Buckle in and hold on tight. This retrospective is a roller-coaster unlike any other you’ve ever been on because it’s mostly just downhill with a few small peaks, twists, turns and then more downhills which then ends much, much lower than you anticipated when you started.
If that first paragraph sounds horribly familiar, then you are indeed a perceptive reader of Royal Blue Mersey because it has been copied word-for-word from the corresponding article for the 2019-20 season.
Everton finished the 2021-22 Premier League season in 16th place with 39 points with Frank Lampard in charge and a squad full of big-earners past their prime. But how did we get here?
Full disclosure - the previous sentence was also lifted from that article, with just the dates, table position, points total and the manager’s name changed.
A truly strange summer transfer window, by recent Everton standards at least, as not only did the Blues appoint former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez to take over, they also handed him a transfer kitty that could barely cover a round of sausage rolls for the squad. Gylfi Sigurdsson was omitted from the squad after getting into legal troubles and James Rodriguez was sidelined by his old nemesis Benitez, and just like that the Blues had lost two of their biggest creators from the previous season.
In came Andros Townsend on a free transfer from Crystal Palace, Benitez’s former player at two stops Salomon Rondon, Asmir Begovic and Andy Lonergan for goalie cover, and the only money the Blues spent, former Leicester City forward Demarai Gray for a paltry £1.7 million.
There was plenty of skepticism around majority shareowner Farhad Moshiri insisting Benitez was the man to get the Blues back on track after Carlo Ancelotti bolting for Real Madrid. You just knew that the moment results would start going wrong that the new manager’s seat would get very warm very quickly, and how prophetic those thoughts would become.
The Blues started the Premier League season at home against Southampton, and when Michael Keane and Mason Holgate got into a mix-up and allowed former Championship striker Adam Armstrong to nip and score the opener early on, it was looking like it was going to be a long, long season ahead. Rafa’s side did bounce back in style though, with goals from ironman Richarlison (fresh from winning gold at the Olympic games and no break in between), a revitalized forward-pacing Abdoulaye Doucoure, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin leading the line to get a rare comeback win, 3-1 for the Blues.
They followed up that result with a 2-2 draw away against an exciting Leeds United side with all the new signings looking good and all was well in the Everton camp. The Blues then huffed and puffed away at Championship side Huddersfield in their League Cup Second Round tie, getting an Alex Iwobi opener before overcoming a second half red card for striker Moise Kean with Townsend popping up for the winner in a 2-1 result.
Next the Blues went on the road again, this time to Brighton & Hove Albion, and outplayed their hosts with Rafa’s counterattacking 4-4-2 tearing Graham Potter’s side apart in a 2-0 win that could have been much bigger. Both Gray and Benitez were deservedly nominated for the Player of the Month and Manager of the Month awards.
Calvert-Lewin had left the Seagulls game with what looked like a minor injury, and little did Evertonians know at the time how long he would have to wait to get back to the pitch, or indeed add to his goal tally which was already at three early on in the season.
After the first international break Everton continued their run of good form, another comeback this time, dispatching Burnley 3-1 at home with a scorching goal from Townsend the likes of which we hadn’t seen at Goodison Park in a long, long time. The Blues left the game with a bitter taste in their mouths however after James Tarkowski had clattered Richarlison by the sideline and the referee deeming that it was not only not a bookable offence, but not a foul at all.
Confidence was soaring in the Everton squad as they visited Aston Villa while sitting in a lofty 4th spot. In the first half Gray latched onto a through ball and raced away, and looked to be tugged back by Ezri Konsa. Mysteriously, VAR agreed with the on-pitch officials and decided to not give a foul and Konsa was not sent off. The Blues seemed deflated after that and were brought crashing down to earth by their pacy hosts in a 3-0 defeat that they had no answers for in the second half.
The Blues meanwhile continued to struggle with error-strewn performances and were dumped out in the third round of the Carabao Cup, losing on penalties at Championship Queens Park Rangers - poor defending from setpieces was rearing its ugly head again.
The Toffees did get back to winning ways to close out the month though, beating bottom side Norwich City 2-0 at home and holding on to fifth place in the league table. Doucoure was thriving in the new role Benitez had eked out for him as an indefatigable box-to-box midfielder as he kept popping up in the opposition box to either score or create scoring chances.
The timing of the next international break could not have been worse for the Blues however as Rafa’s side stumbled badly. If only that would be the worst slump of Everton’s month, but there was worse to come. First a 1-0 loss at home to the visiting David Moyes’ West Ham, and then what we thought then was rock bottom, allowing 16th place Watford to come from 2-1 down with about a dozen minutes to play to score four quickfire goals to lose 5-2 at Goodison Park no less.
