Questions at every turn as brittle Blues succumb to spirited Saints

By Lyndon Lloyd 20/01/2019 0comments  |  Jump to last

Last season’s trip to St Mary’s Stadium came in a week that marked the nadir of Everton’s 2017-18 season. A 4-1 drubbing by an awful Saints side that came hot on the heels of a 5-1 hammering at the hands of Atalanta was followed four days later by the appointment of Sam Allardyce… desperate times calling, in Farhad Moshiri’s view, for desperate measures.

The Blues were 16th at the time, just two points above the relegation zone and in continued free-fall under caretaker boss, David Unsworth, but while the situation isn’t nearly as parlous this time following another demoralising south coast defeat, there is a familiarly depressed air among Evertonians.

It’s a distant cry from the week leading up to the Merseyside derby last month when Blues fans were hopeful that the doggedness and spirit that Marco Silva’s men had showed at the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea was an indication that they were finally ready and able to bury arguably the most painful hoodoo of Everton’s modern history.

The manner of that defeat to Liverpool — not to mention, of course, who the opposition were — appears to have derailed what was, up until then, a promising debut season for Silva and knocked the stuffing out of a squad whose mental frailty and absence of leadership remains an ongoing concern. One could ask what it says about all concerned that one result eights weeks ago could have such lasting effects.

In terms of ability, this Groundhog Day of a situation isn't merely a question of personnel. Again, this was a team that prior to the Anfield debacle was heading for a top-six challenge with a favourable fixture schedule ahead of them once the trip to Manchester City was out the way. They have won just three times in 11 in all competitions since and only the win at Burnley was done so in any convincing fashion.

Psychologically, though, there are huge question marks over this team and they pose a challenge that Silva has thus far been unable to address. The confidence that was gained from beating Lincoln and Bournemouth was disappointingly ephemeral, vanishing as soon as Southampton put it to any kind of test in a match that the Everton of two months ago would have been a decent bet to win.

The Saints, concerned enough by relegation to sack Mark Hughes last month, were involved in an FA Cup replay on Wednesday that went to extra time and then penalties. If you didn’t know better, you would have said on this evidence that it was Everton who were the ones haunted by the threat of the drop and had just been through a 120-minute cup tie only to be knocked out of the competition on their own turf to a lower-division side.

Ralph Hasenhüttl’s side were by far the more energetic, displaying a desire and willingness to be quicker to the ball and faster in their execution in general. Where Everton were laboured and seemingly unable to string more than a couple of passes together, their hosts routinely evaded the press with quick interchanges that took two blue shirts out of the game and opened up space in midfield.

And when they weren’t able to do that, Everton’s sloppy distribution did the job for them, particularly in the second half when poor giveaways in the middle of the park led to Southampton’s two goals.

The Toffees’ problems revealed themselves pretty quickly this afternoon. The debate over Richarlison’s best position has occupied Blues in pubs, online discussion forums and social media for weeks now and it will have been fed further fuel by this display, easily his worst since donning an Everton jersey and one that lasted just 65 minutes before he was withdrawn after Southampton’s second goal went in.

An out-and-out centre forward in the traditional English league mould he clearly isn’t but as his goalscoring record at Everton suggests and his national team would seem to agree, he is very adept at operating in “false nine” role if the rest of the team is set up to maximise his strengths.

Everton had as much as 70% of the possession at times during this game but did precious little with it. Silva has set the team up to play out from the back and, presumably, through midfield but they proved utterly incapable of doing it; the net result being a succession of long balls punted forward by Jordan Pickford, none of which Richarlison was able to deal with against the three big centre halves that Hasenhüttl deployed.

It would take almost a quarter of an hour for the isolated and out-matched Brazilian to touch the ball in any meaningful way and it’s hard to remember a single contribution of positive note that he made all afternoon. The system and his team-mates utterly failed him but when he did get a chance to run from deep with the ball at his feet, he committed his all-too familiar sin of ignoring team-mates beside him and trying to go it alone before running into a cul-de-sac.

Gylfi Sigurdsson, of whom so much is expected, was anonymous for 45 minutes while Bernard and Ademola Lookman had the odd of individual moment but overall struggled from the general lack of cohesiveness that plagued Everton all afternoon and has done for weeks now.

By contrast, Southampton seemed to have adopted the perfect game plan: operate more like the away side, allow Everton to have the ball but swamp André Gomes, be first to the ball when it broke away from the visitors, skirt the high press and release the ball quickly through the centre to the likes of Nathan Redmond and Danny Ings.

