In judging Evertons start it is worth noting we remain unbeaten, though the winning run came to an end at Manchester City. In isolation a point at the Etihad following 3 against Stoke will be a good result. For the most part this remains the case when the context of playing half the game against 10. Not many will get out of City this season with anything other than a hiding. The manner the point was achieved though, particularly the second half performance taps into a wider concern I’ve held for some years.
On the eve of the season I suggested Koeman had two key jobs to ensure this season manifested itself successfully. Firstly he had to integrate and look to improve younger players and secondly he needed to spread goals around more equitably. It’s much too early on either to make a concrete judgement on either objective, though the improvements seen from Calvert Lewin and the the performances of Pickford, Holgate, Davies, Keane and Klaassen suggest we have ground for optimism on these questions. The unspoken objective that hasn’t been mentioned but lingers long on most Evertonians minds is the requirement for a manager to prevent Everton freezing in big games, notably games away from home to the top sides and in the latter stages of cup competitions. For Everton to get back to where we want it to be, I sense this will be the final hurdle that needs to be overcome.
For me the most frustrating part of Everton over the last 15 years has not strictly speaking been the “underachievement”. In truth given the lack of investment and strategic plan at the top of the club has led to us falling significantly below an ever growing group at the top of the league. Whichever metric you wish to use, net spend, gross spend, amortization, wage spend- all will show pre Moshiri Everton nearer to sides at the bottom of the Premier League than the 4th or 5th place side. With this in mind it is hard to make a case for underachievement, you could well make a case there has been a overachievement (particularly in league form). In every season in the last 13 we’ve finished no lower than 11th and in 8 of those years no lower than 8th.
While it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge, sides with similar budgets to ourselves, (Sunderland, West Ham, Newcastle, or Aston Villa) have been seen to yoyo between the divisions and would be envious of our performance. This ought to be balanced against the reality that Portsmouth, Middlesborough and particularly Leicester have picked up major honours in that time, and a multitude of teams with similar budgets have a record sheet against the top 4/5/6 away from home to put Everton to shame. This balance is important, while overall Everton’s is a story of overachievement it is one sprinkled with painful and acute moments of underachievement at critical moments.
The reality is, a reality grasped by most Evertonians that we have been greater than the sum of our parts for some time. Astute recruitment, consistency in managers and being in a footballing goldmine of a city with a fantastic academy have all to some degree given Everton an advantage over competitors and presented opportunities to overperform. Players such as Tim Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Julian Lescott & Leighton Baines were more than just solid championship players. With the likes of Arteta and Peinaar were more than caste offs from decent European teams. For the most part each played at a level not out of place for a top 4/5/6 side but at critical moments couldn’t produce on the biggest stage.
Everton’s record against the top 4/5/6 teams away from home is appalling. 1 win at Old Trafford since 1992, no wins at Anfield since 1999, Arsenal since 1996 or Chelsea since 1995 (albeit with a single cup win). I would imagine that gives us 1 win in around 80 fixtures. I can live with the fact we are underdogs, but how many bookmakers would make Everton an 80-1 outsider for a match at those grounds? Everton may have had some poor teams in that time but even bearing that in mind, it suggests to me something beyond football ability and finances is at play in this, a mental block or even an existential threat exists through the club on this question.
This perception is re-enforced for me by our cup performance in big games. Under Moyes I saw us freeze at home to Reading and Wigan in a quarter finals as well as Liverpool in a semi final. The same is true of Martinez in the two semi-finals last year. For Koeman last year the same happened at Anfield, we looked like rabbits in the headlights, and a few days after at Old Trafford you could see the players sink deeper and deeper as the realization set in that they could actually win. What alarms me most is that the same pattern emerged in the fixture against Manchester City.
It is important to specify I am not discussing being defensive as the problem. Mourinho has regularly sent sides out to be defensive and does so with a certainty and assuredness that we lack. In spite of what anyone says, most of the top teams go into big games away from home looking for a point. However most are also ready to pounce when the opportunity to get 3 presents itself. Top be successful you have to be able to recognize and act upon these moments, where at present the prospect of winning seems to startle us.
For 45 minutes at the Etihad Everton were very good. There was a clear, thought out game plan which maximized the talents of players available to us and was implemented fantastically. Stifle City and play on the break. Yet City going behind and the subsequent sending off was one of the moments discussed above, a radical change and one that we didn’t seem to react to at all. City for their part did, a change of formation and personnel allowed them to wrestle back control and continue to control a game they should have been well out of in the second half. For Everton it is hard to describe the second half performance as anything other than the cricketing term of “choking”.
