And in the end, the chances you take are equal to the chances you make. More or less, anyway. It would be inaccurate to say Everton created nothing in Monday’s vapid goalless draw at Brighton, but ‘next to nothing’ would be about right.
First, though, some mitigation. Which is that you’re loth to criticise Carlo Ancelotti, not only given how often he’s got a tune out of this jaded, threadbare squad, but also because circumstance dictated that his team on Monday essentially picked itself. Owing to the Premier League’s lengthiest injury list, Everton named only eight of nine possible substitutes at the Amex Stadium. Alex Iwobi, the only senior player among them, accounted for 150 of their cumulative 153 top-flight appearances. Two of those on the bench were rookie goalkeepers.
In short, when your substitutes’ squad numbers add up to 325, you’re in a pickle. Indeed, Everton are the only Premier League team to lose all outfield senior players (as well as both goalkeepers) to injury at some point this campaign, have the most injuries in the league currently with nine and, per The Athletic, have seen players miss a combined 149 games through knocks this season. It all came to a head on Monday, to the extent that picking holes in the starting XI Ancelotti fielded ultimately feels like pissing in the wind.
Certainly, the absences of Allan and Abdoulaye Doucouré in midfield were felt, with Everton dearly lacking bite in that department despite the best of efforts of Tom Davies, Mason Holgate (a centre-half) and Gylfi Sigurdsson (a number ten). Without Dominic Calvert-Lewin, withdrawn late due to a minor adductor injury, Everton had no real attacking outlet, either, accentuated by Robin Olsen’s erratic clearances failing to be held up.
Yet these caveats, legitimate as they are, can only go so far when Everton still had the verve and inspiration of Lucas Digne, James Rodriguez and Richarlison to call on. Even Sigurdsson, for all his detractors, has six goals and nine assists this season. As it transpired, though, Everton still felt curiously unambitious, even by the low standards that the apocalyptic reaction to team news would suggest were set.
Indeed, their attacking endeavours consisted entirely of a wayward Tom Davies header after Seamus Coleman darted down the wing before crossing, a trademark piercing Rodriguez through ball which went unfulfilled, a speculative Iwobi effort which cleared Robert Sanchez’s crossbar, and their only shot on target: a routine Sanchez save from Rodriguez from a tight angle in the 71st minute. And really, that was your lot.
Fortune often favours the bold in football. Exactly three months prior to the Brighton draw, Everton went to Wolves with Holgate and Ben Godfrey as full-backs, Digne and Iwobi as wingers and Rodriguez and Sigurdsson up front. 11 of the 14 players involved that night had also featured in the slog of an FA Cup victory after extra time against Rotherham three days earlier. A less depleted side than at Brighton, admittedly, but far from ideal all the same. Yet that served as no excuse that night for Everton, who defended stoutly, imposed themselves on Wolves and left Molineux deserved 2-1 winners.
Yes, the season is three months older now. Yes, an even greater wrecking ball has been taken to a squad already short on quality below surface level. But as Coleman admitted himself post-match on Monday, with a thinly-veiled reference to Everton’s similarly ravaged neighbours, to place the blame for this dross solely on injuries is a lame and invalid excuse. Much as Evertonian optimism was sapped when the team-sheet surfaced, forgive them for anticipating more than one shot on target at a side 15th in the league with two home wins all campaign.
These turgid late-season affairs are becoming a worrying constant in Everton campaigns. Think the goalless draw at West Ham in Ronald Koeman’s first year, when they went one worse than Monday and managed zero shots on target. Or in 2018 under Sam Allardyce, when they laboured to a 1-1 at a Swansea side relegated that year but who outplayed Everton that day. Or almost all of their Project Restart games last term, to the point that the final whistle of the season-closer against Bournemouth felt like divine intervention. The clocks go forward and suddenly it’s as if Everton pitch up in sombreros and sandals for the remainder of the campaign.
To that end, Friday’s visit to Goodison Park of Tottenham, another side limping to the finish line, will either breathe new life into Everton’s campaign or unplug the life support machine. Yerry Mina joined the queue for the treatment table in Monday’s draw, but Calvert-Lewin, Allan, Jordan Pickford, Joshua King and André Gomes could all return. One point behind seventh, four off sixth and five off fourth with a game in hand, this has a genuine win-or-bust feeling about it for an Everton side who, truthfully, probably wouldn’t deserve or be ready for European football next year.
Ancelotti and Everton will get there. After 50 league games at the Goodison helm, his points-per-game return of 1.56 is the best of any of the clubs’ managers in Premier League history. One more point will see Everton equal their haul of 49 last season. These are irrefutable signs of progress, much as that feels clouded on nights like Monday. In many ways, he’s been dealt a cruel hand - the litany of extra headaches COVID has thrown up, the inheritance of a bloated, tired patchwork squad - basically everything Roberto Martinez didn’t have to contend with during his first full season, if you like.
All things considered, then, nobody feels less deserving of blame than Ancelotti. But having already won at Tottenham, Leicester and Liverpool this season, it just rankles a little that the men in seafoam green on Monday couldn’t manage to impose themselves more on an aesthetically pleasing if lowly Brighton side. All in all, there was a sense that Everton were content to just take the point and run.
Starting with Friday’s critical Spurs clash, Ancelotti will need a bolder approach if he is to alleviate another season spluttering and farting its way to a merciful ending.