Their first couple of chances actually arrived via a move down the left flank and then a set-piece. Matt Targett’s cross found James Ward-Prowse in the centre who controlled and shot but saw effort deflect behind off Michael Keane. Eight minutes later, a corner from the Saints’ left easily found Ings’s head but he was denied brilliantly by Pickford’s smart one-handed save.

And the England ‘keeper was called upon 12 minutes after that when a dreadful giveaway by Gomes was clipped over the top to Ings but Pickford was on hand to parry the shot away to safety once more.

Then, not for the first time on the day, Southampton were able to dissect the away defence with a pass between lead-footed Everton defenders for Redmond to chase but he could only graze the far post with his shot as Pickford closed down the angles.

In between, Everton’s only move of any technical merit had produced a chance for Lookman when he combined neatly with Bernard and attempted a drive from the edge of the box but it was charged down by a defender.

Time and again, Everton struggled to thread their way out of defence to mount attacks on the deck and their inability to work their way through Southampton’s midfield saw the hosts go as close as would come to breaking the deadlock before half-time when Kurt Zouma passed into traffic trying to find Bernard and Oriel Romeu intercepted before quickly releasing Ings.

The striker profited from a fortunate bounce of the ball off Idrissa Gueye but drifted past the Senegalese all too easily and was shaping to shoot when Gomes intervened, the ball coming back off the post via the Portuguese before being hacked away by Coleman.

As was the case last week, Silva’s half-time team talk looked to have had the desired effect as Sigurdsson and Bernard combined before the latter fed Digne on the overlap and his cross was met by the Icelander whose strong header was beaten behind by Alex McCarthy in the Saints goal.

Any attempts to build on that were cut short, however, two minutes later. Once again possession was squandered by Gomes in the middle of the park, Gueye lost out trying to pick up Zouma’s header off a lofted ball forward by a Southampton defender and Ward-Prowse held the midfielder off as he drove towards the “D” and rifled an impressive strike past Pickford.

That kind of incisiveness was in stark contrast to Everton, whose use of the ball lapsed back into being atrocious again with Bernard providing a case in point in the 55th minute when an opportunity to break forward opened up but he simply gave it away with a weak pass aimed in Richarlison’s general direction.

Gomes’s afternoon was mercifully brought to an end a minute later, the Portuguese making way for Dominic Calvert-Lewin and a belated change in formation but Sigurdsson dropping back into a deeper role simply changed the face at the origin of a poor pass in the centre that squandered possession and led to a goal.

Romeu intercepted his under-hit return pass looking for Lookman and three passes later, Redmond was steaming in behind the Blues’ defence once more with just Pickford to beat. This time, Digne had come across to cover and nip the ball off his toe but the Frenchman’s touch diverted the ball beyond Pickford and inside the post of his own goal.

2-0 almost became 3-0 when the zonal marking system failed again and Jack Stephens was allowed to power a free header just wide from an 82-minute corner.

Everton tried to rally and Coleman picked out Calvert-Lewin in the centre with a deep cross but the striker couldn’t keep his header down while yet another turnover in possession by Sigurdsson in midfield set up a chance for the Saints to pad their lead. Ward-Prowse crossed and substitute Shane Long met it but Pickford made another good save to deny him.

The game had moved into stoppage time before the Blues’ fleeting attempts to affect the scoreline finally proved successful and it came as the ball pinged around the edge of the Southampton penalty area before falling to Sigurdsson who expertly passed it into the empty side of McCarthy’s net to make it 2-1.

It was far too little far too late for Silva ’s outfit, however, and a last-gasp corner with Pickford joining the fray in the box came to nothing before referee Graham Scott answered the desperate pleas from Hasenhüttl’s bench to blow for full-time.

So another winnable game has gone begging amidst an all-round performance that throws up questions at almost every corner. The spotlight will be shone squarely at the manager but plenty of responsibility for this shambles rests on the heads of the players, many of whom were on the pitch when Allardyce was smirking a year ago about how he couldn’t help it if the players couldn’t find each other with basic passes.

The paucity of Everton’s possession play beggared belief at times today, almost as much as Gomes’s precipitous decline from Messiah to quandary in the space of a few short weeks, Gueye’s up-and-down form and the vexing questions of who should lead Silva’s line and where the creativity is going to reliably come from.

How the manager and team respond now is going to be key. The team remain just three points off seventh place but that small gap feels like a chasm given the inconsistencies in the Blues’ form and the crippling lack of confidence that seems to have gripped them once more.

Ultimately, apart from the not insignificant issue of a few million quid in prize money, finishing seventh or 11th where Everton are now will be of little consequence in the context of this Premier League season already being a write-off. Everything now rests on the FA Cup but with the trip to Millwall just a week away, who among us will be going into that one with much more than trepidation and blind hope?

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