Marco Silva spent his time with the print media yesterday fending off the notion that his team were in an early-season crisis but come the final whistle at Goodison Park this evening, following an utterly dreadful performance against Sheffield United, the Portuguese’s disheveled hair and flustered countenance betrayed a man who can be under no illusions about the mess he and his team have made of the new campaign.
On the face of it, Silva’s contention that Everton weren’t the only fancied team struggling to get going this season had some merit but Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal were all already in varying states of upheaval as last season came to a close and have begun this one in somewhat predictable fashion.
After finishing 2018-19 with a string of home victories, a hugely impressive defensive record and just two defeats in 11 matches, the Blues had seemingly put their mid-season slump and defensive struggles behind them and were arguably better placed than most to start the new campaign strongly and help set the early pace in the Premier League. A favourable start to the season against two newly-promoted clubs and three that have “bottom half” written all over them should have provided the ideal platform to do so. The proverbial door to the top six was open; instead there is mounting evidence that Everton have probably already scuppered their hopes of finishing among those coveted positions come May.
Too early for such doom-laden prognostications? How long have you been supporting Everton? After today, the notion that the Blues will be improving on eighth place looks fanciful as we once again find ourselves trapped in this cycle of optimism crushed by the reality of a losing team and a floundering manager.
It’s difficult to know where to start after what can only be described as an utterly dire display this afternoon. Sheffield United won 2-0 with just two shots all game and only one on target (Yerry Mina inadvertently scored a first-half own goal) with a performance that their manager, Chris Wilder, described as their worst with the ball so far this season.
Everton had 70% of the possession but — stop us if you’ve heard this before — did almost nothing with it, forcing just three meaningful saves from Dean Henderson, none of which were particularly taxing of the Blades’ goalkeeper. The most worrying aspects of the whole match, however, were the set-piece defending (again), the galling lack of character and attacking punch in the Blues’ side, particularly in the second half, and the desperate moves made by Silva in an attempt to salvage something from the game.
Eyebrows were raised when Alex Iwobi, arguably one of the most effective Everton players in recent games, was dropped to the bench to accommodate Bernard while the manager persisted with two holding midfielders against a limited attack. Moise Kean’s return to the starting XI was less surprising given Silva’s desire to bed him in at home but by the end of 90 minutes, the hosts had a five-man forward line and just three defenders and not much of a midfield to speak of after Morgan Schneiderlin and Seamus Coleman were withdrawn in the second half.
It was perhaps not surprising then that John Lundstram was able to capitalise on the space as the Toffees chased the game in the final quarter of an hour to slip Lys Mousset in to double the lead and kill the match with a clinical finish past Jordan Pickford. That Everton failed to muster a chance worthy of the name in the ensuing 11 minutes plus five of stoppage time tells you everything you need to know about a team going nowhere at the moment.
Judging by the first 40 minutes, this game bore many of the hallmarks of the stolid victory over Watford last month. Everton lacked potency going forward but you got the sense that they would have enough quality to produce something decisive at some point during the game to edge it. That wouldn’t have sated the Evertonian desire for a more satisfying all-round performance indicative of a team capable of achieving its aims this season but it would at least have delivered three points and got things moving in the right direction following the disappointment at Bournemouth.
Richarlison and Bernard were looking fairly lively in the early going, the former going on a driving run in the fifth minute before whipping a curling shot narrowly after the crossbar. Lucas Digne then tested Henderson for the first time in the 17th minute with a shot towards the near post that the keeper successfully parried away.
Kean, meanwhile, was ploughing a lone and often fruitless furrow up front, starved of service to the point that when he did receive the ball outside the box and Gylfi Sigurdsson was arguably in a better position to his right, he elected to have a crack from distance and ballooned a shot high into the Park End.
Bernard’s nutmeg of Chris Basham and dance along the byline forced one of 12 corners that Everton would have on the day but they failed to really test the visitors with a single one of them, often because the usually productive Digne seemed incapable of beating the first man with most of them while he despatched his only opportunity from a direct free-kick straight into the defensive wall.
