Going nowhere fast, or going somewhere slowly? It’s impossible to tell with Everton, as the answer continues to vary wildly depending on which iteration comes to the fore.
One is a team still in its infancy yet showing great promise, with an impenetrable defence that has not conceded a goal at home since early February, and a vivacious attack which, though lacking cohesion at times, will surely ignite the spark sooner rather than later.
But the other, or ‘Everton nil’ as it should probably be called, is an impotent, indecisive mishmash of footballers too similar to one another, who wilt at the thought of playing at almost anywhere other than Goodison Park, exhibiting a style of play tepid and banal enough to lure you into a stupor.
And though Marco Silva has had his fair share of bruises during his 15-month tenure as Blues manager, few defeats on his watch have quite encapsulated as many of Everton’s deficiencies as their meek, supine performance in Friday’s 2-0 loss at Aston Villa.
Yet these shortcomings should be painfully obvious by now. A wretched away form, which now shows just five wins from the 21 league matches on the road since Silva’s appointment. An incompatible midfield, scrambling about for paper to cover the cracks left by Idrissa Gueye’s summer departure. An attack which seems to have an aversion to sticking balls in the back of the opposition’s net.
Granted, homesickness has beset Everton’s progress long before Silva’s appointment; a meagre seven away victories from the 38 away games in the two seasons prior to his arrival attests to that. The trouble is, whether this stems from an inferiority complex against certain opponents, a misplaced sense of arrogance towards others, or simply the lack of a pre-match air raid siren, it’s shown little signs of alleviating during his time in charge. To quote Belle and Sebastian, the Blues are still Blue.
In four of their five wins on their travels last term, Everton were ahead by seven minutes at the latest, flying out of the blocks to impose themselves from the kick-off. Each of these saw them at their resilient, irrepressible best, yet these examples have been nothing but sporadic. Zero goals in four of their last five away matches, stretching back to last season, exemplifies this issue.
Indeed, it has long been a trait of the Blues to labour and toil away from Goodison, only to hurriedly try and salvage whatever they can from a dismal showing as the game begins to ebb away. Though they actually enjoyed a decent if hardly flying opening against Villa, once Wesley put the hosts ahead after 21 minutes, Everton merely reverted to type.
Nowhere did this make for more excruciating viewing than in the morass of midfield; Gueye has gone, but Everton’s infatuation with playing the same hapless triangle in the centre of the park has not.
Take Friday’s terrible trio of André Gomes, Morgan Schneiderlin and Gylfi Sigurðsson. In isolation, all three are great, occasionally excellent footballers. As a collective, though, the stark absence of any semblance of dynamism among each of them leads to more frequent breakdowns than Northern Rail’s trains.
Gueye became almost indispensable to Everton because, above all else, his speed and tenacity enabled him to complete tackle after tackle, screening the back line while helping to start forays forward. Schneiderlin and Gomes, the deeper two, are both undeniably gifted technically, but are not blessed with these same abilities.
On Friday, one was asked to destroy, the other create, but it quickly became perplexing trying to decipher which of these roles each of them had been assigned. Too many passes were telegraphed, too many men in claret and blue were out of their grasp. Certainly, it is difficult to envisage Anwar El Ghazi breezing past Gueye with such ease as he did against Gomes, who was particularly dreadful all evening, for Villa’s second goal in injury-time.
Schneiderlin is just naturally slow, and is about as no-frills a footballer as Everton currently have at their disposal. That’s not to denigrate him, because he showed on the rare occasion he played last term what a diligent, composed job he can do for Silva in front of the defence. But pair him with Gomes and the Blues just look so anaemic, so devoid of energy, in the area of the pitch where you need it most.
Ahead of them sits the equally ponderous Sigurðsson, for whom it is becoming increasingly difficult to see a place in Silva’s Everton. Not only because he turns 30 next month, but because he seems just naturally ill-suited to the manager’s preferred style of play.
Everton reportedly bid twice for Watford midfielder Abdoulaye Doucouré in the final days of the summer transfer window, a player who thrived under Silva during his short reign at Vicarage Road. Yet he and Sigurðsson are the antithesis of each other; while the former practically drives the Hornets single-handedly from one penalty box to the other, the latter’s lack of pace often leaves him caught between two stools - too far away from the deeper pair to pass back, too far away from the striker to push Everton forward.
The signing of Alex Iwobi, whose cameo appearance at Villa was one of few crumbs of comfort, will at least provide Sigurðsson with the sort of competition for his place that was patently amiss last year, if not even usurp the Iceland international before long.
While a dearth of options arguably forced Silva’s hand, with Fabian Delph and Gueye’s obvious direct replacement, Jean-Philippe Gbamin, both injured, that he does not use opportunities like this to restructure or redefine the midfield is a grave cause for concern.
Tom Davies, for instance, is clearly still flawed at 21, but possesses the sort of unrelenting youthful exuberance that Everton were crying out for on Friday. Yet since his last start, as captain in the defeat at Watford on February 9, he has played just 21 minutes of football. Irrespective of personnel or opposition, it seems the Blues will invariably stick to the same hackneyed plan A, for better or worse.
And on the brief occasions when the ball made it to Everton’s front line at Villa Park, the Blues fared no better. Because, as much as Dominic Calvert-Lewin cannot be faulted for endeavour or work-rate, his goal return will be what he will be primarily judged on as a striker, and sadly, it just is not up to standard.
Clinical finishing is a prerequisite for a centre-forward at any club in the top six. If that is truly where Everton aspire to be, then Silva cannot continue to invest as much faith and confidence in him as he has done so far this season. Calvert-Lewin is 22 and has 11 Premier League goals to his name; by the time they turned the same age, Wayne Rooney had netted 59, and Harry Kane had scored 24 in just 45 games.
Finishing is an innate quality in many strikers; it is why Ronald Koeman said he could not improve this area of Romelu Lukaku’s game while he managed him at Everton in 2016-17. And for Calvert-Lewin, admirable though he is, the tide never really looks like turning for him in this regard; his galling miss on Friday, firing straight at Villa defender Björn Engels with the goal gaping, rather typified his profligacy throughout his Blues career.
And consequently, placing such heavy reliance on £27 million man Moise Kean, still only 19, just weeks into his Everton career might smack of desperation, but such is the paucity of goalscorers in Silva’s team currently that this may simply have to be a necessity.
Silva was honest enough to recognise Everton’s defensive frailties last term, before doubling down on rectifying them. Now he must repeat this trick again, both by curing their away day woes and by awakening his team sheet from its own state of inertia.