As countless Evertonians left Goodison Park prematurely yesterday, numbed almost as much as those in blue on the pitch, a familiar, inescapable feeling of dread permeated throughout the ground.
In a season where Everton have, at times, shown great promise and improvement under their new boss Marco Silva, the 6-2 drubbing at home to Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday highlighted the chasm that remains between where the Blues currently are and where they want to be. So far at least, it has been another bleak midwinter for Everton.
It had all started so positively; Spurs may have had the better chances in the opening exchanges, but Everton looked more than capable of holding their own against comfortably one of the best sides in England.
Theo Walcott’s opener on 21 minutes was just reward for the hosts’ start, but both the nature and speed of Everton’s subsequent unravelling made for painful viewing.
Within the following six minutes, Dominic Calvert-Lewin had a goal harshly ruled out for the slightest of pushes on centre-back Davinson Sánchez, before Son Heung-min capitalised on a calamitous mix-up between Jordan Pickford and Kurt Zouma to equalise. A game where the Toffees could easily have been enjoying breathing space was suddenly back on level terms.
From then on, Everton caved. There was no response from Silva’s men, still dumbstruck by the injustice of Calvert-Lewin’s disallowed header and the sheer incompetence which led to Spurs’ leveller.
As the visitors went on to steamroll Everton, it only served to emphasise the fragility of the squad at Silva’s disposal. Take only one component out of it - such as the instrumental midfielder Idrissa Gueye, absent through injury on Sunday - and the Blues collapse like a Jenga block that has had a piece taken out of it.
In reality, a sense of dread had emanated from the moment Silva’s teamsheet surfaced. In trying to counteract an imposing, electrifying Spurs midfield, with André Gomes and Tom Davies, and later the one-paced Morgan Schneiderlin, Everton were bypassed time and again in the centre of the park. Without Gueye’s steel, the Blues looked a soft touch in that department.
It was made all the more galling by the sight of the towering Moussa Sissoko, derided by many for years, dicate the play almost single-handedly in midfield. Many Evertonians baulked when Ronald Koeman attempted to sign him in the summer of 2016, yet he looked yesterday the sort of player Silva is crying out for.
Having often waited to be beaten by the ‘top six’ under Koeman and Sam Allardyce last year, Silva has already made it clear in trips to Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and both Manchester clubs this season that his Everton will play to win, or at least to attack.
On Sunday, though, the Blues’ balance was patently lop-sided; whether that was because the manager felt that, as the home side, it is his team’s duty to force the issue, only Silva will know, but it proved incredibly naive to try and fight fire with fire against such a potent outfit. With their respective squads, Everton are nowhere near good enough to succeed against Spurs with such cavalier tactics.
Take nothing away from Tottenham; they fully merited such an emphatic victory and outplayed the hosts for almost the entirety of the match. With a settled defence, a powerful midfield and a potent strike force, they are everything Everton fans should want their side to be.
With every Spurs goal, the shell-shocked Toffees seemed to only retreat further. Seamus Coleman and Zouma, both mercilessly bullied by Son and Harry Kane all afternoon, were particularly guilty of backwards passes to goalkeeper Pickford, who likewise is enduring a sticky spell, and was fortunate to escape unpunished after a questionable challenge on Dele Alli yesterday.
The collective groans around Goodison Park told its own story; at times, it bore all the hallmarks of an Everton performance in the final days of Roberto Martínez, while the dramatic nature of the Blues’ collapse felt a carbon copy of Koeman’s final game in charge, the 5-2 home defeat to Arsenal, which the Toffees also took the lead in.
Pickford’s place will not be under threat; he remains an excellent goalkeeper and has rarely let the Blues down in his 18 months at the club.
But with his costly decision to get involved in the play for Son’s goal, just as with his needless action to keep an aimless ball in play at Anfield, it is clear that England’s number one is going through his worst spell yet.
There is an obvious self-confidence about Pickford, which no Evertonian would want him to rid himself of, but when that manifests itself in a desire to involve himself in the play when he is not needed, it is costing Everton, just as it did for Son’s first goal on Sunday and in the derby.
It is one of few goalkeeping shortcomings of Pickford’s, but he must learn to strike a better balance between self-belief and over-enthusiasm to improve further.
In the case of Coleman and Zouma, though, the picture looks murkier. Coleman is enduring his worst season as an Everton player and, now 30, looks to be on a downward trajectory as a footballer. Teams are now doubling up on him in the knowledge that he is one of the Blues’ easier targets, just as Spurs did to such devastating effect on Sunday.
He is struggling horribly, and with 21-year-old Jonjoe Kenny the right-back’s only real competition, Silva and director of football Marcel Brands must at least attempt to recruit reinforcements in this area in January, to spark the Irishman into life if nothing else.
Zouma was deservedly recalled at Yerry Mina’s expense for the Spurs game, with Mina delivering easily his worst performance in his embryonic career in the previous match, a 3-1 defeat at Man City.
Yet when the Frenchman then delivers his own worst showing in a royal blue shirt, it leaves Silva with a headache ahead of the Boxing Day trip to Burnley. What once looked a nice problem for the manager to have is slowly turning into a nightmare, and despite the Clarets being embroiled in a relegation battle, their physicality will make for a tough afternoon for whoever lines up in central defence for the Toffees on Wednesday.
The first half of Silva’s maiden season at Goodison concludes at Turf Moor, and despite Everton being, remarkably, one point worse off than at this stage under Koeman and Allardyce last year, the level of improvement is immeasurable.
The Blues are undeniably in a far better place this Christmas than 12 months ago, and nobody who has watched them regularly under Silva would have you believe that the Spurs capitulation was representative of their campaign so far.
But the most recent bruising low of 2018/19 serves as a wake-up call of the enormity of the job the Portuguese manager has taken on.
The Blues still look traumatised by Divock Origi’s last-gasp winner which deprived Everton of a deserved point at league leaders Liverpool three weeks ago. Despite such a harrowing setback, the absence of any sort of reaction since then has been deeply alarming, and it is Silva’s job to rectify that in the upcoming trips to Burnley and Brighton & Hove Albion.
This is not uncharted territory for Silva, either; his Hull side shipped seven against Spurs in May 2017, and Watford were beaten 6-0 by Manchester City during his tenure, with both hammerings also coming at home.
The Hornets followed up that humiliation by taking seven points from their next three games. A similar reaction from Everton is now a necessity to prevent a campaign that looked so bright only a month ago from further derailing.
In a week dominated by tedious squabbles about the capacity of Everton’s new stadium, this was a timely reminder that what matters on the pitch is infinitely more important, and no side has exposed the size of the disparity between the top six and the Blues more brutally than Spurs on Sunday.