Jean-Philippe Gbamin replaced James Rodriguez as a substitute for Everton here, almost three years to the day since Sam Allardyce (apparently) led the same football club to a monumental away goals victory over Liverpool. All feels a bit Twilight Zone, really. Or something Bob Mortimer would claim he saw happen on a Would I Lie To You? episode.
Yet this flabby 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace, which saw Everton’s home league record in 2021 extend to a paltry one win in eight games, came over more like a Curb Your Enthusiasm outtake. They may seem competent, composed, considered, yet in truth, the next mishap remains just around the corner. Goodison Park and Everton wins - who would have thought?
Alas, while Rodriguez slotting the ball through the most minuscule of gaps and into the Gwladys Street net set Everton on course for three points, Michy Batshuayi’s late leveller ensured realty eventually bit. But not before a succession of backfiring decisions from Carlo Ancelotti, all of which pointed to an alarming lack of trust in his men in royal blue.
First thing’s first, though - Ancelotti alone did not cost Everton victory here. He was hamstrung by a paucity of genuine top-tier quality on his bench for a start. Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison were both infuriatingly profligate on a night when their team-mates created a good number of opportunities for once. Those being uber-critical may also decry Everton’s defending in the build-up to Batshuayi’s equaliser, or Robin Olsen’s attempt to save it.
But the toils of both Everton forwards, epitomised by Calvert-Lewin fluffing his lines when one-on-one with Vicente Guaita and Richarlison spurning a free-kick he insisted on taking, felt a telling example of Ancelotti’s scepticism. It never looked happening for either of them, yet they stayed on while the only senior forward on Everton’s bench, Joshua King, remained unused throughout. A man who earned such a ringing endorsement from Ancelotti upon his last-minute arrival in February, King has since played 117 minutes, scored no goals and started no Everton games. Even on a short-term, low-risk deal until the end of the campaign, it begs the question: why did they sign him?
The two substitutes Ancelotti preferred to King, following Gylfi Sigurdsson’s earlier introduction for the injured André Gomes, also seemed rather revealing. Again, the caveat will be that these were his only other senior players in reserve, but to throw on Ben Godfrey and Gbamin with ten minutes left, at a time when Everton had a decent grip on proceedings, felt detrimental and ultimately cost them. Attack is the best form of defence, they say. To introduce two defensive-minded players, one of whom had not played for 597 days, left Everton doing less of the former and more of the latter than previously.
Truthfully, it just upset the rather fine balance Everton had struck at the back up until then. Olsen had faced what little work he had been tasked with with no fuss. Scapegoat of the month Mason Holgate - a centre-back - looked infinitely more at ease playing as a centre-back than at right-back. Who’d have thought!
Yerry Mina and Michael Keane alongside Holgate hardly put a foot wrong, either. Lucas Digne and Seamus Coleman both slotted in seamlessly as wing-backs, with the latter particularly outstanding. Then Coleman was peculiarly withdrawn for Godfrey and Rodriguez, Everton’s best and most bewitching individual on his return from injury, was replaced for the understandably rusty Gbamin. It was as if Palace, who had thus far been stifled pretty admirably, were suddenly given licence to lash pebbles at Everton’s glass house at will.
Perhaps Ancelotti’s hands were tied. The likes of Nathan Broadhead, Kyle John and, to a lesser extent, Niels Nkounkou do feel more like mere seat-fillers than bona fide game-changers, after all. And perhaps his players were punished for resting on their laurels and not killing Palace off, for which the front two must share some of the culpability.
But this sort of Goodison result has been coming, too. At home to Leicester City in January, Everton camped in their own half for much of a 90-minute slog and escaped with a 1-1 draw. When hosting Southampton last month, a bright start faded and their 1-0 win arrived partly by virtue of the Saints’ wasteful finishing. Two creditable results, but cautionary tales in each which were not heeded here. This time, Everton would not be let off the hook. Their luck ran out.
Again, the way in which Everton attempted and failed to see this out just added further credence to the notion that they can only play one way - to look to get their noses in front by hook or by crook, then stockpile the pitch with defenders and hold on for dear life. That isn’t meant as a damning indictment of Ancelotti, who has overseen enormous progress at Everton despite possessing an oversaturated squad whose size and quality do not correlate with one another. But at times like this, you do wonder whether Everton could still be a little less predictable, a little more authoritative. It seems he simply doesn’t trust them to see games out in such a more cavalier fashion.
Though, if Everton are to miss out on Europe, a point at home to mid-table Palace won’t explain why; the tepid, dismal Goodison defeats to Burnley, Newcastle and Fulham will be to blame for that. This was, unlike those debacles, actually quite a good performance from Everton, by and large. Up to a point, anyway. Which is what makes the end result arguably even more frustrating.
And more to the point, would Everton even deserve Europe? Are they ready for it? At least when they finished seventh under Ronald Koeman after swatting aside all before them at Goodison, or fifth under Roberto Martinez through their swashbuckling, beguiling football, they looked Europa League material at a minimum. Yet more often than not recently, and certainly on their own turf, Everton have looked exactly what they are: a team still very much in their infancy.
It doesn’t help, either, that all of Rodriguez, Digne, Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin, Allan and Abdoulaye Doucouré have been in the starting XI for just six games this term (Everton won five and drew the other of those). For while Everton are no one-man team, it’s patently obvious that they misfire without most if not all of their big hitters on song. They just aren’t good enough yet to get by without them. Ancelotti’s own performance in Monday’s draw felt indicative of this; it smacked of a manager doing his utmost to muddle through with a squad which he knows has a short shelf life.
There will be no overhaul this summer; there never is, in truth. But as another season threatens to peter out, the way Everton surrendered victory over Palace served as a particularly timely reminder. They cannot afford to be as passive as they were in the final ten minutes here when the transfer window rolls around.