Into the final minute of a gruelling game we went at St. James’ Park. Everton had been largely dismal but, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s late strike to halve Newcastle’s lead, a modicum of hope began to flicker. Now they had a corner. This was their chance.
Not only their chance to salvage a point they scarcely deserved, but to also give their hosts a taste of their own medicine. Newcastle had been outplayed at Goodison Park in January, only to go from 2-0 down at 93 minutes to level at 2-2 at 95 minutes. Payback time awaited. Robin Olsen risked a nosebleed as he vacated his goal to join the cavalry upfield. All hands to the pump, lads. Nothing to lose. Now or never.
Yet amid the skittish excitement surrounding the collector’s item of an Everton attack, it appears Gylfi Sigurdsson missed the memo. Rather than hitting Newcastle where it hurt with the sort of bolt of electricity he virtually trademarked in his prime, Sigurdsson spoon-fed goalkeeper Karl Darlow the ball, sending it floating in the chilling November air as devoid of venom as pace.
And so, that proved that. A second successive Premier League defeat for Carlo Ancelotti for the first time since becoming Everton boss last December. A second successive haunting from the ghosts of seasons past. A litany of minor infelicities, rather than one glaring trope, stunting progress once more.
Truth be told, was there much to learn about Everton here that we weren’t previously aware of? We already knew their attacks splutter and disintegrate with the suspended Richarlison, who they are yet to win a league match without in the seven he has missed since his arrival in July 2018. We already knew Niels Nkounkou and Jonjoe Kenny are promising if still patently inferior deputies to Lucas Digne and Seamus Coleman respectively at full-back. We already knew none of James Rodriguez’s colleagues can manipulate the ball with the same mystique as him.
In that respect, while it’s easy, and a little tempting, even, to bog yourself down in the minutiae of football, to extrapolate the hell out of the xG charts or determine which of your midfielders can be best converted into an all-singing, all-dancing wing-back, football often isn’t that complicated. Leave the deranged whiteboard scribbling to Charlie Kelly, or the overthinking to Pep Guardiola. At its core, a fundamental tenet of the game remains that the team with the better players wins.
Or, at least, that a team with its best players on the pitch stands a better chance of winning. To travel to the North East without four of their current best in Richarlison, Coleman, Digne or Rodriguez, then, put Everton on the back foot from the get-go, even against a side as fallible and as mid-table fodder as Newcastle. Indeed, perhaps the main takeaway from this encounter is just how much hand sanitiser Ancelotti must have gone through after ten months of turd-polishing.
That’s not to say the Italian is immune from criticism, though. He warranted immense praise for the perfect way he set Everton up to divide and conquer at Tottenham in September, or in last season’s Goodison Park derby when he stifled champions-elect Liverpool, for instance. For once, though, in lavishing Newcastle with respect in his line-up, he got it wrong here.
Playing five central midfielders in the same team would have been hare-brained enough without one of them being Fabian Delph, or without deploying the two most sluggish out wide in Sigurdsson and the particularly wretched André Gomes, who conceded the penalty for Newcastle’s opener and completed just four forward passes. Especially while Anthony Gordon, Richarlison’s most natural replacement, remained stapled to the bench. Everton were hamstrung enough without their absent stars, but applying such caution to an eminently winnable match only felt like kneecapping them further.
Then again, aside from Gordon and his puppyish exuberance, who else could Ancelotti turn to? Bernard’s on-pitch contributions started and ended with entering it on 60 minutes and leaving it at full-time. Alex Iwobi offered similarly little before at least assisting Calvert-Lewin’s consolation. In many ways, it feels as if those opening four league wins indicated what a well-oiled machine Everton’s strongest starting XI is, as much as these last two defeats have exposed how clunky it can be even with just a few of its component parts extracted.
Evertonians have been lured in by glimmers of progress before, only for them transpire as false dawn after false dawn. What will truly define Ancelotti’s Everton reign, and set it apart from the fleeting delirium of fourth place in 2005, or the chimeric first year under Roberto Martinez, is its longevity, its sustainability. In the growing potency of Calvert-Lewin, the craft of Digne, Richarlison and Rodriguez and the industry of Coleman, Allan and Abdoulaye Doucouré, there are, at long last, nascent building blocks in place.
More widespread positive change was always going to take longer than ten months to enact, because squad overhauls are inconceivable enough without a global pandemic and a seven-week turnaround in seasons to contend with. And so, for the time being, Ancelotti remains saddled with also-rans in whom he has no choice but to place blind faith and afford an umpteenth chance to.
This is not to exonerate the manager altogether for Sunday’s debacle, as a less convoluted, one-dimensional midfield setup would surely have helped turn the tide. His post-match reiteration that a weary Jordan Pickford was simply rested here and will return next week against Manchester United, despite Olsen’s hugely encouraging debut in goal, also felt a misstep.
But beyond that, on days like Sunday, it’s difficult to ascertain quite what the Italian can do other than sit back and survey the wreckage. And keep polishing those turds, of course.