Bouncing Evertonians, rampant optimism, Spirit of the Blues at the top of the iTunes charts, a feeling that “this time it’s different”… it feels like an age now but all of that was only a short month ago. Going into the last international break, with the new signings in full flow, that fantastic, goal-laden start and the knowledge that, in these weird times, Everton may never get a better chance to break into the top four than now, so much seemed possible this season.
We go into this pause for senseless international travel in the middle of a raging global pandemic without a win in four games and having to pick the pieces up following three straight defeats, with very little to draw from any of them by way of optimism… apart, perhaps, for the return of Richarlison.
Once again, it seems, a costly incident in a Merseyside derby has derailed a promising campaign but, despite all the continued investment in the squad and the appointment of a highly, demonstrably successful manager, it says something that the loss of one player can be so crippling to a team. When you look at the way that Everton so often play, however, it’s clear why the Brazilian’s pace in transition, his power, his directness and his goal threat are so vital and why the Blues struggle without him.
Because, despite the introduction of three potentially transformative midfield signings, this Everton team hasn’t actually played much football — in the modern sense of moving quickly between the lines, opening up passing lanes, and breaking teams down with intelligent interplay outside the box — since dismantling Brighton… and even then that victory, like the one against West Brom before it, was founded to a large degree on sheer intensity, deadly set-pieces and aerial superiority.
When that intensity is diminished by the loss of a key player in that regard and your chief playmaker is either absent himself or patently unfit, as James Rodriguez was at Southampton and again here against Manchester United, then this Everton side is blunted to a significant degree. Throw in a midfield that cedes large pockets of space to deadly players like Bruno Fernandes and a defence that is conceding goals at an average of more than two a game and you have the recipe for a rapidly unravelling top-six challenge.
Carlo Ancelotti’s biggest task moving forward is to figure out how to get this team playing effective attacking football that isn’t reliant on a couple of players or simply going direct. Because, while Everton’s only goal on the day, a nicely-taken effort by Bernard (who, for a half at least, played arguably his best football in an Everton jersey) did come from a route-one playbook, it’s not a tactic that consistently yields goals in the modern Premier League. Neither does an over-reliance on cross-field switch passes, diagonal balls and constantly moving the ball down the outside. At some point, you need to be able to pass your way through a stubborn defence and this team, like so many that have gone before it, is incapable of doing so with any regularity.
Everton’s flying start to 2020-21 may have been dented significantly by successive defeats to Southampton and Newcastle but all the attention coming into this game was on Manchester United, 15th in the table and coming off the back of a home loss to Arsenal and Champions League defeat to unfancied Istanbul Basaksehir that had many in the media proclaiming that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in the last-chance saloon.
The Norwegian had moaned about the fact that his club was forced to play in the early Saturday kick-off despite having travelled to Turkey on Wednesday but, even though seven of his players had also been in the starting XI in Istanbul, Solskjaer’s men looked fitter and sharper throughout than an Everton side that looked disjointed and ineffective for long periods and managed just one shot on target all game.
That was despite the return of James Rodriguez, Lucas Digne, Seamus Coleman and Mason Holgate who were among six changes Ancelotti made to his line-up, including the restoring of Jordan Pickford in goal despite Robin Olsen’s accomplished display against Newcastle. Unfortunately, Holgate’s inclusion after more than two months out with a toe injury looked premature as he turned in a rusty performance and Pickford almost blundered his way to the concession of a penalty.
In the early going, however, things looked positive. With the Toffees looking in purposeful mood and Bernard lively on the left flank, they fashioned the first chance of the game for Dominic Calvert-Lewin, a header off the Brazilian’s whipped ball that flew just over the bar in the sixth minute.
At the other end, Anthony Martial gave a warning of what was to come after a quarter of an hour when Fred found him with a hooked ball over the defence following a corner but he lashed a half-volley wide from a good position. And when a decidedly off-colour Coleman was robbed in his own half, Marcus Rashford sliced an effort onto the roof of Pickford’s net.
Everton made the breakthrough in the 19th minute, however, when Pickford launched a ball forward, Calvert-Lewin flicked it on and Bernard, showing the kind of single-mindedness that is so often lacking from his game, quickly drove towards the United penalty area, shaped to try a curler to David de Gea’s left before cutting a low shot inside the opposite upright.
It was a lead that the Blues failed to build on, though, and when United ruthlessly exploited the spaces left between Everton’s midfield and back four, they equalised just six minutes later. Cutting through the home side’s lines, they worked the ball to Luke Shaw and his cross found Fernandes in “acres” of space between Holgate and Michael Keane where he guided a header into the far corner of the goal.
