All good things must come to an end — and with a miserable 2-0 loss to Norwich City in the EFL Cup on Tuesday, Everton’s roaring start to the season has run into a slight reality check.
Despite varying opinions on the value of the EFL Cup, the domestic tournament offered a possibility for two things Everton and its supporters are desperate for: silverware and a place in European competition. Perhaps the easiest path to both of those goals dissipated as Steven Naismith knocked his former club out of the competition at Goodison Park.
The FA Cup remains an option, of course, but Premier League clubs tend to take that competition more seriously than the EFL Cup, even in the early rounds. Given that Idrissa Gueye and Yannick Bolasie, Everton’s two star signings from the offseason, may potentially miss Everton’s first two matches in the competition while at the African Cup of Nations, it isn’t a competition that the Toffees should hang their hopes on.
That may limit the possibility of silverware, but a path to European competition, be it in the Europa League or the Champions League, still certainly remains.
But, if Ronald Koeman and Everton really want to make a push at a top-six position, the next six weeks of the Premier League season will be a defining moment.
It may seem a little premature to place that kind of pressure on matches in September and October, but the way the Premier League has taken shape so far this season makes the next two months crucial.
Take a look at Everton’s league matches between now and the end of October:
- September 24 - Bournemouth (A)
- September 30 - Crystal Palace (H)
- October 15 - Manchester City (A)
- October 22 - Burnley (A)
- October 30 - West Ham (H)
You can throw that Manchester City match out of consideration right off the top — with the way City is playing right now, Everton will be lucky to even get a point at the Etihad.
But, the rest of those matches are supremely winnable. Bournemouth has conceded nine goals and scored only three in the Premier League thus far; Crystal Palace is off to a good start, but seems to ultimately lack the talent to sustain their current form; Burnley is newly promoted and has only four points from its first five matches; and West Ham United was a trendy pick for top six this season, but just gave up four goals to a team managed by Tony Pulis - let that sink in for a second.
It is very reasonable to hope that the Toffees take 12 points from this stretch of matches, with at least 10 being required given the strength of schedule the team is facing. That would put the Toffees at 23-25 points through ten matches — a remarkable pace for a team that finished 11th in the table last season.
Occurrences elsewhere in the Premier League make this period even more important. Leicester City, Southampton, and West Ham, three clubs who broke the mold by earning spots in European competition last season, combine to have only 15 points in all, only two more than the Toffees have on their own right now.
By taking 12 points before November begins, Everton could conceivably put 10-15 points between themselves and the non-traditional powerhouses most likely to compete for European spots at the end of the season. Obviously, nothing is decided a quarter of the way into the season, but that would be a sizable advantage over clubs with clubs that, on paper, have equal to or lesser talent than Everton.
During that same period of time, Tottenham Hotspur will be without Harry Kane, who suffered an ankle injury against Sunderland over the weekend. This will put a significant strain on Mauricio Pochettino’s club, which relies on the English striker for a large portion of its goal-scoring. Vincent Janssen will likely replace the injured Kane, but may need time to fully acclimate to a starting role in the Premier League — during which, the Toffees could feasibly be accruing a lead on the London side.
Manchester United, another possible competitor for the European spots, has problems of its own. Jose Mourinho’s recent public criticisms of Luke Shaw have reportedly raised some alarm bells among United players, though apparently not among management at the club. Controversy aside, Mourinho clearly needs time to get control of the club and its players and convert them to his style of play, a transition that could take months still — and at this point, you may be beginning to see a trend among Everton’s competitors for European positions.
Five clubs that could easily have been considered competition for Everton’s dreams at the Europa League or Champions League next season — Tottenham, Manchester United, Leicester City, Southampton, and West Ham — all sit below the Toffees in the table after five matches, with many of them having serious issues to address before upward mobility becomes likely.
In the time it takes for those clubs to right the ship, the Toffees could easily hope to take 12 points from largely weak opposition, putting the team at 25 points through 10 matches — a pace that would have been thought to only exist in a dream before the season began.
But if Everton is to make the dream of European football next season a reality, the club must make that otherworldly pace come to life — before November and December bring tougher fixtures the Toffees’ way (for example, home to Manchester United, home to Arsenal, home to Liverpool, and at Leicester City, all of which occurs over the course of three and a half weeks).
There is reason for optimism before that time though, optimism that could see the Toffees take 25 points of 30 in the opening quarter of the season, while their competitors deal with significant issues that could build space between the Blues and the rest of their rivals for European football.