Keegan suffers through sloth...

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The Independent Online
As Kevin Keegan left Goodison Park on Saturday afternoon, a despairing Geordie voice sang out from the throng gathered around Newcastle's coach. "Kevin, sort that back-four out."

It is an appeal which has been heard for months now, and even the signing of Alan Shearer cannot drown it out. When they have the ball, Newcastle are usually entertaining and often thrilling, but there seems a refusal to accept that winning matches is also about what you do when the opposition have the ball.

Joe Royle, the Everton manager, knows this. So do his players. Andrei Kanchelskis may not be much of a tackler, but he does his best to take up a defensive position when Everton lose possession. When David Ginola loses it he sighs, gestures and, all too often, waits for someone else to win it back. Once on Saturday, having had a penalty appeal denied, he sat sulking on his knees in the area for more than a minute as the game raged around him.

Ginola may be the worst culprit, but he is not the only one. The consequence of this inactivity is that players become isolated. Midfielders are outnumbered, and forwards starved of support, but it is the defenders who suffer. They are left exposed and are made to appear inadequate.

Man for man, Newcastle's defence is no worse than Everton's - indeed, it may be better. But Everton's plays behind a shield. Everton defend in pairs all over the pitch and it is mightily effective, no more so than in the centre: the talents of Joe Parkinson and John Ebbrell may never be recognised by a slow-motion video sequence, but no one gets past them without a struggle, or a moment of magic.

Newcastle tend to rely on the latter - on Saturday it was not forthcoming. "When you have the players we have, you are committed to playing one way," Keegan said.

But to win championships, teams need to succeed when playing badly - they need the sort of consistency which is rarely achieved by off-the- cuff football. They also need to be organised. At times on Saturday, Newcastle's defence was so ragged it looked as if they had never trained together. Philippe Albert would raise his arm for offside on one flank only to find two defenders languishing behind him.

"We are better than that," Keegan said, which is also what he had said after losing the Charity Shield. Then Newcastle had conceded four goals and, if Everton's finishing had been the equal of Manchester United's they would have conceded four on Saturday. Duncan Ferguson alone had at least nine attempts and both Kanchelskis and Gary Speed scorned glorious chances.

While Manchester United opened up Newcastle with movement and passing, Everton did so primarily through pace and power. Kanchelskis provided the first, Ferguson the latter. Everton played a high-tempo game, never allowing Newcastle to settle. Mistakes were induced and two of them led to goals.

The first came when Ferguson, chasing down a long clearance, hounded Steve Watson into an inadequate headed backpass. In the ensuing scramble, Watson and Shaka Hislop brought the Scot down. David Unsworth converted the penalty.

Five minutes before half-time Graham Stuart swung a deep cross in from the right, Ferguson beat Albert in the air, and Speed, untracked by any Newcastle player, was able to roll his nod-down into the net.

Although the cheapest, at pounds 4m, of the three centre-forwards on view, Ferguson was comfortably the most impressive. In the air he was almost unbeatable, but he is also a better player on the ground than he is given credit for. With "substantial money" available, according to one director, he may soon have a partner, but on Saturday he played alone, well supported by breaking midfielders.

"He is going to give a lot of central defenders a lot of problems," said Keegan, who had no such reward from his pounds 21m pair of strikers. Les Ferdinand started brightly, buoyed by nine goals in his previous seven games against Everton, but Shearer touched the ball just three times in the opening 20 minutes. As Ferdinand faded, Shearer became the greater threat and, but for the referee Mike Reed and Neville Southall, might have scored.

Reed judged Shearer to have illegally levered himself above Andy Hinchcliffe when he headed in after 23 minutes, while Southall brilliantly denied a 43rd-minute header. The goalkeeper, 38 next month, was celebrating his 700th Everton appearance and it was not hard to see why Nigel Martyn had opted for Leeds rather than attempt to displace a legend.

Keegan said he felt Shearer's goal was good and, had it counted, it may have deflated Everton enough to send Newcastle away. Instead, Keegan was forced to recall that Manchester United lost their opening game last year, 3-1 to Aston Villa. However, United began their recovery during that match.

With his team 3-0 down at half-time, Alex Ferguson dumped an experimental three-man defence and reverted to type. United dominated the second period and rarely looked back.

Keegan shows no sign of similar pragmatism - "My Way" remains his text. After just one game, the fear is it could also become Newcastle's championship epitaph.

Goals: Unsworth (pen, 28) 1-0; Speed (40) 2-0.

Everton (4-5-1): Southall; Barrett, Watson (Short, h-t), Unsworth, Hinchcliffe; Kanchelskis, Ebbrell, Parkinson, Stuart, Speed; Ferguson. Substitutes not used: Grant, Limpar, Rideout, Gerrard (gk).

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Hislop; Watson, Howey, Albert, Beresford; Ginola (Beardsley, 70), Lee, Batty, Gillespie; Shearer, Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Peacock, Barton, Clark, Srnicek (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).

Bookings: Everton Unsworth, Hinchcliffe. Newcastle United Beresford, Albert.

Man of the match: Ferguson. Attendance: 40,117.