Everton could — and probably should — have been back in front just a couple of minutes later but Digne went for goal rather than sliding the ball square to Calvert-Lewin in front of goal and rapped his shot off the outside of the post.
Five minutes after that, the visitors took the lead for good. Once again, the space down Everton’s right flank was exploited where Fernandes clipped a ball across, searching out Rashford, but the striker didn’t even need to get a touch on the Portuguese’s cross as it curled in off the woodwork with Pickford helpless to prevent it.
Despite their urgency, which increased when Alex Iwobi came on for Gylfi Sigurdsson, who had done nothing to enhance his claims for a permanent place in the side, Everton barely laid a proverbial glove on United for the remaining hour or so of the contest. Rodriguez was cutting an isolated and largely ineffective figure out on the right flank and wasn’t able to influence things much more once he began swapping flanks or playing more centrally before he asked to come off with 10 minutes remaining.
Instead, the only meaningful chance, before Edinson Cavani wrapped things up in stoppage time with a goal on the counter-attack as the Blues chased an equaliser, fell to Rashford but Pickford denied him with an out-stretched leg.
That came 12 minutes after the goalkeeper had dropped another seemingly routine catch near his goal and caught Maguire on the follow-through as he wildly tried to hack the ball away from danger. Thankfully, Video Assistant Referee, Michael Oliver, who might have seen a push on the keeper by the England defender, recommended no action be taken but it was another episode to add to Pickford’s long list of questionable moments and one where, despite Maguire’s hand on his chest, as a top-class goalkeeper he had to be stronger and better.
In the aftermath of a defeat that destroyed the last vestiges of that early-season euphoria, Ancelotti bemoaned his side’s defending and resolved to address that weakness in his team and that is now a priority that will likely make for a reversion to the kind of conservatism he displayed at St James’s Park.
But, like the two losses that came before, this was as much about Everton’s attacking limitations as their defensive frailties and the return of Richarlison will only go so far to remedying them. Without wishing to fall into the trap of lauding the current flavours of the month, it’s hard not to look at what Ralph Hasenhuttl is doing at St Mary’s — on paper, you wouldn’t swap any of Everton’s midfield for Southampton’s but they play energetic, effective passing football in a way that Ancelotti’s team just doesn’t — or the savvy recruitment at Leicester that has built a young, dangerous team that also plays fast, effective football, and wonder whether the Blues’ early-season form was just a mirage.
What those clubs are demonstrating, though, is what can be achieved by proper coaching and, as he approaches his anniversary in charge at Everton, the question of whether Ancelotti is the chequebook manager, capable only of putting the gloss on an already great team, that many have accused him of being, or is genuinely an elite-level coach, will be answered. The Italian has effected a good deal of positive change since replacing Marco Silva but there is clearly a long way still to go.
It didn’t help that he felt the only striking option off the bench was mediocrity personified in Cenk Tosun rather than Ellis Simms but the resolution of this latest crisis of confidence at Goodison — one that leaves you wondering how the names and faces can change over the years yet the same mentality and failings persist — can’t simply be to look to the January transfer window; at some point, you have to get the best out of what is still a collection of very good players (at least individually) and play yourself back to form.
Richarlison returning will help but it can’t just be about him.
Everton were back at Goodison Park after successive fixtures on the road to host Manchester United and their under-fire manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the early Saturday kick-off. But, despite leading through a nice Bernard goal, the absence of Richarlison was a crucial factor in the end.
Holgate, James, Bernard and Sigurdsson start. Pickford resumes in goal, as expected. Richarlison serves the last game of his 3-match suspension watching from the sidelines.
The Blues were pushed back from the kick-off but defended the threat calmly. But it was something of a portent as the Blues struggled to stay on the ball in the early moves, which were far too much in one direction only.
But suddenly a fantastic move was created brilliantly by James with an amazing ball to Digne, with Bernard's cross catching a little too much of Calvert-Lewin's head and curling over the bar to hit the station behind. Everton then won the first corner but Sigurdsson could only find the first man as he tried to keep it low... it was too low.
And Everton then looked miles the better team, with some fine inter-passing around the area, just the final ball not materializing. More nice play but James overhit his deep cross to Digne.
A Fernandes shot spun behind off Sigurdsson to provide the first corner for Man Utd corner and Martial almost scored in the third phase, then a floater into the sun had Pickford backpedalling. At the other end, Rodriguez's range-finder was still a little out of calibration as a cross-field ball for Bernard went behind.
