David Unsworth said his Everton Under-23s side did not hit the heights they are capable of after the young Blues were edged out 1-0 at Leicester City on Monday night.
Foxes skipper Darnell Johnson’s close-range finish from Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall’s corner delivery just after the half-hour mark proved decisive at Holmes Park.
Substitute Fraser Hornby - in his first game back after almost three months out with an ankle injury - came closest to grabbing an equaliser, but Foxes stopper Viktor Johansson made a fine stop from the Scot in the dying moments.
Everton remain top of the Premier League 2 table, with Leicester now closest in pursuit, just one point behind in second place.
Boss Unsworth admitted his frustration the young Blues could not widen the gap at the league summit.
“It was a very close, tight game,” said boss Unsworth. “We knew it would be, because Leicester are a decent side.
“We did warn the players about set-pieces and we did a lot of work on the training ground to counter that threat, so it’s a disappointing way to lose the game.
“When we did get the ball down and start playing, we were very good. We just lacked a cutting edge in the final third to carve out many great opportunities.
“Overall, it was a disappointing performance.”
Everton started the brighter, circulating possession impressively and regularly advancing into dangerous positions. Midfielder Nathangelo Markelo fashioned an opportunity for himself on 13 minutes. After jinking past two challenges, he tried his luck from 20 yards, but Foxes defender Yohan Benalouane made a vital block to deflect his effort out of play.
The game’s first clear chance fell to Antony Evans. Ellis Simms was the architect - he showcased impressive pace to burst down the left before clipping in a cross into the penalty area. His centre just evaded Harry Charsley but found the onrushing Evans – the winger skewed his shot wide, however.
It was the home side who were to make the breakthrough. After an excellent corner delivery from Dewsbury-Hall, skipper Johnson prodded past Joao Virginia.
Boss Unsworth introduced Bassala Sambou and Josh Bowler at half-time in an attempt to change the course of the game – the pair replacing Simms and Markelo.
And it was Bowler who almost found the equaliser on 53 minutes. Nathan Broadhead slalomed past two Leicester challenges before slipping in the winger on the right channel. Bowler hurtled forward before lashing at goal but his effort was straight down the throat of Johansson.
Sambou was next to go close for the young Blues, his daisy-cutter from the edge of the box forced a fine fingertip stop from the Foxes stopper.
Leicester’s Ryan Loft almost put the game beyond doubt with seven minutes to go but Virginia stood tall to save his powerful header.
The Toffees’ best opportunity came just a minute from time. Hornby, who replaced Evans on the hour-mark, went through one-on-one with Johansson but the Swedish ‘keeper raced off his line to make another excellent save.
The referee signalled for five added minutes and Everton continued to press, but the equaliser proved elusive as the Foxes secured a fourth straight victory.
While boss Unsworth said many of his players did not perform to their potential, he highlighted the performance of 17-year-old Ryan Astley as a positive for the young Blues.
“I’m so proud of him,” Unsworth said. “He made his debut last season when he was still playing at under-16 level, which is not heard of.
“He’s come into the group, he’s playing out of position at right-back - he’s a centre-back really - and he’s been terrific. He was excellent.”