There was a moment early in the second half of Everton’s 1-1 home draw with Aston Villa that seemed to serve only as more gallows humour, to sum up the true essence of ‘Everton’ and the sheer hilarity of it all.
Sleeping Beauty André Gomes awoke from his slumber to play one of those lesser-spotted accurate forward passes. It hung in the air for an eternity, as if to lure us into thinking it a figment of our imagination, before arriving at the feet of Lucas Digne. On he drove, into the Villa half, a touch on the chest to control, then bang. To Bernard it went. Summon the cavalry, glue eyes to screen. Everton were on the attack!
Except to Bernard it never really went. To Bernard it sort of rebounded off, floating away into the stratosphere. Never one for the conventional, the Brazilian clung on for dear life as Ahmed Elmohamady threatened to hijack an elementary pass. He held him off; just about. Then found Tom Davies, who returned the favour with an unambitious five-yarder. At this point, Digne was in even closer proximity to Bernard than Davies. Only for Bernard to lob the ball at Digne’s flailing left foot, watch it rebound wildly off it and drift away into touch.
That was that, then. No sooner were Everton getting these big ideas than they were in over their heads. A venture forward? At home to the second-worst side in the league with the second-worst defence? Charming thought, but even in a move involving three international footballers and another who weaved through about half a dozen Pep Guardiola players once, that’s just not ‘Everton’.
If Carlo Ancelotti was guilty of anything here, perhaps it was simply only reading extracts of the riot act to his scorned side after the wreck of Wolverhampton and not going the whole hog. He promised change, and changes he made; five of them, in fact. Only simultaneously, it felt like nothing really changed, that nobody really felt placated.
Bernard, at the expense of poor Anthony Gordon, and Gomes were two of those returning to the starting XI, and repaid the Italian’s blind faith with performances epitomised by that aforementioned show of ineptitude. Alex Iwobi was another, who offered nothing besides further confirmation that he is simply not a winger. Meanwhile, Beni Baningime continued his meteoric rise without kicking a ball, Jordan Pickford continued between the sticks and Davies continued to be mired in the black hole of Everton’s midfield.
The consequence? Another ghastly performance devoid of any semblance of urgency, desire or prowess. A match starved of an Everton shot on target until the 87th minute, when a Theo Walcott header of all things trickled over the line to secure a point Ancelotti may feel almost embarrassed to claim. Everton’s only point, in fact, from their home matches against this season’s three promoted sides.
For at least the last four matches, Ancelotti and Everton has felt like some terribly gaudy mismatch. The former is footballing royalty, the latter footballing peasantry. Who knows what the man who nurtured Kaka’s genius, who fine-tuned Pirlo’s pearlers, who coaxed Frank Lampard’s best scoring form of his career, makes of the snail-on-a-turtle’s back tempo of Everton’s midfield, for instance. It’s rather like watching that homeless man in The Simpsons move into a solid gold house after successfully suing Itchy & Scratchy. Honestly, the Italian is better than all of this.
His salvaging of this season, then, should really be another feather in his cap. Ancelotti has nothing to prove at Everton; his cachet in the game will be intact no matter what. But it was hard not to watch Everton serve up a fourth successive specialty of meat and potatoes here without concluding that he has done a sterling job just to have merely had them safe weeks into his reign.
Nobody really wants to be wherever they are in the world right now. Certainly, in a parallel universe free of the horrors of coronavirus, Seamus Coleman, Gylfi Sigurdsson, André Gomes, Digne and a cluster of the English contingent may have spent the summer inter-railing around Europe with their compatriots. But lack of fight is not solely degenerating this Everton side piece by piece. Indeed, it is as much an absence of quality, as another feeble showing here evidenced.
In short, Ancelotti has inherited a team not fit for purpose, whose constituent parts include a schizophrenic goalkeeper, a midfield maelstrom and a front line who have seen every channel of support blacked out other than via the left-back. ‘Hard work will beat talent if talent does not work hard’ is plastered onto a wall of Everton’s Finch Farm training complex. Truthfully, Ancelotti has been lumbered with a squad in short supply of either.
It’s not an entirely lost cause, of course. The intrepid Gordon offers hope that the path from the under-23s is no longer so treacherous, as might Jarrad Branthwaite, excellent here in his home debut. Mason Holgate is blossoming into a fine centre-back and has formed steady partnerships with both Michael Keane and Yerry Mina. Digne’s delivery can still leave you drooling. Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin provide a tireless focal point.
These are the fragments Ancelotti should look to build around, the pockets of potential he must harness after this campaign finally, mercifully, completes its tortuous gait to the grave. As it is, he’s done well as manager not to let them become corrupted by the droves of dross that encompass them.
At this point, when the season is done to all intents and purposes and players and fans are simply going through the motions, to still tune in to Everton feels like seeing out the book you’re reading or TV series you’re watching to the bitter end because you just can’t leave these things unfinished.
And so we stumble on with them. Both in hope that Ancelotti will calm the rising tide, and in appreciation that without him, Everton may well have already been swept underwater.