The post-Christmas binge. We’ve all suffered through it. That week-long lull before New Year makes it socially acceptable to dismantle your liver once again, when there’s nothing on TV but Premier League Years and Carry On repeats. Meanwhile, the Celebrations box is almost empty, and you’re left rummaging around a sea of unwanted Bountys looking in vain for a Twix, a Galaxy; you know, any of the proper chocolates.
That, essentially, is Everton’s bench in confectionery form. Because nobody likes Bountys, almost as much as nobody likes the sight of Fabian Delph, Joshua King and Bernard being readied to try to salvage another missed opportunity for Carlo Ancelotti’s side.
The obvious direction of finger-pointing will be at Ancelotti, of course. Fortuitously level at 1-1 at home to mid-table Aston Villa on Saturday, the final 20 minutes of this game were crying out for an injection of life, of urgency. The perennially-injured and much-maligned Delph, who has bagged more red cards than goals in his Everton career, did not offer it. Nor did King, who, after ten goalless Everton outings, all from the bench, has proved a low-risk bet that hasn’t paid dividends. This was Bernard’s 11th substitute appearance of the term - of those, he has netted just once.
Yet to look at the nine men on Ancelotti’s bench against Villa is a case study in just how deprived of inspiration this squad is beyond its leading lights. Two goalkeepers. The aforementioned goal-shy trio. A man who has made his mark as a deep-lying, holding midfielder this season in Tom Davies. A 20-year-old left-back with merely four senior appearances under his belt in Niels Nkounkou. And two centre-backs, Michael Keane and Yerry Mina. Who, in actual fact, represent the greatest goal threats of the lot with seven between them this season.
There are, though, certain aspects about this conundrum which are worth questioning Ancelotti about. The apparent demotion of Davies, who had found his best form in an Everton shirt in February, to now below the sleepwalking André Gomes and even Delph is perplexing, even if he was probably unlikely to be a real game-changer in this instance. Likewise, the lateness of his substitutions, with none occurring until the 70th minute: were it not for Jordan Pickford’s heroics, Villa could conceivably have been out of sight long before Anwar El Ghazi’s last winner. Warnings should have been heeded far earlier.
And while the decision to stick with Mason Holgate, whose awful mistake precipitated Ollie Watkins breaking the deadlock, alongside Ben Godfrey in central defence was an error in hindsight, it’s understandable, given how seamlessly they dovetailed in last week’s win at Arsenal, why Ancelotti kept faith. Otherwise, though, it’s difficult to decipher what else Ancelotti could have pulled out from up his sleeve to stem the Villa flow.
Regular viewers of Everton this season will know this is no one-off. This was their 41st game of a laborious campaign, during which time Ancelotti has introduced 116 substitutes. Four of those have gone on to score - and only once in the league (Gylfi Sigurdsson’s penalty at Liverpool) - while just five have contributed assists after entering play. For context, in the Premier League alone, Manchester United’s substitutes this term have provided ten goals and six assists.
Therein lies the fundamental barrier to more extensive progress this season for Everton. Where previously, David Moyes could call on Victor Anichebe, Roberto Martinez on Steven Naismith, or even Ronald Koeman on Oumar Niasse (once), there are no super-subs in Ancelotti’s side. Perhaps, too often, he leaves it too late to allow them to find their rhythm. But equally, Saturday’s bench was a damning indictment of years of rank-bad recruitment Everton only recently have began to amend, top-heavy with defensive-minded players, with a smattering of forwards going through the motions, surely not long for this club.
Villa, despite being below Everton in the table, could teach them a great deal about the value of longevity, too. Ancelotti’s starting XI consisted of Everton players bought by five different managers. Villa’s was comprised of ten bought by Dean Smith, who took charge two-and-a-half years ago, and another by his predecessor, Steve Bruce. The differences in clarity of each side’s identity was apparent from the offset.
Instantly, Villa were purposeful and imposing, making Pickford earn his wage, with team-mates all telepathically in sync with one another: everything that Everton weren’t, really, as Holgate’s dithering in possession in the build-up to Watkins’ goal epitomised. That Villa were aided and abetted by one of Goodison Park’s pariahs, Ross Barkley, felt particularly aggravating: a bit-part player under Smith lately, Barkley was excellent throughout, and would patently still walk into Everton’s midfield on this evidence alone.
Almost 18 months into Ancelotti’s tenure, we are still in the dark as to what his preferred style of play will be with Everton. There were glimpses of continuity; from the more pragmatic, up-and-at-’em style at the start of his reign before COVID struck, to the sporadic, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it displays of more progressive, front-foot football in those fever dream early weeks of this campaign. More recently, though, it’s as if he’s lost faith in a number of them, and is just try to muddle on through, polishing turds as best he can until the season’s merciful end on May 23.
Then again, this isn’t Ancelotti’s squad, by and large. There are those he’s inherited and improved - Keane, Mina, Davies and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, to name a few - while all of his signings bar King have been hits. But there are still too many on board who are beyond saving, like broken, second-hand toys picked up from the charity shop, with as little shelf life as motivation. That, coupled with all of the mitigating factors the pandemic has thrown up, makes the lack of a clear footballing philosophy thus far a little more excusable.
But not forever. Next season, as we’ve known for far longer than yet another demoralising home defeat, will focus the spotlight more harshly on Ancelotti. A bright, promising best XI needs to be complemented by a bench bristling with talent. For now, though, when your centre-backs are the most potent of your nine substitutes, and your dilemmas involve which defensive midfielder or misfiring forward to introduce, quite what more he could do is a mystery.