For all football’s unpredictability, the meeting between two of the Premier League’s most out-of-form teams at the Brentford Community Stadium was never going to be an exciting affair. But a positive result was always going to provide the victor with nourishment and it was Brentford who emerged from this ungainly scrap with a long overdue three points.
A 1-0 victory against Everton was just their second home win of the season after beating Arsenal on the opening day and the first of any kind since 3 October. It came through an Ivan Toney penalty, which was the striker’s fourth Premier League goal but his first in front of his own fans.
Toney was arguably the best example of Brentford’s approach of wilfully ceding possession to Rafael Benitez’s side. He put himself about, whether holding up the ball in the middle and out wide on the left or dropping deep to add his body to the other 10 who put themselves between Everton and their own goal. The striker’s only touch in the box was his composed finish from the spot in the 24th minute.
Something had to give on Sunday afternoon, what with both teams having fallen away after bright starts to the season, matching each other’s malaise with four defeats and a single point in their last five games. And while this is set against key absences that bring some understanding among their fans, Everton’s longer injury list has not correlated to greater patience towards Benitez, even if he retains the confidence of his employers.
The Spaniard identified this fixture as the first of what could be a winning run to propel Everton back towards the top six. But a disjointed performance, devoid of ideas even when they were given room to improvise, does not bode well for a manager and team struggling to get to grips with each other. A fifth defeat in the last six has dropped Everton from fifth to 14th, with Brentford moving above them into 12th.
The start of this match was riddled with uncertainty. Stray passes dusted the pitch like snow in other parts of the country. Brentford settled on a low block and Everton used the ball as well as you’d expect the team with the third lowest average possession this season would. Whatever tactical instructions had been given, it was clear that all 22 out on the pitch were wary of making the first big mistake.
That came on 20 minutes when Andros Townsend’s high foot wrapped around the face of Frank Onyeka. Referee Darren England awarded a clear penalty only after consulting the VAR screen. Toney converted from the spot for the 19th time out of 20 in his career, slotting into the corner to Jordan Pickford’s left as the England goalkeeper stuttered to his right midway through Toney’s short, staggered run-up.
Salomon Rondon should have made it one-all just 84 seconds later, gathering a cross from Anthony Gordon and making space for a shot from six yards out that was saved by the feet of Alvaro Fernandez. Beyond providing a snapshot of Everton’s troubles in front of goal – exacerbated by Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s protracted lay-off, Richarlison’s suspension for five yellows already this season and Rondon being Rondon – it felt a key moment.
Not just because of Everton’s lack of creativity but because of how the lead would allow Brentford to retain their deep shape while giving them more opportunities in transition as more blue shirts committed forward. Indeed there were moments the hosts spurned to double their lead before half-time, most notably when Vitaly Janelt took a heavy touch with just Pickford to beat, allowing Abdoulaye Doucoure to intercept.
The Frenchman’s influence in the same box was key to Everton’s fight to get back into the game during the second half. Everton have missed his dynamism over the past month as he recovered from a broken metatarsal. And after shaking out the ring rust in the opening 45 minutes, he was more of a visible presence in the second, particularly on the hour mark when his ball-carrying through the middle exposed an emerging soft centre in the Brentford midfield.
Although that storm was weathered, Thomas Frank did not try and fill the widening gap in front of the box. And no matter how disjointed Everton were, affording them space to exploit with as long as many as 20 minutes to go was going to invite trouble.
But beyond a Rondon header at the near post that sailed harmlessly wide, there was no further alarm. In fact, Brentford could have added gloss to their lead in the five minutes of added time, as their weary legs tried and failed to fashion shots of worth as the visitors overcommitted.
The game certainly did not feel worthy of a second goal, but it was damning from Everton’s point of view that even as defensive as Brentford were, they looked the most likely to get it.