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A helpful reminder of Everton the work-in-progress

No defeat is welcome, but Sunday’s loss at Southampton may inject a hefty dose of realism. Everton have improved, but are not there yet

Southampton v Everton - Premier League
Everton were largely dismal in their defeat at Southampton on Sunday
Photo by Robin Jones/Getty Images

Take down the bunting, leave the champagne on ice, stay in your Tier 3 homes: turns out Everton can still lose games after all. Sunday’s limp defeat to Southampton may not have been enough for them to surrender top spot, but galling as it was to suffer through, it also came served with a side-order of perspective.

Oh, for the days of early-season optimism. When it was acceptable, even encouraged, to be wise before the event, to be seduced by James Rodriguez crooning ‘Up the Toffees’ in those dulcet South American tones, to be left weak at the knees by the sight of snapping tackles and forward passes. For some Evertonians, taking in much of those seven successive wins must have felt akin to that first drop of alcohol landing on your teenage tongue - you’re entranced, if a little unsure of yourself, but even if you’ll end up regretting it (and you surely will), you want more now. I remember my first victory, too.

Sooner or later, you’re in way over your head. One drink turns into a second, third and fourth. A fourth win becomes a fifth, sixth and seventh. Suddenly, you’re putting hats on dogs and dancing on tables. Or putting England caps on strikers and topping the nascent Premier League table. Something had to give. Reality had to bite. That gruelling headache the morning after had to kick in.

And so, at a ground which perennially seems to catch Everton on a bad day, St Mary’s transpired as the stage for their comedown. Indeed, once a decent start was undermined by James Ward-Prowse dovetailing with Danny Ings to fire Southampton ahead on 27 minutes, it was as if Carlo Ancelotti’s side staggered back to bed and declared this one a write-off.

Southampton v Everton - Premier League
Ward-Prowse put Southampton ahead, from which Everton never recovered
Photo by Andy Rain - Pool/Getty Images

Which, grim viewing as it may have made for Evertonians, may not prove the worst medicine long-term. Ancelotti has markedly improved Everton from the collaborative mishmash of the four previous regimes he inherited last December - that these performances are becoming more seldom attests to that in itself - but a defeat this tame felt a potentially timely reminder of how just far he is from adding the final strokes to his next masterpiece.

A more immediate concern for Ancelotti will be the worrying dearth of quality once you chip away at his side’s first layer and peek underneath the bonnet. Shorn of their suspended talisman Richarlison and their captain in the rejuvenated yet injured Seamus Coleman, Everton looked as one-dimensional as they did one-paced for much of this stodgy, meandering encounter.

It is unfair to go overboard on Ben Godfrey, a 22-year-old deputising out of position at right-back on his full Everton debut due to the sidelined Coleman and Jonjoe Kenny. Despite his evident struggles with Nathan Redmond and Ings, who evaded him to cross to Che Adams for Southampton’s second, Godfrey coped admirably enough there with Sadio Mane in last week’s derby to suggest this was just one of those days.

Further forward, there is less mitigation to go round. Alex Iwobi marked his 30th Premier League appearance for Everton by failing to add to his one goal and one assist, and his listless first-half offering in Richarlison’s usual spot on the left flank only offered further indication that he is not the Brazilian’s understudy. Gylfi Sigurdsson, preferred over the polarising André Gomes, has improved on a dismal 2019-20, but offered similarly little in his first league start of the campaign. A languid, leaden-footed midfielder, much of Sigurdsson’s recent renaissance owes to his deployment as a substitute, when players droop and the game congeals to his tempo. Aside from rattling the crossbar from range at 0-0, there was scant evidence to debunk that theory.

Southampton v Everton - Premier League
Sigurdsson made little impact from the start on Sunday, nor did Iwobi
Photo by Tony McArdle - Everton FC/Everton FC via Getty Images

And in turning to his bench, Ancelotti found only a bowl of bruised fruit to rummage through. There was no recognised striker to assist poor Dominic Calvert-Lewin, thanklessly ploughing a lone furrow in what all looked a bit too 2017. Bernard’s unpredictability, not least to himself, makes him either awe-inspiring or head-scratching with no in-between. Here, Everton got the latter. Fabian Delph got the nod over Gomes or Tom Davies as the next man up in an off-colour midfield, and the game only carried on petering out.

Rather, it was Anthony Gordon who, within 60 seconds of his introduction, made greater in-roads into Southampton’s defence to help force a corner. Which was about the extent of Everton’s attacking endeavours once they fell behind. Even at 19, even with the experience of just 12 Premier League games to draw on, Gordon already looks the roundest peg for the round hole left by Richarlison’s absence. As does Niels Nkounkou at left-back after Lucas Digne’s harsh red card, the same age as Gordon but similarly precocious, if three EFL Cup wins are anything to go by.

Even if now on the right track, forks in the road like this were inevitable for Everton. And with a compressed festive schedule comprising clashes with both Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Leicester and Arsenal, only sterner examinations of their strength in depth await them.

If you’re boring and sober enough to view it through the prism of context, this defeat could almost be deemed forgivable. How Everton respond to it, starting with next week’s trip to Newcastle, will be a better barometer of their progress.