Opening round FA Cup matches are usually pretty uninteresting affairs for Premier League teams.
Sure, every once in awhile you get a cracking first match-up, like Everton’s trip to Anfield last season — but for the most part, the matches look a lot like Saturday’s game against Lincoln City does.
Lower-tier opposition. Immediately after the bloated festive period. Guaranteed squad rotation.
Usually, those factors combine to create relatively limited intrigue. But given the current state of the Everton project, Saturday’s match represents a last chance — in more ways than one.
Marcel Brands has made clear that he believes the Everton squad remains too large, with a desire to trim the excess fat before making significant moves in the transfer market once again. It’s hard to disagree with the Dutchman, given how uncomfortable Marco Silva has seemed relying on his depth players — even during the Toffees’ league-worst, four games in ten days, festive period.
Surely then, a match against League-Two leaders Lincoln City will be a last chance for some of the Everton fringe players to prove themselves — or face the Brands’ Axe (patent pending).
The questions primarily revolve around the center of the midfield. Kieran Dowell is already out on loan in the Championship, leaving James McCarthy, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Tom Davies left to fight it out for the remaining spots in midfield.
The McCarthy-to-West Brom whispers are as loud as ever, and Schneiderlin has failed to make the matchday 18 a staggering 12 times in the Premier League this season. Both seem likely to start on Saturday, and both are pretty clearly down Silva’s pecking order.
With a good performance, either player could potentially work himself back into a more regular lineup discussion — or at least prolong the proving period. With struggles against an obviously inferior opponent, Silva and Brands would have more than adequate cause to part ways with a player that neither man has seemed particularly enthused with.
Tom Davies seems less likely to depart this January, but it seemed that Silva moved his team to a 3-4-3 during Idrissa Gueye’s absence in large part because he didn’t trust the young Englishman’s ability to replace Gana in the midfield. Based on his performance in Everton’s beating at the hand of Spurs, it’s hard to argue.
It’s tough to see Everton’s reported interest in multiple central midfielders — most recently Barcelona’s Denis Suarez — as a statement of intent that Davies isn’t good enough, even as a bench option.
He’s likely to feature against Lincoln City as well, potentially with one last chance to prove he can fill a meaningful role for the remainder of the season.
The proving ground isn’t contained to only the midfield though, as Cenk Tosun may well be running out of chances to stake a claim to a regular role at striker for Everton. Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin have both been preferred to the Turkish striker at times this season, who has been plagued by inconsistency.
It’s not hard to see any of Davies, McCarthy, Schneiderlin, or Tosun playing a big part for Everton in the second half of the season — but it’s not hard to see all but the first out of the club by the end of the month either.
The Lincoln City match remains the most obvious decider in that discussion.
For Marco Silva and the club as a whole too, Saturday’s match is a last chance of a different kind — in all likelihood, the first step of a last chance to take something tangible from this season.
Manchester United’s post-Mourinho form and Everton’s December swoon have combined to put the Toffees 11 points and five places in the table back from a top-six position, with the two clubs very obviously moving in opposite directions.
Only a break into the top six would have represented a clear move forward for the club in the league this season, and with hope for that fading fast, only the FA Cup remains if the Toffees want to make anything about the 2018-19 season memorable.
Everton hasn’t lost to lower-tier competition in FA Cup play since a 2010-11 loss to Reading, so there’s no reason to think the Toffees won’t get the expected result at Goodison Park on Saturday. But, given the club’s disappointing Carabao Cup exit at the hands of Southampton, a loss to Lincoln City would be a nail in the coffin of disappointment — leaving Silva in a nearly impossible position to try to take any positives away from the season.
So yes, the week of Premier League teams entering the FA Cup often feels like a flat, pre-determined charade done more out of tradition than genuine interest.
But make no mistake, this match is a last chance for several Everton players — and the club as a whole if there’s to be a substantially positive takeaway from the 2018-19 season.