Picture yourself in 18th in December, with a stagnant midfield and Alex Iwobi out on the right. Somebody calls you. You answer quite slowly. A Scot with a knife to the gunfight.
Everton, we are told, could and perhaps even should have settled for a reacquainting with David Moyes last Christmas after Marco Silva’s overdue sacking. So, let’s take a minute to indulge ourselves in visualising quite how a second coming of the ‘Moyesiah’ may have transpired to this point.
Moyes may indeed have retained Everton’s Premier League status and staggered over the line to end up somewhere in the region of their actual finish last term of 12th. Meanwhile, Carlo Ancelotti would have enjoyed his winter break in Canada, rather than losing his mind in his efforts to extend Jordan Pickford’s attention span, and Allan and James Rodriguez would either still be at Napoli and Real Madrid respectively or at similarly glossy, Champions League-ready behemoths of European football.
And so, to Tottenham Hotspur away and the start of Moyes’ first full season back. It is rearguard action stuff from Everton who, as you suspected pre-match, block, boot and beg for a draw, and will take the point and run if they sneak as much. Their role is to simply fade into wallpaper with hands in pockets, petulantly kicking at the turf like naughty children. After all, who are they to impose themselves on such esteemed, superior opponents in their own back yard?
Mercifully, none of these things are true in the real world. Rather, Ancelotti’s Everton strutted their way to a fully-deserved victory over an utterly inferior Spurs, thanks in no small part to the industry and wizardry of two of their latest additions, Allan and Rodriguez.
Everton’s problem since Farhad Moshiri climbed aboard in February 2016 has been that they’ve made it too easy for them to be denigrated as the little club that couldn’t. They certainly think they can, and will rinse dry Moshiri’s boundless largesse every summer to convince you. Ambition is a dirty word in football, of course; show even the slightest hint of it and you leave yourself open to widespread ridicule. But then again, when you hire four managers in as many years and lavish about £450 million on the playing squad to go from 11th in 2015 to 12th in 2020, perhaps you can’t blame the onlookers for sneering as you wipe the egg from your face.
Which is why many will jump to the myopic view that the December appointment of Ancelotti, and indeed last week’s signings of two 29-year-olds in Allan and Rodriguez, is essentially the boy crying wolf again. Where’s the resale value, the five-year plan, the sense of ‘project’ about it all? Yet on opening weekend, admittedly as good a time as any to gulp down the Kool-Aid and shamelessly declare it’s your team’s year, Everton offered perhaps their biggest indication in years that the tide may finally be turning. The emperor didn’t decorate his new clothes with chevrons and a logo of an online car retailer, you know.
It’s a simplistic comparison, but it’s hard to fathom that it was only ten weeks ago when such a meek, feeble Everton suffered defeat by the same scoreline they won by today to this very team in this very stadium. On that chastening July evening, André Gomes was overrun by a Spurs side in third gear, Tom Davies offered as much beefed to the midfield as a wet paper bag, Gylfi Sigurdsson created more grievances for Gary Neville to air on commentary than chances for his team-mates. Between them, they attempted a meagre five tackles.
How the shoe was on the other foot here, though. The tenacious Allan, whose 263 tackles in the previous three Serie A seasons outdo everyone else in Italy’s top-flight, committed four more of his own. He and the third summer signing, the irrepressible Abdoulaye Doucouré, who crowned a stunning debut with a potentially goal-saving intervention on Lucas Moura, provided Everton with the oomph they so dearly lacked here in July. It should also not go unmentioned the extent to which they facilitated Gomes’ role; rather than working overtime and compensating for Davies’ or Sigurdsson’s faux pas, the Portuguese was far closer to his serene best.
And then there’s Rodriguez. Who, you hope, will see what’s left of a 29-year-old’s potential harnessed by a manager who has now signed him for a third time, and on this evidence will shine in an Everton so starved of creativity previously. From the moment he effortlessly sprayed an inch-perfect diagonal to the feet of Lucas Digne early on, to the nonchalant shimmying away from Ben Davies’ clutches, the Colombian was integral to all of Everton’s attacking prowess. He created five chances at Tottenham; a feat unmatched by a Premier League debutant since Alexis Sanchez in 2014, and by any player in white or royal blue today. And four interceptions to boot, as well.
Most significant of all was the extent to which this confidence, this joy in Everton’s play, this unrelenting will to win transmitted to the trio’s team-mates. Pickford, who surely faces a season of reckoning, was back to his commanding best in goal, looming large in the way of Matt Doherty and Dele Alli as both tried their luck before alleviating late pressure with a slew of authoritative punches. An often chaotic defence went about its business jitter-free, even when Spurs inevitably cranked up the pressure as the seconds ebbed away. A trademark peach of a Digne dead-ball delivery was telegraphed onto Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s head as Everton’s number nine ended his ten-game league goal drought. Honestly, as recent Everton performances go, this was about as faultless as it gets.
Ancelotti had already shown tentative signs of reinvigorating a beleaguered Everton last term, only for progress to be somewhat stunted by that bog of a midfield and the infelicities of certain individuals. This win, though, feels bigger.
It feels a victory for ambition, both on Everton’s part in appointing Ancelotti and then backing him accordingly, and on the Italian’s part in halting the small-minded approach that has dogged Everton at grounds of England’s elite for more than a decade now. For their endeavours, they were rewarded with a fully-merited away win at a ‘big six’ club; their first since December 2013 against Moyes’ Manchester United. Oh, to be an Amazon-commissioned fly on the wall of the home dressing room for José Mourinho’s post-match rollicking here.
Then again, such encouraging Everton showings in recent years have often had to be taken in isolation given the rabble of rubbish that have book-ended them. The benchmark was set in North London on Sunday. With a kind fixture list of West Bromwich Albion, Crystal Palace and Brighton & Hove Albion before Goodison Park’s next Merseyside Derby, it’s high time Everton, now with fit-for-purpose midfield and supreme manager, offer the sceptics a more sustained retort.