It is rather telling about the rapid fashion in which Everton’s season has nosedived that a 2-0 home defeat provided fans with a modicum of optimism.
The Blues were far from perfect against Manchester City, and probably deserved to come away empty-handed from Goodison Park; one shot on target, a long-range drive from Idrissa Gueye aimed straight at goalkeeper Ederson would certainly suggest as much.
But after the gutless farce against Wolverhampton Wanderers the previous Saturday, Marco Silva’s side at least regained some credibility against the potential defending champions in the most diligent performance the Toffees had delivered in months.
Yet the positives from Wednesday only pale into significance when followed up with another listless showing, as an insipid Everton succumbed to a 1-0 defeat at Watford FC on Saturday.
Because, while Everton perhaps lacked ingenuity against City, they compensated for it with commitment and an unrelenting determination to fight for every ball. Jonjoe Kenny, having unseated the struggling Seamus Coleman at right-back, flew into every tackle as if his life depended on it, while Tom Davies provided far more energy in midfield, and proved far more successful in driving the Blues forward, than the lethargic Gylfi Sigurðsson has of late.
This should have set the benchmark for Silva, the moment when he woke up to the realisation that, while talent and ability are all well and good, the bare minimum he should expect from his Everton side is the sort of performance they put in on Wednesday. Ultimately, a disparity in quality was all that cost the Blues that night.
Question the players’ commitment over this dreadful winter spell of three wins in 14; you would probably be justified in doing so. But after Silva’s brave team selection against City paid dividends, at least as much it can in a 2-0 defeat, for him to revert to type in his first trip back to Vicarage Road bore the hallmarks of a man devoid of ideas.
Kenny and Davies, to Silva’s credit, deservedly kept their places against the Hornets. But quite why the Portuguese boss would choose to recall Sigurðsson and Cenk Tosun, the latter at the expense of the raw yet far more encouraging Dominic Calvert-Lewin, only he will know.
In the case of Sigurðsson, Silva has a player not befitting his preferred style of play, at least in the position he has often played him this term. The Iceland international’s ability on the ball is unquestionable; few of his colleagues would be capable of the sort of genius he conjured up to earn the Blues three points at Leicester City.
But a credible performance from Sigurðsson is becoming more and more of a collectors’ item; either the game simply passes him by, his end product is lacking, or he is just not quick enough to play inbetween the midfield and the lone striker.
Davies’ technical qualities may be incomparable to Sigurðsson, but he outshines Everton’s number ten in terms of tenacity and desire. Much as it may seem a baseless argument to claim a player in double figures for goals does not warrant his place in a struggling side, the Toffees ultimately look a more cohesive outfit currently when Sigurðsson is on the bench.
When Everton tweet their line-up an hour before kick-off, it is often presented in the form of a graphic, showing the formation in which the Blues are expected to play. That this weekend’s announcement not only came late, but without the usual visual representation, told the whole story. Having picked four midfielders in Sigurðsson, Davies, Gueye and André Gomes, Everton’s starting XI seemed confusing, imbalanced and ultimately wrong on paper, and so it transpired on grass.
To not only start Sigurðsson, but to then play the attacking midfielder out wide, defied logic. An experiment that failed time and again under Ronald Koeman and Sam Allardyce, nothing about the Icelander’s game suggests he is suited to occupying a place on the wing.
It is almost as if Silva would rather he played out of position than not play at all, and given Sigurðsson’s sparse contributions recently, there is little merit to this notion now more than ever.
It is a similar tale of woe with Tosun; an expensive failure whose rougher, more physical style of play is the antithesis of all that Silva desires from his forward. Should the manager survive until the summer, the man who cost the Blues £27 million only 13 months ago will surely be the next to go through the Goodison revolving door.
Tireless work rate aside, there is little to suggest the Turk merits his place over Calvert-Lewin, especially after the England under-21 international led the line so admirably against City. Again, he toiled against the Hornets, admittedly feeding on scraps at times but still, doing little to strike fear into a relatively untroubled Watford back line.
While the playing staff at Goodison deserve all the criticism aimed their way for Everton’s capitulation this season, this defeat lies primarily at the door of the manager.
Perhaps he was merely resting his star names against City, in the knowledge that Watford resembled a far more conceivable chance of victory. Either way, the signs on Wednesday were relatively encouraging, but it only renders his team selection on Saturday all the more inconceivable.
Silva deserves a stay of execution at least until the season’s conclusion, but after the improvement that Wednesday night brought, to then take another retrograde step in Hertfordshire will leave many wondering, now more than ever before, if this is a man too stubborn for his own good.