhood club. Receiving Allan’s pass on the right, the 20-year-old cut inside Marc Cucurella and Mac Allister before unleashing a left-footed drive that deflected off Adam Lallana and sailed beyond a wrong-footed Robert Sánchez.
Gray and Allan both went close to equalising before Brighton re-established their two-goal lead courtesy of an outstanding goal from Mac Allister. Everton appeared to have dealt with a counterattack when Mason Holgate denied Maupay with a fine tackle as the forward raced through on goal. Keane, however, put his team back under pressure with a poor clearance that was seized upon by Burn. The defender found Leandro Trossard, and his low cross was flicked on to Mac Allister by Yves Bissouma. Brighton’s match-winner connected perfectly with the bouncing ball and Pickford was left grasping at thin air as the midfielder’s shot found the top corner from distance.
The highly impressive Gordon pulled another goal back when rounding off a flowing move involving Calvert-Lewin and Jonjoe Kenny. Benítez introduced Salomón Rondón – to yet more boos – and although the substitute created a decent chance for Gordon’s hat-trick and volleyed over from André Gomes’s cross there would be no reprieve for Everton, nor their troubled manager.