Ever notice how some things in life seem to have only one uniform type? No distinguishing features between them, no variations on themes, just one and the same, as if by adhering to some unwritten formula. Noughties landfill indie bands. War films. COVID press conferences.
Or Everton home performances against limited, low-blocking sides. Which was really the most maddening aspect of the latest catastrophe, Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Burnley at Goodison Park. It’s not so much the result itself - in isolation, a loss in a game you are widely expected to win can happen, can almost be forgiven.
No, it’s more that there was nothing to separate this performance from previous home nadirs to Leeds, Newcastle and Fulham. There were no lessons learnt against Burnley, just more failed attempts to dribble their way out of dead ends, more haphazard defending, more underestimating opposition. It almost feels like muscle memory now, the same shoddily-written script recited with word-perfect accuracy over and over. Keyboards at the ready, Twitterati.
At which point, time to take a step back. Because while there’s no justification for this sort of form, which invariably leaves the deepest of bruises, Everton woke up on Monday morning in sixth place. And considering we are only 56 games in Carlo Ancelotti’s reign, plus all of the additional COVID caveats, isn’t sixth, well, about where they should be?
There is a certain symmetry presented by Burnley visiting Goodison, in that Everton also welcomed them for the first of Ancelotti’s 56 on Boxing Day of 2019. Seamus Coleman started at centre-back that day, while their midfield pairing consisted of Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fabian Delph. A late Dominic Calvert-Lewin header secured a 1-0 win, steering Everton four points clear of a relegation zone they occupied after Marco Silva’s final game three weeks earlier.
With all of that in mind, to have expected a serious assault on the top four a year later felt as fallacious then as it still does now. Indeed, before a ball was kicked this season, you’d have been hard-pressed to find an Evertonian who wouldn’t have accepted being sixth after winning half of their 28 games, just five points off fourth. There’s a reason people made such a fuss of Leicester going from escapologists to champions in 12 months, after all - because in the closed shop of the Premier League’s upper echelons, these feats aren’t meant to happen.
Perhaps these defeats also feel more sobering because in this most anomalous of seasons, it’s as if Everton have flipped the form book on its head. This is a side that won at Leicester, Tottenham and Liverpool without conceding and drew at Manchester United from two goals down, yet took no points and scored one measly goal at home to Leeds, Newcastle, Fulham and Burnley. Maybe, had Everton stuck more closely to type, winning the games they should win and losing those they should lose, the mood would be a little more upbeat.
Again, this is not written with the intention to gloss over yet another dire Goodison afternoon. Everton were feeble against Burnley, and their slapdash defending for each Clarets goal and their inability to crowbar open another barricade typified the shortcomings stunting progress under Ancelotti. This was no flash in the pan; these are chronic, systemic issues which go some way to explaining why only the Premier League’s bottom five have worse home records than Everton this term.
But equally, much has to be said in mitigation. For instance, only three times since 2005 have Everton amassed a greater points total after 28 games than their haul of 46 this season. At this stage in each of the last three campaigns, they had not even surpassed 40 yet. That in itself, surely, must be viewed as a positive stride forward under Ancelotti.
And while it’s the same for every team in this ghostly season, and pinning this succession of home defeats solely on an empty Goodison is naïve and exonerates individuals too easily, this factor can’t be ignored altogether, either. Remember when, almost 13 years ago to the day, a feral Gwladys Street sucked Mikel Arteta’s rocket into the net against Fiorentina? Or even as far back as that momentous date with Bayern Munich in 1985, when Derek Mountfield said that “the roar literally made my hair stand on end” - true, toxicity and apathy can rule over Goodison at the worst of times, but more often than not, it’s a force for good.
Everton may not have beaten all of Leeds, Newcastle, Fulham and Burnley in normal, ‘precedented’ times. Nor, by the same token, would they have surely left all of Anfield, the King Power Stadium and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium victorious either. But at the very least, you can’t imagine them going 11 straight home league games without rippling the Gwladys net, or losing every one of these eminently winnable matches, with a full house in full voice. It’s a small sample size, sure, but that Everton lost none of their five pre-COVID home games under Ancelotti seems to take on greater significance with every passing Goodison calamity.
It feels important to stress this because, honestly, Everton’s problems seem rooted more in personnel issues than mental ones. Gradually, Ancelotti seems to be hardening this formerly brittle outfit - the thrilling 3-2 comeback win at Watford before lockdown last February felt evidence enough of that alone. They may not win as regularly in better sides’ back yards when normality resumes, but you would at least back them to put up more of a fight than in previous regimes.
Why? Because Everton’s squad is well-suited to the skillset required to pull off those types of victories. Time and again under Ancelotti, they’ve proved themselves adept at sitting deep and rolling with the punches before choosing their moments to break purposefully. What they don’t have - yet - is enough players competent at piercing open sides who then pull the same trick on Everton, hoisting them with their own petard. Just watch Alex Iwobi traipsing down blind alleys or André Gomes smearing his passes in treacle against Burnley for evidence of that.
That, you sense, will change given time. It made little sense last summer, due to the seven-week turnaround between seasons and the deleterious effects of COVID-19 on the transfer market, for Ancelotti to overhaul his squad. Instead, he opted for quality over quantity, upgrading his armoury with a few excellent additions in Allan, Ben Godfrey, James Rodriguez and Abdoulaye Doucouré. Given his arguably perfect success rate so far, you’d back him to address Everton’s pitfalls accordingly again this summer, in what should be more desirable circumstances by then than in the midst of an ungodly plague.
But then again, at the risk of undermining the previous 1,000-or-so words, should we really read all that much into anything this season? It’s not that this season is irrelevant or not worth discussing, it’s just that making any sweeping judgments from football behind closed doors feels like judging a piece of a music you heard underwater, or reviewing The Simpsons from watching solely post-Season 10 episodes. It’s there, but it’s barely there. A pale imitation with the edges sawn off. Fans will return and Liverpool probably won’t be this bad, nor West Ham this good, while Everton will probably be a more sober medium between the Anfield highs and the recent Goodison lows.
For it’s easy to be reactionary about defeats like Saturday’s, not least when supporters feel so helpless in and detached from football currently. But rather than placing a handful of dismal empty Goodison games under the microscope, a more thorough review of Ancelotti’s tenure would suggest that, assuredly, they are making steady, incremental progress. Even if that feels harder to fathom the lower Everton have stooped on their own turf lately.