Reading between the lines over the last couple of days, it seemed as though Sam Allardyce was viewing the warm-weather training break in Dubai as some sort of inflection point for his tenure at Everton. The trip to the Middle East, an opportunity afforded him and his charges by another season watching the FA Cup progress without the Toffees’ involvement, was a chance to take stock, further assess the players, allow them — the new ones in particular — to get to know each other better, and set a different tone for the remainder of the season.
Certainly, his comments to the printed media yesterday, where he talked up the need to now keep a settled side and his desire to prove that his appointment as boss at Goodison Park wasn’t merely a short-term assignment, suggested that he was looking to push on over the last 11 matches and prove a few points to his doubters.
How unfortunate for Allardyce, then, that the first game back after the mid-season jolly to the Arabian peninsula was merely continuation of what went before and a stark reminder that this old leopard will never change his spots.
And, as if a neat encapsulation of the manager’s unimaginative and unadventurous outlook were required, he provided it as this game at Vicarage Road moved into the last quarter hour and he readied Morgan Schneiderlin to come on… essentially to shore up a goalless draw rather than go for a win that would have vaulted Everton into joint seventh place.
As excessively pragmatic and necessarily short-sighted some might argue it was, Allardyce’s approach once again restricted the outcome to a point or a defeat, this despite Watford’s obvious anxiety about their proximity to the bottom three. In spite of their 4-1 win over Chelsea in their last home game, Javi Gracia’s men were tentative and unconvincing; “there for the taking” as the old cliche goes if Everton could rouse themselves and maintain a degree of intensity beyond the first 20 minutes or so.
In that opening quarter of the contest, they had looked refreshed and eager, with the midfield and forwards pressing the ball when they weren’t in possession and Tom Davies, in particular, seeing plenty of the ball. It was his interception and release of Oumar Niasse that provided the first opening of the game, one that ended up testing Osteris Karnezis in the Watford goal following a heavy deflection off the covering defender’s boot with 10 minutes gone.
It didn’t last, however. Errors in distribution began to creep into Wayne Rooney’s game, the influence of Davies and Theo Walcott gradually diminished while Niasse’s clumsy ineffectiveness as the main striker was increasingly — and embarrassingly, at times — exposed.
The home side, meanwhile, routinely sought out Gerard Deulofeu as an outlet down their right flank, testing makeshift left-back Cuco Martina but his final balls were calmly dealt with and his only real sight of goal came from a 35th-minute free kick that he smacked into the defensive wall.
His first game against his old club would be curtailed after an hour when he picked up an ankle injury battling Cenk Tosun for the ball near his own byline but Gracia’s substitutions ended up having a decisive effect in turning the game Watford’s way.
After Michael Keane had spurned one of only two chances Everton created in the second half, Allardyce elected to go like-for-like when he withdrew Niasse in favour of Tosun. The Turk competed gamely enough but, like the Senegalese striker, suffered from isolation up front as the two sides continued to cancel each other out.
It was another chore of a performance from Everton under Allardyce and a game that didn’t really deserve a winner but it got one with 11 minutes to go. Jordan Pickford had already rescued himself with a low save to deny Kiko Femenia after he’d belted an attempted clearance into Troy Deeney and then got down to smother a follow-up effort from Daryl Janmaat before Deeney himself struck.
Rooney and Idrissa Gueye got in each other’s way as Watford substitute Stefano Okaka barrelled forward, collected a return ball from Femenia and crossed low to Deeney. The Hornets striker took a touch to create space for the shot and then hammered it past Pickford, leaving the Blues’ keeper no chance.
Now in arrears, Allardyce ditched his plan to bring Schneiderlin on and replaced Rooney and Sigurdsson with Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Yannick Bolasie but the home side had their tails up now and it was they who looked more likely to score any subsequent goal. Okaka rolled Keane expertly with three minutes left of the regulation 90 while Everton looked out of ideas.
In one final act of desperation, Pickford went up for a corner deep into injury time and actually made good contact with a header but it flicked up off Calvert-Lewin and Tosun couldn’t get enough on a header to trouble Orestis Karnezis in the Watford goal.
Not for the first time, Allardyce laid the blame for the defeat elsewhere, arguing that Deeney took his chance while his players failed to take theirs. (In actual fact, Everton created precious few chances and Keane’s was, arguably, the only clear-cut one.) It’s the manager who sets the tone, however, and this one is failing his extended interview for the Everton job beyond next season.
Indeed, he would count himself to still be in charge after May this year. If you were the hiring manager, your mind would, by this point, be drifting to more exciting and multi-faceted candidates who could foster a system, a plan, a method and an identifiable style of play into this team.
Because Allardyce seems incapable of implementing any kind of identity or winning formula. Particularly away from home, Everton are boring to watch, easy to defend against and easy to beat. With no signs of progress on that front, can anyone find an argument for persisting with the status quo next season?