Sheffield United, meanwhile, earned their first set-piece in the 40th minute and embarrassed Everton by scoring with it in painfully predictable fashion. Pickford, perhaps blinded by the sun and put off by a bump by the totally unmarked Callum Robinson, barely got glove on the wickedly-delivered corner and it bounced in off Mina.
The Blues needed a quick response and almost got their reward for lovely work from Kean three minutes later who clipped a teasing cross to Richarlison in front of goal but the Brazilian, who has scored more difficult headers already this season, couldn’t get enough power or accuracy to steer a gilt-edged chance past the goalkeeper.
With little change to the pattern in the first few minutes of the second period, Silva made his first two changes, taking off Bernard and Schneiderlin and putting on Iwobi and Cenk Tosun in their place. Everton won successive corners on their next foray forward and Kean popped up on the end of a loose ball as it dropped near the goal but Henderson was out smartly to block his shot behind from close range.
By the time of the obligatory (and still mystifying) introduction of Theo Walcott with 20 minutes left, Everton had simultaneously become increasingly desperate but less and less effective going forward despite the plethora of attackers on the field. Time and time again, the tactic was to loft cross-field balls out to the flanks where, if the ball didn’t go over the head of the intended target, the opposition defence would either force them back or easily deal with the resulting cross.
It was mind-numbing in its repetitive futility and only Iwobi, schooled at Arsenal where so many attacks are orchestrated in and around the penalty area, seemed willing to try and thread things through the centre of the pitch, at least for the sake of variety. Whereas a team of greater resolve and psychological fortitude might still have rallied in the final stages, Everton were a broken side in terms of spirit by that stage and a half-empty Goodison saw the contest peter out to a depressing conclusion.
All teams have bad days and suffer unexpected results from time to time, especially in the Premier League. The problem is that Everton haven’t actually had a really good day in terms of their overall performance in any of their six games this season and they have been pretty awful in three of them. Disconcertingly, every game has been one you would have expected the Toffees to either win or do well in; the hard tests are still to come, starting next weekend against the Champions, Manchester City who scored as many goals in 18 minutes against Watford this afternoon (five) as Everton have all season.
This was a first defeat at home at a Goodison Park that has been a fortress since February and had witnessed a derby draw and six straight wins prior to today. Yet, in the context of recent Everton history, essentially since Roberto Martinez’s second season, it was hauntingly familiar. All it would take is defeat against Sheffield Wednesday in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday for the club to come full circle. Evertonians have been here so many times before and you wonder how many times the collective Blue hopes can be raised and then pulverised before apathy sets in again.
It shouldn’t be this way; this is an expensively-assembled but talented squad that is, as results at the tail end of last season showed, capable of so much more. Fans can argue over the merits of the system with which Silva persists on a weekly basis and individual selection but the fact remains that the Blues side that has played the last few games should not be losing 2-0 at home to Sheffield United, regardless of how well Chris Wilder's side acquitted themselves defensively.
Unfortunately, there are problems and under-performance all over the place at Everton at the moment that will take either significant effort or significant change to fix.
Everton were back at home hoping to use their Goodison Park fortress to get them back to winning ways against Sheffield United after last Sunday's huge disappointment at Bournemouth. but that is not the way things panned out, as 70% possession saw no goals scored and two painfully conceded.
Moise Kean starts up-front with Richarlison and Bernard. Iwobi, Davies, Tosun and Calvert-Lewin are on the bench. Gomes and Gbamain are out injured.
For Sheffield Utd, Phil Jagielka is on the Bench but Everton Academy graduate circa 2015, John Lundstram starts.
It was fairly lively stuff from both sides after The Blades kicked off, some fine team play winning a corner on 3 mins, that Sigurdsson looped in to little real effect. Sigurdsson then tried a shot that was blocked at source. Richarlison then did brilliantly to retain possession and curl his effort beyond the angle.
