Everton may be five points and four places better off than Southampton going into Sunday’s game at St Mary’s, but the Toffees will head south as outsiders thanks to a woeful run of form that has eroded much of their early-season optimism.
Ronald Koeman’s side are still, somehow, seventh in the table despite a run of just one win in eight matches.
The malaise was triggered by that EFL Cup to Norwich in October and plunged to new depths against Swansea last weekend, where Everton were lucky to come away with a point thanks to Seamus Coleman’s late header.
It was a truly woeful display that dredged up bad memories from last season. Koeman may have tightened up Everton’s defence and made the team leaner and fitter. But their inability to inspire and break down determined opposition, especially at home, lingers on.
There were also a number of worrying individual displays. Phil Jagielka has looked uncomfortable for weeks and the clumsy penalty he gave away suggests he has lost that requisite yard of pace to cope in the top division.
With no Gareth Barry the midfield struggled to impose itself (Idrissa Gueye was solid, but not up to his high standards set earlier this campaign) while Koeman’s constant shuffling of under-performing forward players is becoming desperate.
Any combination of Yannick Bolaise, Ross Barkley, Aaron Lennon, Gerard Deulofeu, Kevin Mirallas and Tom Cleverley doesn’t seem to work; leaving Romelu Lukaku isolated.
I suspect at least three of those players do not have a long-term future on Merseyside.
As a result Goodison Park was an uncomfortable place for much of the game, as it has been for the past 18 months. Everton have won just six home games this calendar year so far after winning just five in 2015, making the supporters’ exasperation understandable.
Not that a chance to get away from Goodison this Sunday will make things any easier.
There is one very obvious reason why Sky Sports have chosen to broadcast this game live.
Koeman’s decision to leave Southampton for Everton in the summer left the Saints fans seething.
It gives the game an edge we could really do without, as the atmosphere from the home crowd will no doubt fire up the players. It’s hard not to go into this game with a sense of dread and fearing the worst.
It leaves the supporters (and no doubt Koeman himself) counting down the days until January and the chance to inject some fresh blood into an ailing squad.
Unfortunately there are seven more fixtures between now and the end of the year, meaning Koeman has to somehow rediscover that winning formula with his existing squad if the team aren’t to start 2017 in the bottom half of the table.
Southampton supporters are generally known as a reasonable bunch. They’ve endured their fair share of ups and downs in recent years but generally take the rough with the smooth and rarely cause trouble off the field – certainly when they have encountered Everton.
So that makes their continued fury towards Ronald Koeman all the more unusual.
The Saints fans are still seething, with the five ensuing months since Koeman jumped ship doing little to calm them down.
It’s not as if this is a new occurrence. Southampton regularly see their managers and key players move on. Thankfully for them the club is so well structured they continue to grow and even strengthen with each passing fire sale.
So why the anger with Koeman?
Well they feel as though they were misled over Koeman’s contract, with the Dutchman stating he would sign a new deal and criticising those who don’t fulfil contracts, before doing the same himself when Everton came calling.
They also feel it is a sideways step at best and one that has been made purely for cash.
Quite why Ronald Koeman, one of the game’s greatest ever players, would need the cash is anyone’s guess. So I feel that is a lazy argument to throw at him.
A sideways step? Well if you consider Southampton finished above Everton for the past two seasons then I can see their point. However, there is no denying that Everton are the bigger club with greater potential. While it can also be argued that Southampton are at their peak and have little room to grow.
Farhad Moshiri has sold Koeman a three-year vision that includes significant investment in the playing staff and a potential new stadium. His decision to head north is probably best judged in three years’ time.
Anyway, away from that nonsense and Southampton have, unsurprisingly, coped well with the departure of their manager.
Claude Puel, a relative unknown in England, has slotted into his new role with ease and has led the Saints with quiet authority.
Sadio Mane, Victor Wanyama and Graziano Pelle ensured the Saints exit door kept on spinning over the summer. But new recruits Nathan Redmond, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Sofiane Boufal have come in to replace them.
Redmond in particular has impressed along with January signing Charlie Austin. Meanwhile at the back Southampton possess one of the best defenders in the division in Virgil van Dijk as well as England international Fraser Forster, helping them concede just 12 league goals so far – the best record outside the top five.
They have also coped admirably with the Europa League this season and still have a chance of reaching the knockout stages, though they did suffer a setback with a 1-0 defeat at Sparta Prague on Thursday.
The Saints have won just once immediately after a European game this season, offering us a glimmer of hope.
To counter that Everton have a dreadful record on the south coast, with the 3-0 victory last season just their third win in 17 games since the formation of the Premier League.
Everton have Gareth Barry available after suspension and is expected to slot straight back into the midfield.
There are no fresh injury concerns, with Muhamed Besic, Matthew Pennington and Arouna Kone still out.
Southampton expect Dusan Tadic to be absent with a broken nose but hopeful Jose Fonte will recover from a foot injury.
As you can tell by this preview I am not feeling entirely optimistic about the side at present. The Swansea display was so dire it seems everyone, Koeman included, is simply waiting for January and writing off whatever happens in the coming weeks.
That thrown in with Southampton’s determination to put one over their old boss means things could get messy.
I head south in hope more than expectation.
Predicted starting XI: Stekelenburg, Baines, Funes Mori, Williams, Coleman, Barry, Gueye, Bolasie, Barkley, Mirallas, Lukaku.