Amid the anger and frustration at another inept performance, one of the overriding feelings at the final whistle of this game was one of relief. Not because Everton had salvaged a draw that, on the balance of the second half, was harsh on Aston Villa but because there are now only two more matches of this increasingly tedious￼￼ season left to endure￼.
All the talk since Sunday has been about this sorry bunch of players needing to show a positive reaction to their dismal defeat at Wolves and, while they offered a passable nod in that direction in the first half, for all but the last five minutes plus stoppage time of the second, they were as abject and guileless as at any point over the past four matches.
Then, suddenly, with a first home defeat under Carlo Ancelotti looming, they discovered some urgency; the kind of shift in gear that makes you wonder and plead why they couldn’t have mustered anything comparable for the previous 85 minutes so as to provide a modicum of entertainment for their absent fans watching on from home.
Like the Southampton game before it, one that also finished 1-1, this was an often pedestrian encounter short on action where the lack of a crowd to provide some impetus and desire to the occasion was keenly felt. That neither side managed a shot on target until the 72nd minute — against the second-worst defence in the division, Everton’s didn’t arrive until the 88th — was indicative of the poor quality of the fare. But while that might have been expected from a Villa side that could well be doomed to relegation now thanks to Theo Walcott’s late header, more is expected of Ancelotti’s side… at least it should be but no longer is.
For all the reasons that have been thrown around and dissected in recent weeks — the void in midfield, the dearth of effective wide players, the disconnect between the rest of the team and the strikers and a boring reliance on the long ball — this was another illustration of the work that lies ahead for Ancelotti and Marcel Brands in the transfer market on the one hand and on the other the manager and his coaching staff at Finch Farm in the coming weeks.
Part of that work will be psychological — trying to build confidence in the likes of Alex Iwobi and Bernard, players with obvious talent but who struggle to execute in the final third. In a move that promised flare and some attacking invention, the pair were deployed in the wide roles this evening as Ancelotti reverted back to the 4-4-2 formation that has been largely ineffective since the win over Leicester and, on the whole, they tried to deliver, even if the results were erratic for the hour they were on the field.
Bernard is a player capable of exhibiting exquisite skill but who suffers from questionable decision-making in and around the box and can, as was the case for Wolves’s third goal at the weekend, be expensively profligate with the ball. Iwobi can be threatening with the ball at his feet and isn’t short of technique of his own but his final ball is often disappointing.
This evening was no different and yet it could have been so on a couple of occasions inside the first seven minutes. First when Iwobi picked out Dominic Calvert-Lewin with a cross from the right that the striker scissor-kicked over the crossbar, and then when he slid the ball inside to Bernard with a pass that was begging for a first-time, side-foot curler aimed towards the top corner but was met instead by an attempted dribble from the Brazilian and lost possession.
But Bernard is also one of those luxury players who only needs a couple of moments over 90 minutes to make a telling impact — as he almost did in the 12th minute when his cross sailed over the goalkeeper and bounced off the top of the crossbar — but he requires the patience to wait for it, all while he frequently gives the ball away.
He wasn’t alone. André Gomes, recalled to the side after recovering from a minor ankle problem, allowed himself to be robbed of the ball in his own half on a number of occasions in the first half. It was almost costly in the 35th minute when Jack Grealish’s shot deflected over the crossbar but then, as if to ensure that everyone was aware he was back, he committed the typically clumsy foul outside his own box that led to Villa’s goal.
Conor Hourihane, who had managed to belt almost all of his dead-ball deliveries into the head of the first defender, finally lifted the free-kick to the edge of Jordan Pickford’s six-yard box where Ezri Konsa stretched out a boot and diverted it in to give Villa a lifeline in the bid to escape relegation.
And yet, for those who feel as though it’s harsh to criticise Gomes for his form based on the fact that he has been pressed back into regular action so soon after a horrific injury, there were a few revelatory minutes at the end of this game that demonstrated the extent to which the Portuguese has been wasted just sitting in front of the back four all these months.
There was a moment in the second half where Anthony Gordon threw his arms up when Gomes elected not to find him with a forward pass but went backwards instead for the umpteenth time. But it was Gomes who led Everton’s belated charge in the closing stages from near the front, beating his man expertly in the unfamiliar environs of the opposition penalty box and crossing low to Calvert-Lewin who really should have ended his goal drought in the 85th minute instead of firing wide.
