Brighton’s first victory at Goodison Park piled more pressure on Everton manager Rafael Benitez as Alexis Mac Allister scored twice in a 3-2 win which the Seagulls made harder work of than they should have.
It was a case of new year, same old Everton as even the long-awaited return of Dominic Calvert-Lewin after almost five months out with a thigh injury failed to change their fortunes, with the striker’s main contribution being a missed first-half penalty.
By then the home side were already 2-0 down after Mac Allister’s opener was followed by a Dan Burn header as the Toffees conceded the first goal for the 14th time in 20 matches this season and seventh time in succession
And while Everton academy graduate Anthony Gordon – their one positive on a chastening afternoon – scored his first two goals for the club, Mac Allister’s second in between that double made it an unhappy start to 2022 for Benitez, whose side have now won just once in the last 12 matches.
The manager’s deteriorating relationship with Lucas Digne meant he chose to switch Seamus Coleman to the left of a back five and bring in Jonjoe Kenny on the right, but he really struggled in only his third Premier League appearance in almost 13 months.
Digne did make an appearance in the squad for the first time in four matches, but his time at the club looks limited after the arrival of Ukraine international Vitaliy Mykolenko, who was presented to the crowd before kick-off having signed on Saturday.
It was a judgement call which left Benitez’s stubbornness open to criticism and that came cascading down from the stands after just 21 minutes.
Brighton have tested teams as good as Chelsea and Liverpool, whom they have drawn against in a run of one win in 13, but Everton made it easy for them.
Just three minutes in, the hosts’ trio of centre-backs somehow failed to pick up the run of Mac Allister, who had started the move which saw Neal Maupay’s looping header drop for him to volley home, with Michael Keane, Ben Godfrey and Mason Holgate statuesque.
Brighton swarmed all over their hosts – quicker, sharper, more cohesive and adventurous – and they were duly rewarded with a first away win since September.
Things deteriorated for Everton’s disjointed defence in the 21st minute as, after Gordon was lucky to escape punishment of any kind for going over the top on Enock Mwepu, their man-marking capabilities were found severely wanting again.
Mac Allister whipped in a corner, Mwepu flicked on and the giant 6ft 6in figure of Burn nodded home unmarked at the far post.
But if the first two goals could be partly blamed on Benitez’s bloody-mindedness, even the under-fire Spaniard could not be held accountable for his main striker blazing over from the spot.
Just four minutes after going 2-0 down, VAR recommended referee John Brooks took a look at Mwepu’s challenge on Gordon.
Having then awarded the penalty, Calvert-Lewin, whose previous goal had come from the spot against the Seagulls on his last appearance in August, missed from 12 yards.
Frustrations rose further when the England international’s knockdown from Gordon’s cross dropped inside the six-yard area with no team-mate following in.
Digne’s emergence off the bench for a warm-up jog felt like a not-so-subtle message, but it was warmly welcomed by fans in the Main Stand and Gwladys Street End.
But the half ended in more boos as Maupay, whose running with the ball Everton made look like Lionel Messi, fired a drive just over.
Half-time changes seemed inevitable, but Benitez stuck to the plan and was rewarded just eight minutes after the restart as his side enjoyed their first stroke of good fortune.
Gordon cut in from the right to shoot, but his effort took a huge deflection off former Liverpool midfielder Adam Lallana to leave goalkeeper Robert Sanchez stranded.
Everton enjoyed their best spell of the game, but – symbolic of the squad Benitez inherited – aside of Allan’s long-range effort tipped over by Sanchez they lacked genuine quality to make a difference.
That was something that was not missing from Mac Allister’s game as he rifled home from 25 yards, with Gordon’s second achieving no more than raising the noise levels.