Here’s a taboo word in both football and modern society: time. Lots of things need lots of it before completing their metamorphosis. Butterflies initially emerge as tentative caterpillars. Before OK Computer and Kid A came Pablo Honey and The Bends. The Manchester City team Pep Guardiola inherited contained Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy as its most enterprising full-backs.
The point is, few things in life surge instantly to their pinnacle. Everton are not one of them, as reiterated by another tepid home league defeat on Sunday, this time to 18th-placed Fulham. They are, in the main, being led on the right track by the esteemed if not infallible Carlo Ancelotti, but what’s striking about them is how they shoot themselves in the foot whenever they try jumping the gun.
Put simply, Everton are, by and large, a basic football team. That’s not intended as a criticism, and they can certainly can dazzle - think James Rodriguez’s moments of pure sorcery at Tottenham on the opening day, for instance. But generally, their best bet has been to focus on nailing the game’s core principles, like players running more and crossing to big, tall striker, and manager fitting square peg in square hole.
When Everton stick to that mantra, they’re actually quite good, epitomised best by December’s 1-0 victory over Chelsea. They completed 13 tackles and 23 interceptions that night (their second most in the season up to then), and were reduced to merely 28 per cent of ball possession, but banked three priceless points by booting, blocking and tackling with purpose, and feeding Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who won the penalty Sigurdsson converted. Nor is it surprising, given Lucas Digne’s finesse and the focal point Calvert-Lewin offers, that Everton’s ten headed goals is a Premier League-high this term.
When Everton have glistened this season, it’s mostly been through off-the-cuff, isolated incidents which involve acting on impulse more than methodical, meticulous preparation. Gylfi Sigurdsson’s delicious assist for Bernard in Wednesday’s hectic FA Cup win over Spurs springs to mind, as does the Icelander’s goal in the recent victory against Leeds. André Gomes fed a textbook long ball right into Digne’s lap, whose trademark probing cross gift-wrapped Sigurdsson a tap-in. Within seconds, Everton had gone from back to front. Indeed, it often feels the longer they have to ponder their next move, the more they come unstuck.
So, Everton are good at quick, incisive football which, when all the pieces coalesce, looks as simple as it is effective, and which mostly plays to their talisman’s strengths. Add a sprinkling of stardust from the likes of Digne and Rodriguez and you have the remnants of an exciting team. The things Everton are not good at - yet - were accentuated by a far superior Fulham side, who entirely merited the 2-0 win they left Goodison Park with on Valentine’s Day.
For starters, Everton can’t press. Certainly not half as well when without their midfield terrier Allan, anyway. These stats are, admittedly, down across the board on previous years this term due primarily to the effects COVID-19 has placed on the schedule, but you need only look at the oceans of space even Fulham’s centre-backs, Tosin Adarabioyo and Joachim Andersen, were afforded on the ball for evidence that this is not yet one of Ancelotti’s side’s strengths.
This was also borne out by the tame showing served up by Everton’s ashen midfield. Abdoulaye Doucouré and Sigurdsson looked every inch footballers who’d been flogged for two-and-a-half hours in the last four days. André Gomes could not impose himself, instead again bearing the resemblance of man nursing a hellish hangover, barely awake, wrestling the holes in his memory. Tom Davies was marginally better, but Everton were simply outrun in this department, in particular by the spritely man of the match, Harrison Reed.
And while many a Plan B of Ancelotti’s has paid off this season, it’s concerning how toothless and flaccid Everton can look in attack without Calvert-Lewin, absent here through injury. Sigurdsson appeared to start as the de facto number nine, but retreated ever deeper as the game meandered on. Rodriguez was peripheral, as was Richarlison, who managed just 15 touches, the last of which in the first half came in the 23rd minute. Everton’s first of two shots on target did not arrive until the 76th, either. Then again, maybe it’s wishful thinking to expect possession as a forward playing ahead of a bypassed midfield.
There was a touch of misplaced arrogance about Everton here, too, namely in Richarlison’s half-hearted attempts to regain possession and in Mason Holgate, their poorest performer, spending much of the evening strutting. Yet Ancelotti must also carry the can for a team selection which smacked of over-complicating matters when the simpler solution may have sufficed, just as in November’s defeat at Newcastle when he fielded five midfielders, or when he deployed Davies and Alex Iwobi as wing-backs in the home loss to Leeds later that month.
There is, of course, a need for rotation given the sheer volume of games currently, but it felt too much change in certain areas and not enough elsewhere. The defence looked rudderless with neither Michael Keane nor Yerry Mina, the midfield dead on their feet as the gruelling affairs with Manchester United and Spurs took their toll. Much like in the other Newcastle debacle a fortnight ago, it all felt a little lop-sided and careless, as if Everton merely had to show their faces to claim three points, as if nobody could foresee Fulham bulldozing through them with such conviction.
This is a side still relatively in its infancy under Ancelotti, Everton manager for only 50 games so far. Throw in all the inevitable, unavoidable COVID caveats, plus the list of absentees, and perhaps in the grand scheme of things, their current positioning of seventh is about where Everton should be.
That’s not to excuse the latest in a succession of woefully lame home performances, but rather to remind that Everton are not far enough down the line in their development that they can afford to get ideas above their station. Their modus operandi this season has been to excel at the basics. It’s when they try more convoluted approaches, as well as discarding the most elementary of footballing essentials like heart and application, that they’ve been found wanting.
Fulham do not have a better squad than Everton, but were a far better team than them on Sunday. They won because, like Newcastle, West Ham and Leeds at Goodison before them, they simply outshone Everton at football’s fundamentals.