Then Gomes swung the deep cross towards the back post the found the unlikely head of Theo Walcott who looped an effort over Pepe Reina and far enough under the bar to cross the line to trigger confirmation from the goal decision system before a defender could vainly hook it away. Just like that, 1-1.
If Jean-Philippe Gbamin ever recovers his fitness or the club can find a signing to enable Ancelotti to take the defensive shackles off Gomes, he could yet re-bloom into the player he was at Valencia and, at times, in his Barcelona days.
Calvert-Lewin made it seven games now without a goal since the restart, Richarlison toiled sullenly and rather unproductively alongside him and substitute Moise Kean had one effort that he lashed into the stands but, apart from Lucas Digne’s continued industry, there was one big positive to take from the game and that was the performance of Jarrad Branthwaite.
Thrown into the fray after just a quarter of an hour when Mason Holgate, rushed back from injury, broke down again with a recurrence of his shin complaint, the 18-year-old produced an assured display that augurs well for the success of his move from Carlisle United just a few months ago.
Everton’s rationale for signing him was clear on this evidence — despite his tender years, he is physically imposing, calm on the ball and distributes it intelligently and there should be no reason why he doesn’t see plenty of action over the final two games in order to provide him with valuable experience ahead of next season.
Unless there is a marked improvement on Monday at Bramall Lane, there will be precious little to look forward to for Evertonians when the team takes on high-flying Sheffield United apart from more signs of progress and hints at what the future might look at under Ancelotti. The end of 2019-20 can’t come soon enough!
If you’re of a glass-half-full persuasion, however, there is reason to feel hopeful that 2020-21 will be better, particularly when you consider how important midfield is and how it can surely only be improved during the close season with the addition of some genuine quality. The building blocks are there but there has to be more passion and fire injected into this team, either from the coaching staff or via recruiting the right personalities.
Everton's penultimate home fixture of this disrupted 2019-20 season saw them take on Aston Villa but fail to overcome the malaise from the three previous dreadful exhibitions against the almost relegated Villians.
Holgate returned with Bernard starting at home, where he can be slightly more effective. Iwobi started again despite rarely showing anything close to the value of his transfer fee. Five changes since the Wolves debacle. No fresh blood from the U23s with Virginia, Barnthwaite, Gordon and Kean the only youngsters named for the bench.
In a nice early break, Iwobi centred for Calvert-Lewin who decided it was time for a marvellous acrobatic wondergoal that ended up on the roof of the Park End stand. E for effort, lad.
Davies launched an incredible ball to Richarlison but the Villa defender was watching the flight of the ball and the Brazilian wasn't. A first corner was played short and wasted. Mings kindly headed the ball on to Calvert-Lewin at close quarters but it flew behind off him.
Villa had a spell of possession but seemingly had no way through. A great interchange of fast accurate passing saw Gomes play in Bernard whose overhit curling cross glanced off the face of the bar, and the rework also came close.
At the other end, El Mohammadi delivered a fine cross to Samata who headed well over, as Holgate went down injured, and then walked off disconsolately, young Jarred Branthwaite taking his place on 16 minutes. The lad got another nice welcome to the game, Mings sitting on his head!
Richarlison hurt himself in a challenge from behind but recovered quickly. Some good forward play from Keane to Bernard and then Richarlison should have ended with at least a chance but Douglas Luiz was all over the Everton man and took the ball without fouling him.
Davies was lucky to avoid fouling Grealish as he ran forward, while Ricarlison could do nothing with an inviting ball down the right wing. He had another chance but stalled then danced around somehow keeping possession of the ball, eventually feeding it short to Iwobi who surprisingly went for the hospital ball, crumpling into the challenge.
Everton structured something approaching an attack, Iwobi sensing glory, shooting over the bar. Both sides were doing a pretty good job moving the ball upfield and into the opposing areas, but failing to them find the target. Grealish was the latest exponent, lashing his shot over, thanks in small part to a slight deflection. Three Villa corners followed, all defended.