There was still more misery to come though, as the news came through that Calvert-Lewin would be out for an extended period of time, Doucoure’s brilliant start to the season ground to a halt with an injury and even talisman Richarlison picked up a knock.
In desperation, the Blues appointed a new Rehabilitation Fitness Coach to try and stem the rot but that didn’t change anything. Cristian Fernandez had worked previously with Benitez at Newcastle, and it was only then the extent of the new manager’s powers was starting to be felt.
As the chill in the air grew, the Blues dry spell continued. Everton had four league games in the month, three away and one at home. They did eke out a dull 0-0 draw at home against Tottenham when there was a win for the taking with the visitors still bedding in new manager Antonio Conte. The big talking point from the game was referee Chris Kavanagh, who had originally given a penalty to Everton after Hugo Lloris had dived to swipe the ball away from Richarlison’s feet and taken out the player. However, upon a VAR review he rescinded his original decision amidst howls of protest from the Goodison crowd.
That tie was sandwiched between a lame 2-1 loss at Wolves with setpiece woes mostly to blame, a 3-0 hiding at Manchester City and then a backbreaking 1-0 defeat to newly promoted Brentford. That loss at the Bees was particularly galling because of yet another dodgy decision from the referee, with both the officials and VAR completely missing Rondon being tugged down by Kristoffer Ajer as Townsend’s cross came into the box.
Pressure was mounting on Benitez as he continued his sidelining of Lucas Digne, and the Blues after hitting the lofty heights of the top six early on were suddenly in 14th place and heading into a Merseyside Derby with their confidence in the tank.
The festive month started off with a bad taste in the mouth. Liverpool came visiting their former manager, and went back across Stanley Park having cruised to a 4-1 win, their biggest Goodison derby victory in 39 years. The visiting Reds fans chanting Benitez’ name late on in the game pretty much topped the humiliation.
Next, Marcel Brands left his position as Everton director of football, in a move that was widely acknowledged as Benitez making his mark on the organization. Everton needed a lifeline and it appeared in the shape of Arsenal. The Gunners haven’t had much success against the Toffees at Goodison in recent years and Richarlison threatened to make this one a riot for the Blues, but it took two marginal VAR decisions to keep him from getting a hat trick, and it was Gray who popped up right at the end with a brilliant winner in time added on for the 2-1 victory.
If you thought that would be the springboard for Benitez to launch his Blues back up the table you would be sorely mistaken however. Postponements of a number of ties due to rising COVID numbers in playing squads coupled with injuries and players on international duty meant Everton had fewer fixtures to play around the usually busy Christmas period, but they still struggled, getting hammered 3-1 away at Crystal Palace, and then with virtually a B-team somehow incredibly holding a talent-laden Chelsea side to a hard-fought 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge to close out a miserable 2021.
Did Santa Claus show up at Christmas and give Everton a bunch of new weapons to start winning games again? Short answer, nope. The Blues did announce two quick signings as soon as the winter transfer window opened with fullbacks Vitaliy Mykolenko and Nathan Patterson joining the club, but with Benitez continuing to blackball Digne, the veteran Frenchman wanted out, a wish that was soon granted with his transfer to Aston Villa while winger Anwar El Ghazi came to Merseyside on loan.
On the pitch the losses counted to mount though, with a 3-2 defeat away at Brighton starting the new year off, and then the Toffees needed extra time to dispose of Championship side Hull City, winning 3-2 in the FA Cup Third Round.
Despite mounting protests about how poorly Rafa was doing, the Board decided to stick with the Spaniard and surely enough another embarrassing defeat followed. The Blues lost 2-1 away at bottom side Norwich City and finally the club’s leadership decided to make their move, sacking Benitez despite having effectively handed him control of the entire footballing operation, from coaching, scouting, managing and even transfers just weeks before.
Duncan Ferguson stepped in again as interim manager, following that up with a 1-0 loss at Goodison Park against Digne and his new side Villa. There was still a whole week left in the month for a lot more action to take place. First, the Blues looked like they were close to appointing Vitor Perreira as the new manager and widespread fan protests broke out, disappointed by the calibre of names being linked with the club.
That message was heeded eventually as Frank Lampard was appointed the club’s new manager and immediately set about bringing in some much-needed talent with non-existent finances. With the El Ghazi loan taking up on of the two available loan spots, the Blues were able to sign Manchester United’s Donny van de Beek with the other spot and then had to work out a complicated purchase deal with Tottenham to get out-of-favour forward Dele Alli, all on deadline day.
The month of February started off with a much more positive outlook for the Blues. January had come and gone, and so had Rafa Benitez. The relationship between the fans and the club had started getting to toxic levels the longer the Spaniard stayed, as was pretty much expected when the appointment was announced in the summer. There was now renewed hope under Lampard that the Toffees would play more positive football and finally start picking up some wins.
