Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. That essentially feels the role Everton have fulfilled in the Premier League for pretty much its entire 30-year existence. And again this season, as Friday’s draw with Tottenham left you with that familiar feeling of ‘nearly, but not quite.’
In short, this pinball match felt Everton’s season in microcosm: patches of dazzling, enterprising play, shows of real character at times, too, but ultimately undone by their own passivity and several shots to the foot. All of which rather summed up why Everton are where they are: far closer to European qualification than last term, yet while they’ve threatened to smash through glass ceiling head-first, only their toes feel dipped in the water yet.
Undoubtedly, to make a more sustained challenge, Carlo Ancelotti’s side must take more of a stranglehold on proceedings from the get-go, at least on their own turf, than they did here. Other than an excellently-rehearsed piece of choreography from Tanguy Ndombele after a collision with Ben Godfrey, and a shot Richarlison telegraphed right at Hugo Lloris, it’s difficult to recall anything from the big bog of beige which preceded Harry Kane’s 27th-minute opener. Even that felt terribly self-inflicted, with the muddled Michael Keane’s backwards header teeing up Kane’s admittedly clinical strike.
To their credit, though, this sprang Everton belatedly into life, with all the vigour of a shark hot on the scent of a drop of blood. It was as if, almost counter-intuitively, Kane’s goal led to a collective realisation of ‘Lads, it’s Tottenham.’ As if it suddenly reminded them that a defence containing Serge Aurier and Eric Dier is hardly something to stand and admire but, in fact, something to be got at.
Gylfi Sigurdsson will rightly take the plaudits for his brace, a typically nerveless penalty and a first-touch bullet, but much credit should also go to the spellbinding James Rodriguez, to the unshakeable force of Allan deeper in midfield, to Lucas Digne for constantly venturing behind enemy lines down the left. Little wonder that, here, Everton managed their joint-most shots on target in a Premier League match (seven) since the start of December. Or that Ancelotti labelled it ‘probably the best we played at home this season’ post-match. Even if the highest benchmark hasn’t exactly been set in that regard.
Indeed, as much as Everton home games in 2021 have largely been tortuous, sleep-inducing dirges, this was a heartening, timely reminder that, when unshackled and playing instinctively, they can set pulses racing. The nonchalant, effortless through balls of Rodriguez, who you yearn to see surrounded by more players on his wavelength, Digne’s fizzing deliveries, and the jewel in the crown here: Seamus Coleman rolling back the years to tee up Sigurdsson to stroke Everton ahead: this felt emblematic of all that has been good about their season so far. When the jigsaw eventually falls perfectly into place, it can truly make for a sight to behold.
The trouble is, too often this campaign, Everton have undermined and kneecapped their own progress through acts of self-sabotage, all more galling and inexplicable than the last. Like fumbling the ball into Neal Maupay’s path. Or spewing a half-hearted clearance straight to Mohamed Salah. Or gift-wrapping two goals for this season’s other highest scorer in the same game. Again, Kane’s finish for Spurs’ equaliser was devastating. Again, though, he was aided and abetted by Keane and Mason Holgate, neither of whom took responsibility to hurl away the live grenade that landed in their path.
Keane and, to a lesser extent, Holgate, were far from Everton’s only culprits, though. It said much about Alex Iwobi’s toiling Goodison Park career, for instance, that within moments of replacing him, a 32-year-old right-back in Coleman notched an assist, already providing more of an attacking threat than Iwobi.
Richarlison, too, had another of those nights when he felt either too involved or not involved enough, never quite striking a happy medium. He certainly did not hide, but cut a more lonesome figure without his partner-in-crime Dominic Calvert-Lewin, and at times his own over-eagerness felt his undoing. Like when Lloris’ save from Joshua King’s late effort left him with virtually an open goal, only to fire at it like a FIFA novice refusing to loosen their grip on the shoot button.
That this was Everton’s only real meaningful attacking endeavour after Kane’s equaliser also felt symbolic of the way their season is slowly beginning to flatline. Even if the schedule has eased up a little, they wearied by the closing exchanges, be it through physical fatigue, shell-shock at conspiring to have thrown away victory in another game they were they comfortably the better side in, or a combination of the two. Spurs’ leveller forced Everton to go again. They manfully hung on for the point, but in truth had little left in reserve by then.
At the end of which, Everton remain eighth, five games without a league win for the first time since December 2018, with hopes of a jaunt across the continent next term more remote, if far from dead in the water yet. And all things considered, this was the performance of a team in exactly their position: a team with potential and promise, but whose proclivity for exciting and exasperating in equal measure explains why this campaign hasn’t transpired as quite the marked improvement on last term that it initially threatened to be.
For Tottenham did not hold Everton to a draw on Friday, Kane and a few unwitting accomplices in royal blue did instead. Which typifies why, having dared to dream of strutting their stuff in European football’s grandest cathedrals, or its far-flung, lesser-spotted nooks and crannies on Thursday evenings, passports may not need dusting off quite yet. Still, at least Swansea might go up.