Calvert-Lewin headed on a deep punt from Pickford, nicely to Bernard who picked his spot perfectly to squeeze a daisy-cuutter just inside De Gea's post.. Route One!
The injection of confidence to the Everton players was palpable, even though the visitors tried to respond, Rashford firing a cross-shot well wide. But they could do nothing to stop a fine header y Fernandes after a slow but very deliberate play, neither Keane, Holgate or Pickford could do anything about it.
Coleman was upended by Shaw but Utd defended James's decent delivery away and they roared up left-wing, Pickford gathering the low cross. A fine piece of action from Digne saw him fire at goal when he would really have crossed for CL who was better positioned.
Bernard spun off after a lovely exchange with Calvert-Lewin and ran in the channel only to see the ball snapped away off his shooting foot. Keane was slightly too strong on Fernandes, giving away a dangerous free-kick to the Red Devils that was driven over the wall to Pickford.
Man Utd were then allowed to repeat the move and score their second, although it was Ferenes's cross that was allowed to drift all the way in... surely a dreadful Pickford mistake.
Holgate went in a little heavy on Martial for a yellow card. Martial got behind and had a shot on Pickford but was then flagged offside. Blues were now looking very ragged and unable to put their foot on the ball. Everton were in full sideways and backwards passing mode, Calvert-Lewin giving it away when it did go forward.
Coleman caught Fernandes in a fairly clumsy clash, and he appeared to be injured but came back on after treatment. Keane then caught Martial in the face with his knee as they both went for an aerial ball.
Fred caught Calvert-Lewin to set u a good free-kick opportunity in added time, but it was Shaw who headed away Sigurdsson's delivery, and an Everton man got himself offside in the next phase.
Calvert-Lewin got double-teamed somewhat unfairly, Rodriguez uncharacteristically then went in late on Fernandes, then Allan caught Fred for a yellow card as Everton finished the half in angry frustration, unable to control the game.
After the restart, a nice set-up for Doucoured was blocked, while James was clipped strongly, Calvert-Lewin did very well to field a deep direct punt and carry it forward only to be fouled. But the execution of the free-kick by Sigurdsson was lazy, weak and ineffective.
Fred took a nasty piece out of Sigurdsson and received a yellow card for it.
Everton laboured to create much and when they did with Calvert-Lewin crossing for JR, Maguire anticipated it and blocked the Columbian effectively.
Coleman scampered through the channel but could not dig out a shot. Sigurdsson too aggressively pushed Fernades to give up another very dangerous opportunity from the free-kick that Pickford drops as he's going behind and Maguire gets cleaned out by Pickford and Keane simultaneously as he knees it over the bar. Surely a penalty? But amazingly not...
At the other end, Digne was cleaned out in a poor challenge by Maguire on an offside play that should also have been a penalty. The game had basically turned very scrappy and fractious since the restart, and Iwobi came on for Sigurdsson after 66 minutes.
Rashford beat the offside, and lashed his shot at Pickford, who later had to come out and pounce on a loose ball. At the other end, Iwobi was getting involved, as usual, but not really making anything happen, as usual. Holgate pulled off an important block of Matta's shot.
Iwobi finally put in a decent cross for Calvert-Lewin but Maguire in front of him claimed it all the way. From the corner, Maguire defending out to Bernard whose dreadful effort flew well away from the goal.
Calvert-Lewin did well to win a corner, taken short and ultimately defended away. Cenk Tosun was sent on in place of James Rodriguez who had become less and less effective as the game wore on.
Iwobi did well to rob ___ and work the ball up to Bernard but his cross was hopeless. Coleman did well to draw a challenge from Fred that was deemed worthy of a yellow card. A better ball in from Digne from the set-piece but Maguire again underneath to head it away.
Tosun got booked for a foul, as a couple of borderline incidents in the Everton penalty area warranted VAAR review, both accepting of Tierney's onfield decisions. But Everton ad done remarkably little to affect the scoreline in the second half. Doucoure bundling McTominay over for another yellow card near the end, Fernades trying to beat Pickford from 30 yards on the free-kick.
A surgical move down the right from Man Utd saw ____ fire straight at Pickford. Everton had one last attempt at working it around the Man Utd area, Doucoure leaning back and scooping one for a fine drop goal... oh, wait a minute.
A late chance fell to Doucouré, who could not convert, allowing Man Utd to counter with Cavani completing the move to really hammer home a shockingly poor result for Everton and Carlo Ancelotti.
With hardly any meaningful attempts on De Gea's goal, it really was a sorry performance from the Blues and one to prove, as if it was necessary that the early season winning start was something approaching a complete fluke.
