Half an hour left at the Etihad Stadium and Ronald Koeman decided it was time to make a point. Which, coincidentally, would be exactly what Everton left with, despite being on course to take all three at that juncture.
On a bizarrely foggy Monday night in August 2017, Everton’s game plan against future centurions Manchester City had looked foolproof. The back three blocked, booted and intercepted all that came their way, 20-year-old Dominic Calvert-Lewin led the line with the conviction of a veteran, and a trademark Wayne Rooney finish even gave the Blues a first-half lead. Hairy moments arrived, of course they did; but storms were weathered, and in all honesty, Pep Guardiola’s ten-man side were hardly hemming their visitors in, pummelling them mercilessly into submission. Comfortable may be a stretch, but it was at least manageable for Everton.
Then came the moment Koeman decided to indulge himself in his lavish new asset, sacrificing Tom Davies’ infectious dynamism to allow Gylfi Sigurðsson, Everton’s record signing at £45 million from Swansea City, to make his debut. Protracted negotiations had led Swansea to leave Sigurðsson out of their pre-season tour of America, meaning he arrived at Goodison Park in the week prior to the City game patently unfit, but to hell with that - if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
Talented? Undoubtedly. But ready? Far from it. Handicapped by being deployed as a makeshift left-winger, rather than in his natural habitat of attacking midfielder, the introduction of an understandably lethargic Sigurðsson coincided with an upturn in pressure from City. Suddenly, it became impossible for Everton to stem the flow, and Raheem Sterling’s late equaliser forced Koeman to settle for a point; obviously a credible result, but one which may well have been more had he resisted his feverish excitement over Sigurðsson like a giddy child opening presents on Christmas Eve, as high on sugar as low on patience.
When Sigurðsson looks back on his Everton career, he may consider his Blues bow a forewarning for what was to come. The game time has, naturally, increased; whether under Koeman, David Unsworth, Sam Allardyce or Marco Silva, the Icelander’s presence on the pitch has been constant. But though there is an endless amount of statistics that could fly in the face of this argument, it’s hard to say the same about his impact.
It shouldn’t be, that’s for sure. He’s undeniably a hard worker, for one thing; the season before Sigurðsson joined Everton, the 433km he ran in Swansea white was bettered by no other Premier League player, and last year, none of his team-mates exceeded his 401km. Not to mention his goal return - despite not even being a forward, only Romelu Lukaku and Louis Saha, both traditional number nines, have surpassed his 2018-19 tally of 14 for Everton in the last decade.
The trouble with Sigurðsson, as has been the case almost entirely this season, isn’t the things he does, but the things he doesn’t do. The amount of ground he covers is admirable, particularly given his lack of pace, but unlike more traditional number tens, his more languid game means he can’t bust lungs around the pitch in order to facilitate the links between attack and midfield. Trapped and isolated in the confines of his own halfway house, he conveys the loneliness of the long-distance runner better than Tom Courtenay ever could.
And while not only the quantity, but the quality of his goals - stunners at Southampton and Leicester City, and at home to Swansea spring to mind - are again impressive, these fleeting reminders of his ability to conjure something from nothing only leave you yearning for more from Sigurðsson once the strobe light and haze fades away. When £45 million is spent on you - more money than that club has ever parted with for a footballer - and when the manager who signs you labels you one of the best in your position in the Premier League, having spent all summer overtly courting you to the point of infatuation, Everton could be forgiven for expecting something a bit more sustainable than a few bursts of wizardry.
Of course, this is fine for perennial strugglers like Swansea, where spells of possession were fewer and further between (once the manual for The Swansea Way™ was misplaced down the back of the sofa, anyway). There, such was the mere potential for his influence, even if in short, sharp shocks ready-made for YouTube show reels, that he became integral to the Swans; indeed, they were relegated in their first season after his departure.
But at Everton, with loftier ambitions and more opportunities to weave his magic with the ball at his feet, the onus has rightly been on him to enhance his skill set; to find a happy medium, perhaps, rather than the wild fluctuations between dominating games one week and disappearing the next. For all of his moments of individual brilliance at Everton, it has been a challenge in itself to ascertain which system suits him best; definitely not the more methodical, soporific tactics of Koeman and Allardyce, and probably not even Silva’s more high-octane style.