Digne was finally tripped, Gomes swinging the free-kick in but Luiz headed behind, with nothing coming from the corner. Some half-decent football from Everton, saw Branthwaite pick out Digne with a fine ball from dep, and a sharp cross reaches Iwobi who fires in low but no chance created.
Everton do their ridiculous play out from the back from Pickford, with four outfield players in or around the Everton area, the ball forced back to Pickford not once but twice. Completely nonsense football.
Bernard caught Hourihane, giving up a free-kick for Villa, that was well cleared but it almost came back to Trezeguet, Pickford alert enough to snuff out the danger. Iwobi lost the ball, allowing Grealsisjh to run in, which could have been dangerous.
Everton marginally better than recent games in a marginally better competition, but the professionalism, skill, quality and intensity all down around 40 or 50% of where they really should be as the Blues fail to even threaten a goal.
After the break, from a throw-in, Grealish had a better chance but screed his shot wide. Villa had all of the play, as if they had Speed in their half-time tea, Grealsh curling another shot wide of the other post.
everton responded, winning a free-kick that Calvert-Lewin cleverly let it bounce off the top of his head and way over the bar, rather than doing anything with his kneck muscles to actually direct it at goal.
Good work from Iwobi created space and lashed in a really tasty cross for Calvert-Lewin to launch himself at... except that he didn't really want to, thank you very much. Iwoi was getting, more space down the right but the next move stalled with Richarlison. Iwobi then finding Davies who decided to shoot over the bar.
Digne, who had committed a number of fouls, was finally booked for pulling a shirt. letting Villa play in a dangerous ball that needed to be defended, with the football now actually worthy of watching... until Digne launched a fierce cross straight at Reina.
Iwobi got more chances to cross but messed up. Richarlison mowed into ___ and earned a rather daft yellow card. Time for changes: Iwoboi and Bernard off in place of Walcott and Gordon. Would there be any marked improvement?
Davis won a strange free-kick as he handed off Branthwaite who did nothing wrong. Hourihane banged it off the wall and out of play. After some frenetic play Gordon tries to break down the left but Elmouhamady has other ideas, like a forearm smash to knock him down. Yellow card.
Gomes next to commit a foul, Hourihane swung it in and Konsa got his foot on it to beat Pickford, who was going to the other side. A disgusted Carlo Ancelotti acted again, Sigurdsson and Kean on for Davies and Richarlison, who had not played well.
Moise Kean fought for the ball and shot wildly from 30 yards. But the impetus was now with Villa a brilliant cross from Grealish beats everyone for El Ghazi coming in at the far post, surely the second goal... but no, he contrives to clip the ball off his foot and over the bar.
Everton won a rare corner that Gordon drove through everyone. Then great play from Gomes, a great run, plays it perfectly for Calvert-Lewin who lazily sticks out a leg more out of hope than desire, and directs the ball inches wide when it looked easier to score. The goals have really totally dried up for the Blues.
But score they did, a looped header by Walcott off a fantastic deep cross from Gomes that seemed to have been cleared off the line but it had in fact crossed the line and was given by Anthony Taylor. Somehow, the Blues had saved some serious embarrassment here, but Grealsh was still trying with a couple of tricky corners at the other end.
An Everton corner came as 4 mins of added time saw the ball go from end to end. Walcott got wide and put in one of those really inviting crosses that say Score! But Calvert-Lewin had other ideas and avoided any contact with the ball entirely. Sigurdsson was next to shoot wide, deflected, as the game ended.
Kick-off: 6pm, Thursday 16 July 2020
Everton: Pickford, Coleman, Keane, Holgate (16' Branthwaite), Digne [Y:63'], Gomes, Davies (73' Sigurdsson), Bernard (60' Gordon), Iwobi (60' Walcott), Richarlison [Y:61'] (74' Kean), Calvert-Lewin
Subs not Used: Stekelenburg, Virginia, Baines, Sidibé.
Aston Villa: Reina, El Mohamady [Y], Konsa, Mings, Targett, McGinn, Douglas Luiz, Hourihane, Trezeguet (64' El Ghazi), Samatta (64' Davis), Grealish.
Subs not Used: Lansbury, Nakamba, Jota, Guilbert, Nyland, Vassilev, Hayden.
Referee: Anthony Taylor
VAR: Chris Kavanagh