Everton and their fans are enduring a difficult season. Disorganised performances, inept defending and little attacking intent, let alone cutting edge. Surprisingly then, with a third of the season remaining, they sit just five points off their almost customary 7th position as ‘best of the rest’.
Was too much expected from them or is this a worrying indicator of the strength in depth in the Premier League?
Saturday’s heavy 5-1 defeat to Arsenal is the latest of 17 reversals the Toffees have suffered this season and the ninth by a three or more goal margin. In fact, four of these comprehensive defeats have come in the games with the Gunners and Spurs, with a staggering aggregate scoreline of 17-3. Ironically, it is these two sides that the seemingly ambitious Merseysiders probably had their sights on as their stepping stones to the top four.
Despite being minutes away from beating runaway leaders Manchester City early in the season, Everton have conceded 45 goals in the Premier League and have a goal difference that is only better than the current bottom four. But it’s not just domestically they’ve struggled.
An embarrassing Europa League ‘campaign’ included three of the five other big losses and they’ve done little to promote the Premier League’s claim of being the most competitive league in the world. Only the youthful shadow side put out in Cyprus for match day six salvaged any pride, with a nucleus of David Unsworth’s Premier League 2 champions showing the faltering first teamers the levels of technical ability, work rate and desire expected at this level.
In contrast, the Premier League’s seasoned European campaigners faired significantly better in their group stages this season. With an extra place in the Champions League, all five English clubs have made it through to the knockout stages, while Arsenal made light work of their Europa League rivals. Five of the big six topped their groups, a good sign ahead of the World Cup? Maybe not.
To put in any sort of showing this summer, you’d think the bulk of the England squad would need to come from the big six and whilst there are enough British passports in those dressing rooms, their names don’t always appear high enough up the team sheet. Maybe half (10-12) are regulars but many will be lacking game time – albeit relatively fresh.
Here’s what a big six club England squad might look like minus the three goalkeepers:
Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Gary Cahill, John Stones, Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli, Harry Kane
Subs: Smalling, Jones, Gomez, Trippier, Winks, Loftus-Cheek, Lallana, Lingard, Rashford, Abraham
Everton’s struggles this season then become a worry for England’s World Cup chances too – particularly if they do go on to cement their position as the 7th best club. The Merseysiders boast a ‘strong’ English contingent in their ranks with a mix of four or five potential England internationals of the future and three or four former internationals who still have outside chances of being on the plane.
Theo Walcott, Phil Jagielka, Leighton Baines and even Wayne Rooney might retain hopes of joining Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane in Russia. Youngsters aside, not too many can claim to have had decent seasons to date and their experiences may have drained them.
As it turns out, summer spending in excess of £140 million could not fill the considerable gap left by the loss of Romelu Lukaku’s goals, long-term injuries to Seamus Coleman and Yannick Bolasie, and those couple of yards of pace lost by an ageing team. It certainly hasn’t seen them close the gap between the Toffees and the top six, as hoped.
Premier League ever-presents Everton finished 7th last season and have averaged 7th position over the last ten years. Since finishing 4th in 2004, the Toffees have finished 7th or better eight times and no lower than 11th. Remarkable consistency considering the difficulty attracting the very top talent and the general Premier League trend of change – perhaps the stability that David Moyes, Bill Kenwright and co. provided being their biggest strength.
During the last decade or so, a small band of fellow unremarkable but relegation concern-free teams have joined them in a second tier of the division that seems now to be disappearing. If you’re not one of the big six these days you’re looking over your shoulder. Yes, anyone can beat anyone, but the big boys are largely getting it their own way.
Everton have never been one of the most entertaining teams and they don’t do any better against the big six than the teams that finish below them. Instead they’ve tended to focus on a rather rudimentary way of playing that produces results in the head-to-heads with their more closely-matched rivals.
Perhaps they strayed from the ‘successful’ Everton blueprint under Ronald Koeman, trying to play attractive, flowing football that they thought could take them to the next level. Perhaps armed with Farhad Moshiri’s millions and the proceeds from Lukaku’s sale, they tried to do too much too soon and only ended up destabilising the club. Too many new players, many of them failing to settle and being offloaded already – something was and possibly still is broken at Goodison.
There have certainly been some strange decisions that haven’t helped the cause, including not finding a direct replacement (or two) to fill Lukaku’s boots, signing four No. 10s, including one who just happened to impress against them in a European game, and taking over a month to appoint a replacement for Koeman (subsequently appointed the Dutch national manager).
When finally getting around to it, the decision to appoint a manager with a specialty of not being relegated seemed odd when they should have still been looking up the league. And then the decision by Sam Allardyce not to recall Brendon Galloway from Sunderland reserves and find a new place for him to develop (possibly even the Everton first team in a position where there is an obvious weakness).
But bolstered by the extra firepower of Cenk Tosun and Walcott and defensive reinforcements in the shape of Eliaquim Mangala and the returning Seamus Coleman, Everton will still be hoping to finish strongly in the final dozen games. They have persisted with the recruitment strategy of signing quality players from top six clubs who still have enough about them to leave in search of first team football rather than just banking their big pay cheques.
The fixture computer can have a significant bearing on week-to-week league tables and considering the impact it can have on momentum, it can surely affect even final positions. But there’s still time and enough winnable games (against teams outside the big six) for Gilfi Sigurdsson, Morgan Schneiderlin, Keane and Rooney to step up and show the class that gave them their seat at the top table in the first place.
While one six-game run this term saw Everton leak 19 goals during six successive losses, an eight-game unbeaten run during December saw them score 14 with six clean sheets. And so, the Toffees will hope to take advantage of a more generous run of games coming up starting with the visit of Crystal Palace to Goodison Park on Saturday.
They might have had loftier ambitions back in August and their experiences may serve them well for next season, but I’m sure everyone associated with Everton would happily get back to what they do best – winning ugly again and finishing 7th.