Lampard’s first game in charge was the FA Cup Fourth Round clash against Brentford and that certainly whetted the appetite of Evertonians as the home side brushed the Bees away with ease en route to a 4-1 win. Three days later though the same Blues looked mostly impotent as a resurgent Newcastle side dominated in a 3-1 win. Once again a controversial decision against Everton marred the game, with Jonjoe Shelvey’s dangerous ‘scissor’ tackle into the back of Gordon’s legs going unpunished in full view of the referee when the score was still tied 0-0.
It was going to take Lampard’s staff some time to work out the kinks in this squad, and more importantly, to stop making the silly defensive errors that had plagued the side all season long. The downer at St. James Park quickly turned to euphoria as Leeds United were swept aside 3-0 at Goodison Park in one of the best performances of the season.
The up and down season wasn’t going away yet though. Everton went down to the south coast to take on Southampton and after a strong start to the game felt aggrieved after VAR deemed that a cross striking Oriol Romeu wasn’t worth a penalty. The Blues went on to lose 2-0. If you thought that was egregious then what happened the week after would change your entire perspective on refereeing in the Premier League.
The Blues put in a heroic performance against league leaders and defending champions Manchester City defending well and holding them at bay until late on. A miscued clearance by Mason Holgate caught Michael Keane flatfooted, and Phil Foden capitalized from a couple of yards out to tuck home. The home side were deflated, but looked to have found a lifeline when an odd bounce caught Rodri unawares and the ball clearly bounced off his forearm in the City box. You will not find a more obvious handball in the sport this season, and yet somehow the ref and VAR conspired to deny the Blues a penalty. Lampard was apoplectic after the 1-0 loss, and Evertonians were already picturing the doomsday scenes of the club going down on the final day of the season by one point.
Surely there was too much quality in this squad to go down.. right? Right?! The Toffees played three league games in March and it was still looking touch-and-go at the end of the month if they were going to get sucked into the relegation battle or not.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin was in and out of the squad in January and February as he struggled to retain full fitness. He started the game at Tottenham as Lampard decided to go full pelt 4-3-3 against the home side, and immediately regretted his decision. Spurs incredible speed in transition opened up the Blues at will and they led 2-0 within twenty minutes, and the Blues can count themselves to be very lucky they were only hammered 5-0 in this one because it could easily have been double that.
Morale was already floundering just over a month into Lampard’s tenure at Goodison Park, and the Blues looked flat in a 1-0 loss at home to Wolves, with once again a setpiece to blame as Everton conceded the winner following on from a corner.
In a mostly uninspiring game at home against Newcastle, once again refereeing came to the fore as Allan was sent off late in the game for a professional foul bringing down Allan Saint-Maximin as he was setting off on a break. What is usually a yellow card for a common foul seen often somehow was reviewed by VAR and deemed to be violent enough to warrant a sending off. That injustice in itself wasn’t as big a problem as the resulting suspension for three games would be for the Toffees who were struggling with squad fitness even before this mishap. A pitch invasion by a political protester had meant a minimum of fourteen minutes of time was to be added on. Despite being down a man miraculously second half substitute Calvert-Lewin laid on a sumptuous return pass for Iwobi to slot home the unexpected 1-0 winner and keep the Blues out of the relegation zone.
That trio of games was bookended by a couple of FA Cup clashes. The Toffees had drawn giantkillers Boreham Wood in the Fifth Round and ended up expending a lot more effort than should have been required to beat the non-leaguers 2-0 thanks to a second half brace from Salomon Rondon. The Cup run came to a grinding halt however when the Blues had to go to Crystal Palace for the quarter final. A positive start dissipated with an injury to Townsend that would end his season, and the Blues simply fell away after that as the Eagles romped to a 4-0 win.
The Toffees were scheduled to play five times in month of April, with the Blues starting the month sitting in the relegation zone albeit with games in hand over the teams around them. Lampard faced three games in six days to start off the month and possibly define the season. It felt like every game at this point was a must-win.
The Blues went to West Ham first with the hosts looking to seal a European spot and like had happened many times already, Everton beat themselves again. Mistakes from Mason Holgate and Michael Keane handed goals to the hosts while Richarlison’s puzzling goal drought continued in a 2-1 loss. Keane compounded matters by getting sent off and there was more frustration with refereeing as Aaron Cresswell clearly kicked out at a prone Richarlison with no consequences.
Then the big six-pointer at Turf Moor. Everton needed to win, but even a draw at Burnley would keep the Clarets behind the Blues. After a poor start saw the hosts lead early from a setpiece (of course), Everton hit back with two penalties to lead at the break. Apparently Sean Dyche told his players at the break that the Toffees didn’t have the will to win because the Blues (in)famous struggles away from Goodison came back to haunt them as Burnley threw the kitchen sink at them and got two goals to sink the Toffees 3-2. You could be forgiven for thinking Everton were surely doomed at this point.
