In a miserable afternoon of football, Everton fell to a shock 2-1 defeat against Newcastle.
The Toffees blew the chance to return to the top of the table up at St. James’ Park. A win would have seen them leapfrog rivals Liverpool but as they fell rather meekly away to Newcastle, they remain in second place and could even be overtaken by Leicester or Leeds, depending on the outcome of Monday Night Football.
But what happened to an Everton side that had begun the season in such superb fashion? Why couldn’t they shake the hangover from losing 2-0 to Southampton?
Obviously one could talk about the structure of the side, how they didn’t use width anywhere near well enough to create chances for Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Their consolation goal came from working the wide areas with a genuine winger and, alright, Alex Iwobi’s cross took a lucky deflection but had they stayed narrow then even that chance would have never come.
In fact moments after Iwobi’s goal, Bernard forced a great save from Karl Darlow with a mis-hit cross from the left. Another chance that wouldn’t have come earlier in the game because neither Bernard or Iwobi started the game.
Yes, Carlo Ancelotti’s answer to his selection dilemmas (more on that in a second) was to pack the midfield with as many players as possible. Everton began the game with five men in central zones, and none of them were truly elite passers (and, in fact, four of them could best be classified as defensive midfielders).
Given these absences, ball progression from midfield was stoic at best and, given the lack of wide players, the production from out wide was low quality too. Everton sent in 21 crosses but how many were dangerous before Iwobi’s late on? All game prior to that Newcastle easily sat deep and repelled attacks; Federico Fernandez ended the game with 10 clearances. 10!
Of course, the main reason for all of these issues was the absence of three of Everton’s four great players. James Rodriguez missed the game through injury, whilst Richarlison and Lucas Digne were suspended. Hell even Seamus Coleman was absent.
That’s all four of Everton’s starting wide players, and James and Digne in particular are so crucial in all of Everton’s creativity that without them The Toffees were a wasteland to watch. There was just nothing.
This is partly one of the issues with Carlo Ancelotti: he’s never been a coach to fix problems. He’s exceptional at taking a working system, keeping people happy and getting everyone rolling in the right direction. That’s what he did with Everton and why, when the Toffees were at full-strength they looked genuinely imperious.
But when setbacks occur, Ancelotti doesn’t have the capability to adjust – as seen today when he just rammed the midfield full of defenders. What exactly was he hoping would happen? He didn’t exactly have the wing-backs to attack and make use of such defensive cover. Had he stated Iwobi and Bernard as wing-backs or something, that would have been interesting. But no, Carlo’s solution was much less adventurous.
The one positive for the Toffees was the performance of Robin Olsen in goal. The Swede was dominant in his area, making big saves when called upon – his 1v1 stop from Allan Saint-Maximin was a thriller – and regardless of Ancelotti’s comments it’s going to be hard to take him out of the XI next week. A full-strength Everton side with Olsen in goal could be genuinely different gravy.
Everton have fantastic potential when everyone is fit, but ultimately their squad is too thin and their manager too unambitious to make them a genuine threat across a 38-game marathon. They will thrill and delight us in sprints, and don’t rule out a cup run, but this game showed us why they’re still a way off challenging for the Premier League.