While I accept this analysis may seem unduly harsh it has to be remembered that everyone at the club, from the majority shareholder down is keen to rebrand Everton as one of the top 7. However in taking this step, Everton have to expect to be judged in the same way any other from that grouping to be judged. Had Arsenal performed how Everton did in the second half, there would have likely been two days worth of pundits slating them and their manager. Had Liverpool conceded how Everton did it’s likely significant scrutiny would be placed upon their inability to defend crosses. While much of this is over the top, with Everton the balance is too far the other way and not enough scrutiny is put the on field performances in big games.
Introducing the Everton Mishmash!
What should be reiterated at this point is it’s not strictly about the end result, but as much about the processes we saw. Manchester City could still have got a draw with Everton with Everton having played well, such is the quality they have at their disposal. De Bruyne could stick one in the top corner from 30 yards or Ageuro is capable of conjuring a goal out of nothing. This could also happen to any of the other top 7 teams. However what I can confidently say, is facing a half time re-think all of the other sides in the top 7 would have gone for the kill against City in the second half, an imperative that was sadly lacking from Everton. Alongside this, had they have drawn the game you sense all would have been massively disappointed at the end of the game.
If Everton are to move forward we have to fight for the idea this was a big opportunity lost. Had we won at the Etihad people would have started to take notice. My own twitter feed was full of Liverpool fans commenting negatively towards us and our performance, yet by full time no such comments existed.
By no means does this mean our season is over, or we can’t or won’t get into the top 6 or top 4. From what I have seen, Liverpool having played two of the leagues poorest sides have looked vulnerable, Arsenal have lost to a functional is unspectacular Stoke side, while Chelsea look to be teetering as to which direction the season will go and Spurs keep a big a big question mark over them playing home games at an unfamiliar stadium. We can finish above any or all of those sides, yet the final hurdle of getting over tight spots in games will be essential for us to do so.
It is difficult to know quite what Koeman is to do on this. The answer would be to get new players in, and players who have the experience and leadership to help. However 8 of the lads who started last night weren’t involved in the Everton first team before last season. In that time we have signed the last 2 captains of Swansea, the captain of Wales who led them to the European Championships semi finals, the captain of Iceland who defeated England in the same championships, the captain of Manchester United, Ajax and Burnley (as a stand in). They’ve added a manager who not only has won every trophy there is to win as player and manager, has scored the winning goals to do so.
The blunt reality is that Everton have added winners, players with experience and leadership acumen and to some degree against Manchester City the same traits that existed for the previous 15 years looked to return. If Premier League management was as simple as just signing the best players to fulfill your requirements then your average Football Manager enthusiast could take a Premier League job. Manchester City, who have spent circa 200 million pounds on defensive players would have a solid defense. Yet there is more of an art to it that just simply buying players to fill the void.
Perhaps more than anything else Everton need to get a big win at an away ground of one of the top teams. It’s not simply coincidence many of the wins at the top teams came within a similar time frame of one another, Chelsea in 95, Arsenal in 96, and Liverpool in 96 and 99. All arrived within 4 years of a momentous cup triumph and solidified a belief that big games were to be relished not feared. Everton also had players in their side, who arguably under achieved for the club in a broader sense but were able to perform in the biggest of games- Kanchelskis, Limpar and Fergusan being 3 who relished performing on the biggest stage.
It would be neither realistic nor fair for me to put an objective on Koeman in a single season to unpick what has become an almost existential crisis for the club in big fixtures. In truth it is difficult to be sure what to prescribe to suggest to help other than adopting a different mindset whereby we overcome hurdles and welcome challenges as an opportunities.
While it’s clear Koeman sets a high bar, and Rooney himself is undoubtedbly a winner with high standards even their own interviews after the game reflected something of a compromise on the question. Rooney stated that while he was “disappointed” with the result he’d have taken a point beforehand. All of this is true and while it’s not to throw Rooney (perhaps our best player on the night) under the bus it’s difficult to imagine him being so philosophical about giving away a late lead if he was wearing a Manchester United shirt. In truth can anybody imagine, Southall, Reid or Radcliffe being as philosophical 30 years ago if we had drawn at Anfield? Likewise what would Ball, Harvey or Labone have said about a draw at Old Trafford in similar circumstances? It’s not to throw Rooney under the bus, as he is very much part of the solution not the problem, but collectively as a club if we want to get back to the standing we had in the 80’s or 60’s we have to embrace those standards.
Of course there will be a legitimate question about whether this means the pitch is too high. At present business has been done, and good business has been done yet I would firmly arguably it has none been transformative business. Sides have spent more than us, and even after the season starts Koeman is still waiting on a comparable “like for like” replacement for last seasons star striker. Being held to the standards or previous championship winning teams without the commensurate investment is unfair. Likewise we could well have drawn or lost to City and still been ok, naïve or unlucky. My argument would be to forget the result somewhat and look at the process, however much we’ve spent we need to avoid freezing at key moments in big games going forward. Here’s to this process starting with an unlikely with at Stamford Bridge this weekend!