Everton’s infuriating dance of despair with the League Cup continues amid a slew of changes to a winning line-up that doomed the Blues to another exit in the early rounds of the competition
So Everton’s infuriating dance of despair with the League Cup continues with the club’s latest elimination at the third round stage or earlier for the eighth time in the last 11 seasons. This time it was against Southampton in a match that, when the draw was made, Marco Silva’s team, with home team advantage and a Premier League win over the Saints already under their belts this season, were rightly installed as favourites to win.
Had the manager approached the game as if it were a Premier League game, it’s likely that the Toffees would have triumphed and secured that meeting with Leicester in the fourth round. Unfortunately, while there were cautionary voices beforehand imploring Silva not to make wholesale alterations to his side, Everton lined up with seven changes from the side that started against Fulham on Saturday. What followed was a well-worn narrative for Evertonians who have become accustomed to abject failure in this competition over the years.
While there has been plenty of scope for criticism of past managers’ team selections — the Jan Mucha debacle in 2011 and the humiliation at Leeds in 2012 under David Moyes, the capitulation at Swansea in 2014 under Roberto Martinez, and the humbling by an under-strength Norwich in Ronald Koeman’s first season come readily to mind — this was not so much an issue of the strength of the side that Silva fielded as it was the sheer number of changes that were made from what was only the third victory in all competitions at the weekend.
Bernard, Cenk Tosun, Leighton Baines and Morgan Schneiderlin are all now candidates for the starting XI on a weekly basis even if there are arguments over whether one or two of them should be automatic choices. Ademola Lookman is overdue for a shot at trying to prove he is worthy of more game time and, despite turning 36 recently, Maarten Stekelenburg is still a competent goalkeeper, as he proved with a couple of key saves during the game. There was unquestionably quality in the line-up that should have been enough to see off Southampton.
The fact remains, however, that seven changes to the team undermined any sense of continuity from the weekend and the defeat ruined what momentum the Blues might have been building going into Saturday’s trip to Leicester. If the team was chosen with an eye on prioritising the Premier League — you’d have to ask why if it was — then a demoralising cup exit might not have the intended effect.
Football at this level is unforgiving if you want to win things. There is very little margin for error, particularly in a cup tie against a rival Premier League club, so it behooves an Everton manager — if he was, indeed, serious about progressing in the Carabao Cup — to play his strongest side, or something close to it.
After all, Everton have no European football with which to concern themselves and, after this weekend, there isn’t another League fixture until the 21st of October. Why put Richarlison on the bench when he has just spent three games watching from the stands because of a suspension and he probably won’t play 90 minutes for his country during the upcoming international break?
If the goal is to match the supporters increasingly desperate thirst for an end to Everton’s trophy drought, then what is the point in playing 33-year-old Leighton Baines instead of the lively Lucas Digne? Why rest your two most effective central midfielders in Idrissa Gueye and Gylfi Sigurdsson after their best individual displays of the season unless you’re disrespecting the tournament and the fans who have turned up in their 30,000-strong droves over the last two cup ties to see their manager and players give everything in the name of winning this God-forsaken pot that has eluded Toffees teams since its inception five decades ago.
There is, clearly then, something of a balancing act when it comes to keeping fringe players happy and the League Cup in its varying guises over the years has been used as a means of giving minutes to players who either haven’t been getting them in the Premier League or who are young and in need of a platform on which to show they can cut it in the senior side.
In that sense, there is some logic to the selection of Baines and Stekelenburg — it keeps both players “ticking over” in case they are needed because of injury or suspension, although the need to rotate your goalkeeper hasn’t always made much sense. After all, the veteran Dutchman is getting to the end of his career and has played in a World Cup Final; do Everton really need to kow-tow to any desire on his part to get first-team action these days?
Promoting Kieran Dowell to the team for the second time this season also has merits when taken in isolation. The 20-year-old did very well for much of his time at Nottingham Forest last season and has been on the cusp of breaking into the first team for a while now. He needs opportunities to shine and, unless injuries and suspensions rack up, they’re unlikely to come in the League.
The problem was, however, that an inexperienced player was deployed in a crucial role behind an out-of-form striker and between two wingers making their first starts to the season. One of them, Lookman, remains something of a question mark in terms of attitude and consistency himself, making the decision to play both of them a questionable one even if, together with Bernard, the former Leipzig loanee was at the centre of some of Everton’s best moments on the night. Dowell, however, was unable to grasp his opportunity to impress in a pivotal role in the team.
Again, the wisdom of and arguments for squad rotation are sound on their face but the strategy blows up in Everton’s collective face season after season. There are now years of evidence that making so many changes to a core lineup just doesn’t work no matter how many times successive managers have defended the decision on the grounds that the players selected were good enough to get the job done. The history is there but no-one at the club appears to be learning from it.
The hope was that there had been enough of a clamour from fans that Everton simply had to put their best and strongest foot forward in every round of both domestic cup competitions this season and go all out to land some silverware. Sadly, the cries appear to have fallen on deaf ears and one of two realistic routes to Wembley and one of three avenues to Europe has been closed off less an a week into October. Plus ça change…