How Dogged Richarlison Offered Balance in Vibrant Everton Performance
As Everton's opening day trip to Tottenham Hotspur ticked over into the final five minutes, Richarlison found himself with the ball at his feet by the sideline, seemingly penned in by two Spurs players in search of an equaliser.
Yet, the 23-year-old Brazilian was able to roll away from the white-shirted pair with ease and toe the ball past Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. This won his side yet another free-kick and ate up a few more precious seconds on the way to the Toffees' first victory at the home of a 'big six' side since December 2013.
While the focus was inevitably hogged by the silky left-foot of Everton's other winger, James Rodríguez, Richarlison offered a contrasting but equally crucial, hard-working presence down the left flank.
The perennially furrowed brow Richarlison wears adorned the foreheads of his opponents on Sunday afternoon. Everton's number seven excelled at the bitty, scrappy part of the contest particularly after the Toffees had taken the lead.
Richarlison drove Everton up the pitch, completing all seven of his dribbles and pinning Spurs debutant Matt Doherty back for much of the contest. Inevitably, the only way Tottenham could halt his progress was via illegal means - Richarlison won a whopping six fouls, double the tally of any other player on the pitch.
Out of possession, the man who regularly started as a striker last season didn't shy away from the greater emphasis on defensive duties the left wing role in a 4-3-3 demands. Richarlison won a match-high five tackles and was only bettered in ball recoveries by his teammate Seámus Coleman.
However, his influence wasn't only limited to niggling fouls and time wasting.
Richarlison fired off seven shots. Five of which were teed up by James cutting in onto a left-foot that is almost done a disservice by being described as merely cultured. Everton often tried to suck over any stray Tottenham players to one flank with some interplay down the right, before James sprayed an effortless pass to Richarlison.
This sequence recurred throughout the match but it began to put the 23-year-old into a shooting position more and more as the game wore on and the legs of the Spurs players felt ever more filled with lead.
Against sides with a more energetic press - which Tottenham manager José Mourinho described as 'lazy' - the space James and Richarlison were afforded would surely be harder to come by.
Indeed, while Everton's outing presented fans with ample reason to get excited, the threat of Son Heung-min barrelling towards Coleman in two one-on-ones down the right early on (with James nowhere to be seen) is cause for concern.
There was little such danger on the opposite side thanks in so small part to the tireless efforts of Richarlison. However, a fear going into the game was that his positioning out wide takes away the goal threat he possesses when played through the middle.
After Duncan Ferguson took temporary charge of the team mid-way through last season, Richarlison was almost exclusively paired up front alongside Dominic Calvert-Lewin in a 4-4-2 formation - a system Carlo Ancelotti largely kept following his arrival in December.
The pair finished the campaign as the club's joint top scorers with 13 Premier League goals apiece and combined superbly even when the rest of the team was flailing behind them.
Throughout his career in England, Richarlison has - like few other players - spent more than 1,000 minutes playing on the left, through the middle and on the right. Yet, his expected goal return is remarkably similar in each position, which suggests Richarlison is equally adept at finding scoring opportunities whether he starts out wide or as a central striker.
In theory, Ancelotti could turn to a diamond midfield with James behind Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin but this system is not only overly reliant on the fullbacks for width, but robs Everton of the Brazilian's industry down the flanks. And if he's equally potent in this role, why move him?
Richarlison's afternoon in north London may not have been to the liking of the game's aesthetes but Ancelotti - and Everton's backline - will be thrilled with the dogged display from their number seven. The only question is whether he can maintain these lung-bursting performances for a congested season like no other.