He is a victim of circumstance, too, with Everton having floundered for much of his time on Merseyside, now languishing in the relegation zone, scurrying around all the while to rediscover their identity. In truth, the last time they really had this, at least from an attacking sense, was with Ross Barkley; though not without his flaws, Barkley at his best was capable of driving Everton forward single-handedly with uncompromising abandon, piercing defences right at their heart with fatal through balls to his accomplice, Lukaku.
Though Barkley’s lack of consistency both with fitness and performance since moving to Chelsea in January 2018 means he is not one of them, these qualities of his are also where the gold standard of Premier League attacking midfielders thrive the most. Think Christian Eriksen’s partnership with Harry Kane, at least before Tottenham self-immolated. Though executed in a more effortless fashion with incomparable prowess, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne have a similar understanding with Manchester City’s front line. Even look at the way James Maddison and Jamie Vardy are dovetailing seamlessly for Leicester.
Sigurðsson, by comparison, too often meanders through fixtures, lacking that same vigour and urgency to make a similar imprint on them, at least from open play (eight of his 13 assists for Swansea in his final season at the Liberty Stadium came from set-pieces; he managed just six from open play last term). It feels as though, nowadays, Evertonians look to Sigurðsson in hope of another of his game-changing moments of sheer quality, rather than in expectancy of him to grab a stranglehold on matches like these leading lights.
When Barkley and Lukaku left, so too did Everton’s blueprint. Incomings like Sigurðsson, Rooney, Calvert-Lewin, Davy Klaassen and Cenk Tosun all represented accomplished footballers to varying degrees, but have been used in the most nebulous, dysfunctional setups running entirely counter to that which served Everton so well previously. Personnel will change, managers and players will come and go; systems don’t have to. Not the useful ones, anyway.
You could also argue that Sigurðsson has been hampered by transition; in his time at Everton, he has worked under four managers and has served behind Calvert-Lewin, Rooney, Tosun, Oumar Niasse, Moise Kean, Richarlison and Sandro Ramírez (remember him?) without really playing long enough with any of them continually to form similarly profitable pairings. But for all of his attributes, he is often left caught between two stools - unlikely to be as proficient playing deeper in midfield as someone like André Gomes, yet too passive and inconsistent at bringing team-mates into play and threading through killer passes to be considered an archetypal number ten.
It leaves you wondering whether class, rather than form, has reserved Sigurðsson’s name in Everton’s starting line-up since he joined. As alluded to earlier, Koeman often shoe-horned him out wide to accommodate more of his gaudy new toys, namely superfluous number tens in Klaassen and Rooney, often at the expense of more natural wingers such as the raw yet unquestionably gifted Ademola Lookman. Allardyce’s ill-fated tenure later that season continued in a similar vein, and though he has only once played on the flanks since Silva’s arrival (in a 1-0 loss at Watford in February), such is the extent to which Sigurðsson has toiled this season that it makes you question just how the manager can justify starting him in all eight league games this campaign.
It’s as if Sigurðsson must play, through both his penchant for the spectacular and for the price tag and fanfare he rode in to Goodison on - because if all else fails, our biggest signing could always pop up with another 25-yard pearler and save our skins again. Football isn’t like that, though; as thrilling and transcendent as these moments may be, they don’t lay the foundations for longer-term success. One week’s man of the match could be next week’s whipping boy just as easily.
But in the manager’s head, he is the prize possession, the poster boy of this gilded new epoch at Everton. Yet in reality, at least of late, it’s merely amounted to the most unflattering display of excessive wealth; the most striking symbol of the discordant attack Silva has plumped for and, aside from the arbitrary selection of either Calvert-Lewin or Kean up top, refuses to veer from. And despite Everton mustering a paltry six league goals thus far, Silva would seemingly rather relinquish his job trying to prove the growing number of doubters wrong than pre-empt his sacking yet have them be proved right.
Aside from anything else, though, Sigurðsson turned 30 last month. And while too many cheaply use this turn of the decade to sound the tolling bell on a footballer’s career these days, a strategy for life after Gylfi must soon be devised by the Everton hierarchy, if not already. Silva probably knows this, given his unsuccessful summer pursuit of Watford’s Abdoulaye Doucouré, 26, a deeper midfielder but far more forceful and assertive on the pitch than Sigurðsson. But with the manager’s seat searing hot after an abject beginning to his second season, he would be wise to entertain this approach in the immediate future, not just the long-term.
For too long, Silva, like his predecessors, has been guilty of extreme over-reliance on Sigurðsson, without garnering the return from the player himself to justify it. Now, continuing to turn to his team’s most expensive player in the throes of this wretched run could prove to be his most expensive mistake.