Sam Allardyce names a relatively unchanged side for this evening's televised game at Watford.
Kenny and Williams are the only two changes in defence, with Coleman and Mangala injured. Rooney and Sigurdsson start with Niasse up front. Luke Garbutt joins Schneiderlin, Bolasie, Tosun, and Calvert-Lewin on the Everton bench. A certain Gerard Deulofeu starts for Watford, but no Tom Cleverley.
Leighton Baines and Ramiro Funes Mori are both back in training but may need Under-23 run-outs before they are ready for the Premier League.
Everton kicked off and the ball was zipped around in a lively manner. Prodl fouled Walcott, setting up a decent setpiece opportunity for Sigurdsson to the far post to Niasse but through his legs and out of play.
Rooney was robbed of the ball and Deuloleu galloped forward, winning a corner, that Deulofeu dummied but Ducoure skied onto the roof of the stand. Watford seemed to be grasping the initiative with a little more energy and desire than the visitors as a move between Davies, Kenny and Walcott broke down with a poor header from Gueye.
Davies did well to use his body and turn but then overplayed the second touch. ZBut his next intervention was far better, releasing Niasse down the left that created a chance and earned a corner, defended away.
Everton looked a lot better, passing the ball well, but Sigurdsson's shot lacked any power. Watford also were not afraid to press forward, Janmaat and Deulofeu connecting down their right side. Davies caught Holebas with his toe. More good work won another corner but it came to nought.
Walcott and Niasse got behind the Watford defence that reformed quickly, giving up another corner that almost fell to Rooney as the tempo of the game remained high... verging on exciting Premier League football! But the quality of the chances created was not up to that exalted standard.
Keane went in perhaps a little to strongly to win a loose ball. Rooney gave the ball away horribly to Deulofeu but gets back well to dispossess the former Everton player and make amends. Sigurdsson got forward and his cross was inviting but hit a Watford head as Everton looked to press the home side.
It was then Watford's turn to play some football, pressing Everton back, with Deulofeu always involved but consistently ineffective, but Capoue shooting high and wide. He created havoc, however, with a ball that Williams was lucky to control, Gueye eventually being penalized for a dangerous free-kick that Deuloefu lined up and fired into the wall.
Niasse was the next to roll around on the floor, the pace of the game pretty lively and evenly poised as half-time approached; however, things became scrappy with Watford winning a corner that Holebas sent in to Pickford's solid grasp.
Martina did well to stop Deulofeu but and the game was fairly open without creating significant goal threats. Pickford came out of his area smartly to control an awkward ball and delivered a great pass forward to pick out Niasse whose passing choice was awful and the scoreline remained goalless at half-time with honours relatively even.
Watford came forward from the restart, putting Everton under early pressure, with a decent corner put in by Deulofeu that Prodl headed well wide. Everton settled with some better possession and passing, but Davies again kicked the ball too far, although somehow winning a corner that went over everyone.
Everton finally structured an attack, with a looping cross for Keane to head wide with Davies running in.Capoue saw the first yellow card of the game after fouling Walcott. Sigurdsson tried to set up Niasse but he lost the track of the ball. Rooney swung in a tempting ball that the keeper gathered. At the other end, Rooney was carpet-bagged and Deeny with a header that Pickford had to save.
Finally, a double change for Watford, and Tosun on for Niasse — not a moment too soon. But it was Watford who threatened with a corner that went up the other end, Tosun getting involved, beating Deulofeu and pulling back a difficult mid-height ball straight at Sigurdsson. Que playacting from Deulofeu, who rolled back onto the pitch to stop the game before being substituted.
Things were pretty scrappy as the changes looked to settle, Rooney seeing a half chance on a bouncing ball, driven high and wide. At the other End, Everton had to defend but the quality of midfield football from both sides had deteriorated into a formless mess as the time ticked away, the lack of quality underlined by Geuye giving the ball away easily in his own half.
Allardyce readied Morgan Schneiderlin for the next substitution with Bolasie as Walcott had the opportunity to scamper forward but the double change was halted after a terrible passage of play, Pickford's horrible clearance going straight to Janmaat who messed up his delivery allowing Pickford to save.
But Everton gave the ball away in a deep area yet again, and this time paid the seemingly inevitable price. Okaka picked up possession and raced into the Everton box, cutting the ball smartly across to Deeney, who spins well and hammers the ball into the top right corner from 10 yards, leaving Pickford, and sadly Everton, no chance as they had never looked like coming even close to scoring.
Allardyce stunned, Schneiderlin was sat down again; Calvert-Lewin and Bolasie replaced Rooney and Sigurdsson as Everton now had to chase the game but the Blues looked less and less capable or interested in turning things around, into the last 5 minutes. Everton should have been attacking but it was all Watford and it was Okaka lashing a good shot at Pickford. It was all Watford and time of shooting practice as Everton had effectively given up in a shocking spell for Everton toward the end.