Scorersf: Bernard (19'); Fernandes (25', 32'), Cavani (90+4')
Everton: Pickford, Digne, Holgate, Keane, Coleman, Bernard, Allan, Doucoure, James (80' Tosun), Sigurdsson (66' Iwobi), Calvert-Lewin.
Subs not Used: Olsen, Mina, Gomes, Godfrey, Davies.
Subs: Henderson, Pogba, Cavani, James, Matic, van de Beek, Tuanzebe.
Referee: Paul Tierney
VAR: Michael Oliver
Everton are back at Goodison Park after successive fixtures on the road as they host Manchester United in the early Saturday kick-off.
It's a game that has taken on huge importance for both sides — Everton's 100% start to 2020-21 has collapsed over the past three games, with a spirited derby draw giving way to two depressing results at Southampton and Newcastle.
United, meanwhile, have endured a wildly erratic start to the campaign, losing 6-1 at home to Tottenham, but then dismantling Newcastle in a way that the Blues didn't even attempt, beating both Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig before losing back-to-back games to Arsenal and Istanbul Basaksehir in the Champions League.
The upshot is that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer comes to Goodison with his job apparently hanging by a thread; certainly, the media drumbeat has been getting louder with each setback and it is at the point now where it is expected that, with former Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino still available, Ed Woodward will pull the proverbial trigger if his side loses this weekend and end the Norwegian's tenure.
If the talk around Everton has centred around squad depth over the past fortnight, there is good news for Carlo Ancelotti on that score with the news that James Rodriguez and Seamus Coleman are available again following injury and Mason Holgate has now recovered from the toe problem that has kept him out of all of the Toffees' games so far this season.
Lucas Digne returns from a one-game ban, of course, but Richarlison serves the final match of his suspension and Fabian Delph has a minor niggle that will sideline him this weekend. André Gomes, meanwhile, appears to have shaken off the knock he picked up at St James's Park and Ben Godfrey is over a slight hamstring strain.
"We have practically all the squad available apart from Richarlison, Gbamin and Fabian Delph, who had a little problem yesterday,” Ancelotti said in his pre-match press conference. “He will be out for just a few days. All the others are available.
"James says he is 100 per cent. I have some doubts about this but physically he is okay. He has recovered from the little problem he had.
"If there was a chance of putting him in risk [of injury] by playing, we wouldn't play him. He is going to play tomorrow and he is going to do his best.
"It is important not only to have James, but to have Coleman, Digne and Holgate back.
"It is not easy to select the back four who are going to start tomorrow, but it is important to have these players — they are experienced players, quality players. We can have a better squad, a better team [with them available]."
The manager will, indeed, have some tough choices to make, particularly in defence where he will have to weigh the team's recent defensive frailties — and, in particular, Yerry Mina's form — against Holgate's lack of match fitness.
In midfield, with James fit — huge news to a side that has looked bereft of imagination in his absence — there is no chance of a repeat of the bizarre line-up the Italian selected last week against the Magpies but he still has to find a solution to Richarlison's absence on the opposite flank and he appears to have little faith in any of Alex Iwobi, Bernard or Anthony Gordon.
With Gylfi Sigurdsson being awarded the captain's armband in Coleman's absence and the manager generally singing the Icelander's praises despite his middling form, it's likely that he will get the nod for one of the places in midfield alongside Abdoulaye Doucouré and Allan and unless the final spot goes to one of the afore-mentioned un-fancied trio, it would place the onus for creativity squarely on the shoulders of Rodriguez whom Solskjaer will almost certainly target for special attention.
On their day, United, with the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, can be as good as anyone but their defensive vulnerabilities have been an Achilles heel so far this season, as has what the pundits perceive to be a lack of cohesion and direction in their ranks.
These two sides played out a controversial draw prior to lockdown, one which Everton thought they had won with a dramatic late goal, only for referee Chris Kavanagh and Video Assistant Referee Jon Moss to rule it out for offside against a prone Sigurdsson.
This one could be equally hard to call, with two teams lacking confidence meeting in a match both will feel they must win to help get their respective seasons back on an even keel.
Kick-off: 12:30pm, Saturday 7 November 2020
UK TV: BT Sport 1 from 11:30 am
Referee: Paul Tierney
VAR: Michael Oliver
Last Time: Everton 1 - 1 Manchester United
Predicted Line-up: Pickford, Coleman, Keane, Holgate, Digne, Allan, Doucouré, Sigurdsson, Rodriguez, Iwobi, Calvert-Lewin