Next up, Manchester United at Goodison. Unexpectedly, the Toffees got a deflected goal from Anthony Gordon and then held strong in the second half as the Red Devils meekly succumbed and a floundering campaign was revitalized again with the 1-0 win.
Leicester City were the next visitors and quieted a raucous crowd minutes into the game with a goal. Tenacious defending and otherworldly luck meant the margin stayed at one goal for the whole game while Richarlison continued to struggle in front of goal, missing chance after chance until time added on when two minutes in he popped up in the box to score, with Dele Alli’s tenaciousness creating the goal. Widespread relief in a 1-1 draw, two games unbeaten.
The last game of the month was a dreaded visit to Anfield for the return leg of the Merseyside Derby, and it was just as contentious as you would have expected. Once again refereeing was front and center as twice Sadio Mane got away with sticking his hands in the face of an Everton player with no repercussions, and Gordon was denied what looked like a pretty clear penalty while being stamped on in the box in full flight. The result was a 2-0 defeat that saw the Blues drop to 17th again.
Evertonians kept waiting for that turnaround in fortunes and run of form that would take the club out of the danger zone, and it just wasn’t coming.
Six games in 22 days. That was what it had come down to. Burnley, Leeds United and Everton, one of the trio would go down. Burnley had the easiest schedule on paper, Leeds the most difficult.
The fans rallied around the club, making it a point to show the players that they had the full backing of all Evertonians. Lampard’s former club Chelsea came visiting and Everton gritted out a 1-0 win with Richarlison nabbing the winner and all three points. Then the Blues went to Leicester for their away leg, and despite a back-and-forth battle against the Foxes who had just been dumped out of the Europa Conference League, came away 2-1 victors with Vitalii Mykolenko’s superb volley and a Mason Holgate header to thank.
Evertonians were starting to believe again and with a trip to a decimated and already relegated Watford on the cards, a third successive win would all but secure safety. As Everton often do though, they played afraid away and were unable to break down the Hornets, drawing 0-0 and ensuring they would remain a part of the relegation battle for a couple more weeks at least.
Brentford at home were the next test, and once again a packed Goodison carried the team to a quick goal with Calvert-Lewin marking his return to the side by finding the back of the net. However, the wheels came off soon after - first Richarlison saw his shirt almost torn in two as he was tugged down in the box, but the referee waved play on and the Bees went the other way and Jarrad Branthwaite clumsily brought down Ivan Toney on the break and was sent off. Goodison’s protestations were to no avail as VAR did not recind that decision. Brentford leveled soon after through an unfortunate deflection from captain Seamus Coleman but still the Blues fought back and led again at the break thanks to a Richy penalty. However, Brentford made their adjustments at the break and their aerial bombardment of the box against the ten-man Blues defending deep eventually paid off as the Blues lost 3-2.
Everton to a man looked exhausted and defeated, but led by the fans once again mustered what they had for the penultimate game of the season, and the last one at home. There was not an Evertonian anywhere who did not also realized that the visit of Crystal Palace could also be the last Premier League game at Goodison Park, possibly ever. That outpouring of emotion and faith seemed utterly wasted as the visitors raced into a 2-0 lead. It sounds like a broken record at this point, but once again refereeing almost changed the course of this game - Jordan Ayew dove in from behind on Gordon with a scissor-tackle that left the youngster writhing in agony and the forward was only booked, and of course, he scored the second goal for Palace.
Was this it? Would Everton be left needing a win against Champions League chasing Arsenal on the last day of the season? Lampard finally switched to three in the middle at the break bringing on Dele, and immediately the game changed. Keane neatly controlled and fired home from a freekick and suddenly Goodison believed again. Lifted by the crowd, the players pressed relentlessly and a deflected shot from Richarlison made it 2-2 with fifteen minutes to play. Palace to their credit did not settle for the draw and continued to push forward which allowed the Blues to win a freekick on the counter with six minutes to go. Gray’s delivery was pinpoint, DCL’s timing was superb and his header was only going to one place, and that was the back of the net in the Gwladys Street end. 3-2 and the noise was off the charts as some fans invaded the pitch. Desperately players and stewards tried to usher them off as the game needed to resume and Everton were able to see out the remainder of the game before utter bedlam broke out again as the Toffees had secured safety with the win. Insanity.
There was the matter of one last game at Arsenal but you can be forgiven for not caring as the Blues were spanked 5-1. It didn’t matter and no one cared.
All in all, it was a pretty miserable year with a few high points that filled us with hope, but the negatives once again crushed that fragile ambition to smithereens. Every Everton season is different, yet always the same.
(That previous paragraph was taken from a previous season recap article too, it only made sense to finish this piece the way we started.)