Holebas got down the byeline and Williams needed to block it out for a corner as Everton rocked under the pressure into 3 minutes of added time, with no sign of scoring an equalizer. But they won a late corner, and there was absolute havoc in the Watford area with Pickford heading it forward, Tosun and Bolasie going for the same clear chance right in front of Karnezis and cancelling each other out. Laughable if it wasn't so pathetic for a team of professional footballers.
The second-half display by Everton had been nothing short of awful after some false promises from the lively first half — just shocking, shocking football, littered with mistakes from a moribund Everton still on vacation in Dubai and showing game by game what an awful uninspiring manager Sam Allardyce is.
Scorer: Deeney (79')
Watford: Karnezis, Janmaat, Prodl, Mariappa, Holebas, Pereyra (56' Okaka), Doucoure, Capoue [Y:52'], Deulofeu (63' Carrillo), Deeney, Richarlison (56' Femenia).
Subs not Used: Gomes, Britos, Gray, Zeegelaar.
Everton: Pickford, Kenny, Keane, Williams, Martina, Davies, Gueye [Y:64'], Rooney (83' Bolasie), Walcott, Niasse (57' Tosun), Sigurdsson (83' Calvert-Lewin).
Subs not Used: Robles, Holgate, Garbutt, Schneiderlin.
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Everton travel to Watford tomorrow looking to push on over the final 11 games and try and secure seventh place in the Premier League.
The Blues come into the weekend sitting two points behind Burnley and a point off Leicester in the race for what a berth that looks like it could be a worth a place in the Europa League next season. Safety from relegation isn't yet assured but it would take a spectacularly poor run of results from a favourable run of fixtures for any serious danger of the drop to re-emerge.
That should leave Sam Allardyce, armed with more information on his players following a week of warm-weather training in Dubai, free to concentrate on finding a settled team for the final stretch of the campaign.
He appeared close with the line-up that faced Leicester and then Crystal Palace in the last two home games but injuries have again become a factor, particularly in defence. Seamus Coleman suffered an unspecified soft-tissue injury in the first half of the win over Palace, Phil Jagielka appears to have been ruled out and Eliaquim Mangala's spell with Everton could be over already after he suffered suspected knee ligament damage in the same game.
Coleman is a doubt to face the Hornets and would likely be replaced by Jonjoe Kenny but Leighton Baines and Ramiro Funes Mori have both stepped up their training in the last week and could be named in the squad even if they're not in the starting XI.
In midfield, Idrissa Gueye is also questionable after being substituted late in the last game after picking up a knock. With James McCarthy also out, that could affect Allardyce's desire to have a tough-tackling disruptor in front of his back four and, if the Senegalese international doesn't make it, it paves the way for Morgan Schneiderlin's return to the side.
The Frenchman could start regardless. Allardyce has been more conservative away from home where the Blues have won just twice since January last year and has favoured two defensive midfielders when not playing at Goodison Park but he has to balance the form of Tom Davies, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wayne Rooney, all of whom were benched for the game at Arsenal.
Up front, the manager's rhetoric in his press conference suggests that Oumar Niasse will get the nod again despite the progress Cenk Tosun appeared to make in Dubai this past week. That will, in all likelihood, mean the Turk taking his place among the substitutes with Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
“We've got great competition because of Oumar's great form,” Allardyce told the media today. “Oumar has made it difficult for me to replace him.
"I think his position at Everton has never been as good as it is at the moment and the competition with him and Dominic and Tosun is fierce which is what you want.”
Watford, of course, will almost certainly line up with Goodison old boy Gerard Deulofeu in their side, the Spanish winger facing the Blues for the first time since he was sold to Barcelona and then returned to the Premier League on loan with the Hornets.
Deulofeu was at his marauding best in Watford's surprise 4-1 win over Chelsea in their last match at Vicarage Road, the first under new manager Javi Gracia, and he will probably be relishing going up against his old club, particularly if it's against makeshift left back Cuco Martina rather than Baines.
Gracia has the rest of his forward line of Troy Deeney and Richarlison intact but has injury concerns of his own in Christian Kabasele, another ex-Everton player, Tom Cleverley, Younes Kaboul, and Nathaniel Chalobah, while goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes and midfielder Will Hughes are back in training but are still doubts.
The proof of the pudding as far as the break in the Middle East and the progress Allardyce and his staff will say they have made in further gelling the squad will be in the eating in the coming weeks, starting with an opportunity to score a rare away win this weekend.
Since the goalless draw at West Brom on Boxing Day, the Blues have lost all four of their matches on the road in league and cup, two of them by heavy margins, so there is plenty for the manager to prove in what promises to be a tricky fixture.
Kick-off 5:30pm, Saturday 24 February, 20818
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Last Time: Watford 3 - 2 Everton
Predicted Line-up: Pickford, Kenny, Keane, Williams, Baines, Gueye, Schneiderlin, Davies, Sigurdsson, Walcott, Niasse