Rooney spearheading Koeman revolution as Pickford shows promise
It says much of the transformation that has taken place this year that many Everton fans felt a little disappointed to have only drawn 1-1 at Manchester City on Monday night.
Manager Ronald Koeman was among them. Granted, this was a City side reduced to 10 men by Kyle Walker's dismissal, but it is clear Everton are growing in strength and have enough to hold their own against the very best in the league. The season is young and much can change, but smart summer spending has altered their expectations.
Two of their signings, one young and one older, have led the way. Wayne Rooney and Jordan Pickford both played in front of England manager Gareth Southgate at the Etihad, and both will hope to be in his squad for the games against Slovenia and Malta later this month. Of the two, Pickford has by far the best chance of selection, possibly to the first XI given Joe Hart's travails, but Rooney could still play his way back into contention as well.
The former England captain will never get back to the level he reached between 2007 and 2010 -- which included winning the league three times in a row between 2007 and 2009. He won't get back to where he was in 2013-14 either, the last season in which he scored more than 15 league goals. But he is in far better shape than he has been for several seasons and he seems to be finally adapting to his limitations. No longer does he seek to win games by himself, hoping against hope that time reverses and he somehow finds himself rejuvenated. He knows he can't play like a pitbull loose in a park again, and he's evolving to survive.
In his first league game back at Everton, he won the headlines for a deft match-winning header against Stoke, but that wasn't the extent of his contribution. He led the team by example that day, clashing combatively with former teammate Darren Fletcher in the middle and rising to head away corner after corner at the back.
Against City, it was widely noted he covered more ground than any of his teammates (10.93 km). Less noted was the fact that his top speed (30.77 kph) wasn't that much slower than all save his youngest, sprightliest colleagues Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Mason Holgate. The key is the number of sprints he recorded, just 45, fewer than all but the three Everton centre-backs. He appears to have learned to marshal his resources, saving himself for the moments when it really matters. Certainly, he ended the game looking far less florid than he did at Stoke.
Rooney is relying more on his brain than his legs now. He picks up the ball deep, and instead of surging as he used to, he drops a shoulder and pivots, winding around until he finds a bit of space and plays in a teammate. His passing still leaves something to be desired. One errant ball nearly let in City for an equaliser, and his accuracy dropped to 67 percent from the 85 percent he recorded against Stoke, possibly because Stoke left so little room that Everton were forced to retain possession there with simpler passes. But he makes up for this in other ways. He is not the player he was, but the player he is becoming looks quite useful.
The player that Pickford could become will make the £30 million summer transfer fee look like a bargain. Few goalkeepers of such tender years can have settled so comfortably into a more scrutinised role. He is, of course, an excellent shot-stopper, and by thunder he had some practice at Sunderland, but there's more to his game than that. His ability to pile through a crowd of players and pluck the ball from the air at set pieces is eye-catching, but it's his distribution that really puts the gloss on his performances. He can see a pass like an experienced deep-lying midfielder.
It wasn't too long ago that Hart was almost entirely unopposed as England's first-choice goalkeeper, but there have been reports that Southgate no longer considers this to be the case. Hart was brave in moving to Serie A with Torino last season, the sort of assignment that too few British players are courageous enough to take, but his was not an unblemished campaign. There's no visible improvement yet. In 180 minutes between the sticks for West Ham, he has seen seven goals go past him. He is not exclusively to blame for this, of course, but it doesn't exactly cement his position with Southgate.
England's slip against Scotland in June (where Hart was blamed for conceding two Leigh Griffiths long-range free kicks) has left Southgate with a little still to do before qualification can be taken for granted. But with home games against second-place Slovakia and third-place Slovenia still to come, it's very much in England's hands. This might be a good time to see if Pickford can handle international football as well he can the Premier League.
Rooney may not get the chance to join him. Southgate may feel he has already taken the hard decision to leave him out and could, quite understandably, want to see his form and fitness sustained for a while yet. But that will only serve Everton's needs. With so many miles on the clock, the idea of Rooney having two weeks' recovery time will be welcomed by Koeman.
Everton have a long way to go before they can hope to develop this potential into the reality of a push for the title. But these early encounters have been very promising.
Rooney and Pickford, veteran and rookie, may prove to be very smart acquisitions.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.