A diversion on the M6 meant many Evertonians took an unusual route to the Emirates Stadium to watch the Blues face Arsenal on Sunday. When they arrived, they witnessed their side follow the same well-trodden path at the ‘big six’ yet again, as goals from Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang condemned the Toffees to a 2-0 defeat.
This is the Gunners’ thirteenth season at the Emirates and in their fourteen visits to a ground where Swansea City (three times), Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers have all triumphed, Everton have won none of them.
While the Blues put in a vastly superior performance in North London to last Sunday’s dismal showing at home to West Ham United, the sense of missed opportunity at the final whistle was all too familiar. Unfortunately, Everton still do not know how to win these games.
For Marco Silva, now six Premier League games into his Everton career, the frustration only continues. After the first three matches, comprising draws away to Wolverhampton and Bournemouth, and a home win against Southampton, a case could be made for the Toffees sitting on maximum points.
Yet Everton are slumped on a mere six points after the same number of fixtures. Mitigating factors – namely a lengthy injury list and a couple of undeserving red cards – aside, this can only be labelled a poor start for Silva.
There was much to be enthused about by Everton’s performance on Sunday, particularly in the first period. In January 2014, during Roberto Martinez’s first season as manager, the Spaniard described his side’s first-half display at Arsenal the previous month as the best in the early days of his tenure, and there were clear comparisons today with that performance.
Against a team with a penchant for keeping the ball on the surface, Everton were not afraid to press the Gunners high up the pitch, spearheaded by the tenacious Idrissa Gueye, who scarcely put a foot wrong all game, unafraid to tackle all in sight.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who failed to stake a claim for first-choice striker having replaced the misfiring Cenk Tosun in the starting line-up, should have put them ahead inside two minutes, but keeper Petr Čech made the young forward pay for his indecision.
Calvert-Lewin could have either shot himself or square for Richarlison who, back from suspension, continually drove at the Arsenal defence and tested Cech on numerous occasions, while Theo Walcott fired straight at his old team-mate when put through on goal.
Until Arsenal broke the deadlock through Lacazette’s beautiful 56th-minute finish, Everton were inarguably the better side. At times, they outplayed Arsenal, just as they did on that December afternoon under Martinez.
But the Frenchman’s goal, and a second from Aubameyang soon after, caused the visitors’ resilience to dissipate, and the remaining half-hour became a non-event.
This was a far cry from the Blues’ meek surrender in a 5-1 thrashing to the same team in February, albeit it yielded the same empty return. But whereas a yawning chasm separated the two sides that day, the only difference on the pitch on Sunday was that Arsenal’s forwards took their chances when they came, and Everton’s did not.
Though this marked the first game in which Silva’s men failed to score this season, the striking crisis plaguing the club becames more painfully evident by the week. Tosun’s barren run, coupled with the profligacy of Calvert-Lewin and Oumar Niasse, will continue to cost the Toffees as dearly as they did today, unless a drastic change in fortune falls this trio’s way.
Quite how Silva will solve this growing issue – at least until the transfer window re-opens in January – is anyone’s guess, but it is a problem to which there is no obvious solution yet.
Further down the field, it seems the longer Barcelona signings Yerry Mina and André Gomes must wait for their Everton debuts, the better players they become.
A central defender as physically imposing as the 6ft 4in Mina may have the requisite attributes to nullify the monstrous Aleksandar Mitrović, the Premier League’s joint-leading scorer, when Fulham visit Goodison Park next Saturday, in a game Everton can now afford nothing less than a win from.
When Gomes eventually returns from a hamstring injury, he will hopefully provide the level of creativity in midfield that Everton so desperately need; the like of which Morgan Schneiderlin, Gueye and Tom Davies, despite their best efforts, have yet to provide.
Not only must Everton beat the Cottagers next weekend, but their trip to Leicester City on October 6 also suddenly bears the hallmarks of a ‘must-win’. Given consecutive visits to Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City await the Blues after this visit to the East Midlands, it is vital for Silva to pick up an elusive first away win of the season at the King Power Stadium, or else this could desert him until after Christmas.
Considering he won none of his nine away games as Hull manager in 2016/17, Silva will be well aware that the longer this monkey is on his back, the claims that he cannot set his teams up to win on the road in the Premier League will grow ever louder.
Silva is clearly a gifted manager; his romp to the Greek league title with Olympiakos and unparalleled success in his native Portugal at Estoril pays credence to that. There are plenty of viable excuses for his sluggish beginning and he warrants the opportunity to mould an Everton squad in his image.
Statistically, Ronald Koeman’s Blues received the toughest opening six games to last season; by contrast, Silva was handed, on paper, one of the easiest first half-dozen ties this time around. For Koeman to emerge one point superior only serves to emphasise the sheer gravity of the task lying before the Portuguese boss and his director of football, Marcel Brands.
It is entirely unfair to write Silva off after an admittedly underwhelming start, just as it was remiss to claim Koeman had transformed Everton after propelling them to third place in late September in his first campaign in the Goodison hot seat. That proved a false dawn, and so should Silva’s opening.
But good will towards any manager will only ever go so far when credible performances are not translated into tangible reward, and Sunday’s risible claims surfacing on social media that Silva should leave will, sadly, only amplify the longer this run continues.
These next two league games could be critical in shaping the destiny of his maiden season on Merseyside, and only maximum points will suffice.