Ah well, ‘tis better to have topped and lost than never to have topped at all. Everton may be hitting the rails and reverting to type, but at least we’ll always have those heady September days, when they looked invariably competent, occasionally devastating, but above all else, a team with their most important player on the pitch.
While witnessing Manchester United inflict on a laboured Everton their third straight league defeat on Saturday, it was tempting to wonder whether the suspended Richarlison watched the game unfold from a significantly elevated pedestal than that which he sat on for last weekend’s fiasco at Newcastle. This was the eighth Premier League match he has missed since signing in July 2018 and Everton have yet to win any of them. For every game he misses, every time Everton’s blistering start unravels further, every weekend they spend tumbling down the table, his stock continues its exponential rise.
The obvious first conclusion to jump to is that Everton will be fine once he returns. As is often the case, of course, with any team welcoming back their best player, which Richarlison patently is to them now - Carlo Ancelotti only echoed that by labelling him ‘impossible’ to replace post-match. Having now served the entirety of his three-match suspension for an infuriating, needless lunge on Thiago Alcantara late in October’s derby draw, normal service will presumably resume after the international break. Finally, Everton can continue being good and take back the limelight Southampton and Leicester have had their turn bathing in by now.
And yet, Everton’s downturn has been punctuated by a litany of foibles from all areas, rather than one single conspicuous misdemeanour intrinsically linked to Richarlison’s absence. For starters, even with him on the pitch this season, they have had their glass jaw smashed too often - Saturday’s United defeat marked the fifth successive game in which they have conceded at least two, while there has been no league clean sheet since the opening-day win at Tottenham.
Little wonder, then, that Ancelotti felt it necessary to hastily bring back Seamus Coleman and Mason Holgate - both evidently undercooked - at the earliest opportunity following their respective injuries, so bland and uninspiring are the alternatives. For further examples of this, see also Allan, better against United but only now shaking off the effects of his recent groin problem, or the peripheral James Rodriguez. To watch Everton without Richarlison has felt like seeing an already trembling Jenga tower finally fall after taking one too many pieces out of it.
But while Richarlison won’t suddenly render Everton’s porous defence impermeable on his return, or make that muddled midfield triangle look any less anaemic than it has of late, he will at least re-energise an attack lacking vitality or ingenuity without him. The defeat to United exemplified this horribly - Bernard’s goal to put them briefly ahead transpired as their only shot on target. Even that felt merely incidental to the game’s flow - United started the better side before that opener, and continued to be the better side after it.
Eventually, Everton became desperate, in a manner worryingly akin to the last days of Marco Silva, where attacking players would be hurled on at will from the bench without any semblance of a plan behind it. The sight of Cenk Tosun, a forward the club have repeatedly tried to sell having not featured at all under Ancelotti before being loaned to Crystal Palace in January, making a cameo appearance felt the latest contender for the strangest happening of 2020 yet. By then, Everton had long been failing to feed an isolated Dominic Calvert-Lewin with looped crosses that any 6ft 4in centre-half, whether nicknamed ‘Slabhead’ or not, would gleefully gobble up as Harry Maguire did.
The worry here, as Tom Davies or even Anthony Gordon now can probably testify, is that too much will be expected too soon of Richarlison. He himself is still only 23 and, though blessed with bountiful footballing talents, is still prone to the odd show of naivety - his derby red card proved as much - and the odd look of a surly teenager who’s just been told by his sibling that it’s their turn on the Xbox. He has sulked and had bad games before for Everton and may well sulk and have bad games for them again. To view him as their failsafe is a short-sighted ploy doomed to come unstuck eventually.
What Everton cannot become is just as one-dimensional a side with Richarlison as without him; Ancelotti needs more from elsewhere regardless. Summer signing Abdoulaye Doucouré can drive a team from back to front single-handedly at his best, but his galling late miss with United 2-1 up rather characterised the way his stirring start to life in Everton’s midfield has began to wane. Bernard and Alex Iwobi, better in patches against United, cannot allow themselves to drift almost unnoticeably through matches, as has been the case in recent weeks. Coaxing even a scintilla of a tune out of any of Davies, André Gomes or Gylfi Sigurdsson, utterly ineffective here, would also go some way to remedying their attacking woes.
An unprecedented schedule for these unprecedented times means that the grind won’t abate for Everton once this international break passes. After a favourable run of Fulham, Leeds and Burnley, Ancelotti’s side could then face Chelsea, Leicester, Arsenal, Sheffield United, Manchester City in the league, as well as United again in the EFL Cup, in the space of 16 days. A gruelling schedule, particularly when injuries and suspensions are perhaps even more of an occupational hazard than previously, but those excuses only go so far when you simply don’t play smart.
And due to this wretched run, that trip to a Fulham side slowly turning a corner (if not from the penalty spot) feels pivotal; almost unnecessarily so. Rather than relishing the chance to swat aside a fragile team and maintain momentum in the early heats, it feels a game suddenly fraught with fear that Everton will continue to stall.
Either way, for all of their early-season pizzazz, Everton need more facets to their game than solely relying on Richarlison’s on-pitch presence. He is far from their only technically gifted footballer, after all. As it is, they risk becoming typecast as a one-man-band who hit too many bum notes when their frontman isn’t on song.