Everton's passing was pretty crisp, but it needed to be, as the visitors swarmed klienfelder energetically to cut down space, with the Blues strategy of advancing down the flanks not yielding much. Ricarlison worked the ball well to put in a tasty cross that went to nobody. Schneiderlin then had a chance to shoot, deflected well wide.
Moise Kean was caught in a sandwich but tricked his way out of it only to be dragged down, the lineman deciding to give the call the other way.
Delph was scythed down by Norwood but Hooper played the advantage as Everton moved the ball around until Sigurdsson's cross was headed out with Kean threatening, Norwood was then booked.
With 68% possession, the Blues were running through the gamut of plays, Sigurdsson putting it up n a good cross for Kean, headed wide. Bernard and Baldock, chasing a nothing ball, tussled Baldock pushing Bernard after the Brazilian had grappled but not elbowed him. Handbags and bookings ensued.
When they were actually playing football, the pattern of the game was well entrenched, Everton trying to advance down the right flank mainly but not making any impression despite massive amounts of possession, it ending up back at Pickford far too many times.
When they finally got forward, Digne got to the byeline but crossed straight at Henderson, and out for a corner that was worked around for a spectacular effort from Richarlison that was way off target.
A faster move led to a bobbling ball from Dige to Kean, and the most awful execution from the young Italian, hitting the Park End roof with his wayward shot. Bernard then won a corner with some tricky work, the 5th, with the same inadequate result, Kean penalized for pushing off a defender.
Each Everton attack frustratingly fizzled out for one reason or another, without really threatening the Blades goal, epitomised by Richarlison's overhit cross, but he did then win the 6th corner, which was defended effectively. Richarlison at the other end then gave Sheffield Utd their first corner, superbly delivered and past Pickford off Mina's shoulder. VAR confirmed.
Kean picked out Rcharlison with a fine cross that he should have buried but didn't and the miserable script of a frustrating game edged toward half-time with an air of painful inevitability, Everton losing at home, with that unwanted record of not being able to come back after conceding first in the Premier League.
A late chance came after Richarlison was fouled, Digne firing his free-kick into the wall before the half-time whistle blew.
The Blues resumed the acton... or more like inaction as the ball was cycled around in the Everton half with zero penetration, Richarlison eventually resorting to a strange cross-shot that flew away. Baldock again fouled Bernard but no penalty.
Everton were demonstrating with increasing certainty that they had absolutely no idea how to break down the resolute defensive wall the Blades had constructed, forcing Silva into thinking about (for him) early changes, as The Blades threatened from a corner. Tosun and Iwobi replaced Bernard and Schneiderlin. At least something different from Silva.
More of a threat now from two Sigurdsson corners, Kean being blocked by Henderson and then defended for two more corners (that's now 10!) as Everton piled on the pressure but could not create even half a chance. Tosun got behind the Blades defence but was a long way offside.
Richarlison was wiped out going for a 30/70 ball as Jagielka replaced Norwood, to an overly generous reception from the lovely Goodison faithful. Another blatant foul on Richarlison went uncalled (maybe it's the way he goes to ground?) as Everton kept huffing and puffing around the periphery of the Blades area.
As the changes had not really had that much effect, Silva's masterstroke was to bring on Theo Walcott with 20 minutes left, the increasingly ineffective Seamus Coleman going off.
To be fair, Walcott's first cross caused plenty of panic in the Blades defence but no clear chance on goal. Kean was again a victim of the physicality of the Premier League, going down easily and then getting trodden on with little sympathy extended from referee Hooper.
Kean then Tosun got close enough to get a sight of goal but desperate defence thwarted each attempt, with Kean volleying a shot that barely skimmed the top of the bar. At the other end, a corner for visitors was quickly cleared upfield as time ticked away relentlessly.
It was game over as Lundstrum set up a beautiful chance for Mousset that he slid expertly through Pickford's legs and into the Everton net. If the third goal given up at Bournemouth was bad, this was inconceivable.
