After Matthew Pennington bundled home from a corner, a fairytale Everton debut seemed to be unfolding right in front of a shaken Kop Stand. Instead, just two minutes later, the young centre-back was bamboozled by Philippe Coutinho, allowing the Brazilian to do the one thing you really shouldn’t allow him to do: cut inside onto his right foot inside the box.
There was a warning earlier in the game, too, as the Liverpool attacker’s shot from a similar situation was saved by Joel Robles.
Maybe if Everton had a more experienced option on the pitch the outcome would have been different. But we might well be saying that for the remainder of the season.
Seamus Coleman’s injury on international duty with the Republic of Ireland leaves Everton short of a more seasoned head at the back for the rest of the season – and, you’d imagine, quite a bit of next season, too. But if you’re looking for a prognosis for one of the Toffees’ most important players, casting a glance at tonight’s opponents Manchester United is perhaps the worst thing you could do.
Since his injury, sustained in a similarly horrific tackle in a Champions League game against PSV Eindhoven last season, Luke Shaw has found his game time at Old Trafford severely limited. At first because of the injury lay-off, but now because his new manager, Jose Mourinho, has publicly questioned his commitment, possibly as a way of trying to provoke a reaction. His form has suffered since his injury, but it seems as though his application has, too. Worryingly, it’s getting to a point where you start to wonder whether, although his leg has recovered, his footballing ability may not.
It seems harsh, all things considered. After all, what, exactly, is a reasonable length of time to expect a young player to get over the sort of injury that may have ended a player’s entire career 20 years ago?
Full-backs are special creatures, too. Their skillset has to consist of both attacking and defensive sides; they have to be fast of foot and fast of mind, and they have to make on-edge tackles as well as take them. There’s a lot of jinking and quick turning involved when you’re a full-back. So when coming back from an injury like the ones that Shaw and Coleman suffered, it takes more than just footballing ability. It takes mental strength.
It isn’t enough just to expect to just recover from that injury, or to work hard enough to regain the same level you had earlier. You need to be able to go back into a hard tackle again without remembering the fact that the last time it happened, your leg snapped like a dried stick of spaghetti. You need to be able to glide past a defender without fearing a tackle coming in when your leg plants into the ground again, right at the moment you become most vulnerable. You need to be able to ride a tackle without thinking about that time when riding it simply didn’t work.
And so, even though Shaw’s injury happened in September 2015, his rehabilitation is still ongoing. His physical recovery has been good, but the mental one takes more time. That’s what Coleman has to look forward to. It isn’t just a case of whether or not his leg will heal, it’s a case of being able to do all the unthinking things players usually do on the pitch without casting his mind back to that night at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
It’s probably harder for a full-back to recover from that sort of injury than it is for players in other positions. They have all the different risks that come with defending as well as attacking, and so coming back from an injury as traumatic as a leg-break will take longer than it takes for the bone to heal.
There are differences between Coleman and Shaw, too. For one thing, Coleman is older and more experienced. Shaw, too, has also been called out by Mourinho for being weak mentally, something that may go some way to explaining his difficulties recovering from what is, admittedly, a tough thing to get over.
Perhaps that stands in Coleman’s stead for his recovery, and perhaps the Irishman will be able to just recover from the break and get on with his career even stronger and better than he was before. But if he’s watching his team play at Old Trafford tonight, he might want to avoid thinking too much about Luke Shaw.