Whatever happened in the rest of the game was inconsequential as the Blues faithful began to desert their seats and leave a hugely frustrated Goodison Park, with Pickford probably set to receive much of the blame for both goals conceded.
Everton are back at home this weekend hoping to use their Goodison Park fortress to get them back to winning ways against Sheffield United after last Sunday's huge disappointment at Bournemouth.
The Blues have now won six straight at home since March and will be hoping to see off the newly-promoted Blades and dispel some of the gloom that has set in after yet another failure in what was an eminently winnable game on the road.
Another three points at the Grand Old Lady would certainly help lift the mood but there's also a level of expectation that this talented but frustrating squad should win this one and that the real focus from the supporters' point of view is on the next two away games, at Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup on Tuesday, and then at Burnley on 5th October and the clash with Manchester City in between.
Not that this test against Sheffield United will be routine in any way. For one thing, Everton didn't really perform at their best in either of their two home wins so far this season, edging Watford and Wolves by single goals; Chris Wilder's Blades, meanwhile, will be no pushovers as Chelsea and Bournemouth found out when they hosted them last month.
A late Kurt Zouma own goal earned them a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge while Billy Sharp's goal at the Vitality Stadium, also scored in the 88th minute, secured a point on the opening day. They come into this weekend two points behind Everton having conceded a one goal fewer in their opening five games back in the Premier League.
Wilder has earned kudos at Bramall Lane for leading United out of the League One and then into the top flight, not with an archetypal lower-division emphasis on brawn and direct football but a complicated system that involves fluid fullbacks and overlapping centre-halves that will require some preparation on the part of Marco Silva and his staff.
Whether Phil Jagielka plays as one of those unorthodox attacking defenders on his return to Goodison remains to be seen. The veteran has started just one match for Sheffield since returning to the club from which Everton signed him in 2007, the Carabao Cup win over Blackburn last month, and unless injuries dictate otherwise, he will likely be on the bench.
John Lundstram, on the other hand, could well be in the starting XI, playing a senior match at Goodison Park for the first time after he left the Toffees for Oxford United four years ago. He has already scored his first Premier League goal for the Blades and he will surely be itching to add to his tally against the club that groomed him at the Finch Farm academy.
Silva won't be taking his team's home record for granted but he will also know that he has the quality at his disposal to see off a side that lost their last match at home to Southampton last weekend. The intriguing part of it will be whether he makes any significant changes in the wake of the debacle at Bournemouth or whether he waits until the game against United's city rivals Wednesday in the Cup.
Certainly, there has been a lengthy post-mortem on the defeat to the Cherries by Blues fans since Sunday, with questions being raised about everything from the team's set-piece defending, the strength of certain players' places in the team, and the need for the manager to start taking a more imaginative approach to a system that is failing to consistently deliver results.
Perhaps most prominent among the personnel-related dilemmas are Gyfli Sigurdsson, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, with the former struggling to create away from Goodison and the latter continuing to be a topic debate despite grabbing his first goal of the season last time out.
Sigurdsson's home form could see him keep his place this weekend and then sit out on Tuesday while the relative comfort of Goodison and the relative weakness on paper of the opposition might persuade Silva to reintroduce Moise Kean up front.
Morgan Schneiderlin's name has also come up for discussion in recent days, particularly given how Tom Davies appears to be out in the cold and the fact that André Gomes is unable to play because of a rib problem. There will be many who feel as though the young local lad is worth a shot in central midfield alongside the experienced head of Fabian Delph.
Regardless of what team the Portuguese does go for, the onus will be on Everton to take the game to Sheffield United and win it comfortably. Then Silva can switch focus to Hillsborough and a cup competition that has taken on added importance in the wake of the early stumbles in the league.
Kick-off: 3pm, Saturday, 21 September, 2019
Referee: Simon Hooper
Last Time: Everton 2-0 Sheffield United, October 2006
Predicted Line-up: Pickford, Coleman, Keane, Mina, Digne, Schneiderlin, Delph, Sigurdsson, Iwobi, Richarlison, Kean