I’ve long felt the international break comes at an inopportune moment for most football spectators. England’s recent success at the World Cup has not changed my mind on that. It feels like you are just getting into the momentum of the new season and suddenly 2 weeks without football feels a long void. Annoyingly for me I have a birthday within this period so to have to celebrate a birthday with no football (whereas once it was celebrating a birthday with an end of the summer holidays) doubles the affliction.
While a mild annoyance is one emotion it highlights the other is it represents an opportune moment to evaluate the start of the season. In previous seasons it has always tied in with the ending of the transfer window and the late flurry of deals. Sometimes the excitement of signing players can help get you through the two weeks. Such an occurrence seemed to only re-enforce the feeling that the first 4 games of the season were an entity in and of themselves despite being connected to the rest of the season. You always felt squads were finalised at that moment and you would have to judge what came after discretely from what came before.
Perhaps the best example of this for Everton came in Martinez’s first season where a slow start to the season (with 3 draws) was transformed with a good win going into the break at home to Chelsea and a good win on the return from the window at West Ham (with new signing Lukaku netting the winning goal). Sandwiched between events were the signings of Lukaku, McCarthy and Barry with the departure of Fellaini but crucially holding onto Leighton Baines. There was an indistinguishable feeling of momentum that began at that moment and would see us finishing boxing day just 5 points off the top of the league having lost less games than anyone else in the league (and sitting above the Liverpool side that would go so close to winning the league). On the flip side, a great early start under Koeman (oddly in both seasons) would seem become abruptly unstuck and arguably underwhelming late window activity played it’s part in that.
This season feels more Martinez season 1 than either of Koeman’s seasons. Perhaps it is the irrepressible optimist in me that draws such conclusions though I can see obvious similarities. Even though the window finished some weeks earlier it feels the work has been positive. We have yet to see most of the players who we have bought and I feel there is a lot to come from them (as we got from Lukaku, Barry and McCarthy who were not only 3 of Everton’s best players that season be were able to transform the way the team played and delivery on the new coaches vision). That feels the case from what we saw before the window and the positive impact we saw from the late window signings under Martinez has every opportunity of being replicated under Silva.
The performance of Zouma, given he has hardly had a pre season was exceptional. His height, physical presence, composure, speed and power were all in evidence against Huddersfield and we looked very comfortable playing much further up the pitch. As he builds fitness you can only see him improving. Alongside him the presence of Yerry Mina, who is arguably more dominant in the air will benefit the Toffees as we look to cut the number of goals we are conceding down. Going forward Andre Gomes will give us height and composure that has at times being missing in games where we have lost control in midfield. Richarlison has been in scintillating form this season and we desperately missed him on Saturday. Digne’s mobility and energy and finally Bernard when fit could offer us the creativity we are missing in the final third. In each player you can see not just a footballer who comes in and has either looked better (or has the potential to look better) than the players in situ last season but crucially all looked well adjusted to fit the Silva system and make it work more effectively.
It is perhaps for this reason why I remain quite calm about the somewhat underwhelming start to the season we have had. We actually picked up 7 points from equivalent fixtures last season and I would say our return from the 4 games is a 6 out or 10 return. There is a crucial context of being down to 10 men for long periods of the 2 away games, though unfortunately any marginal games that came from fighting out for a point in each of those have been somewhat diminished by a lacklustre performance against Huddersfield. Martinez would start with a sloppy away draw at Norwich (where we relinquished a lead) and 2 0-0 draws at Cardiff and at home to West Brom. It’s certainly true the Chelsea performance and win (1-0) was better than anything we have produced thus far, but the 3 draws had less quality or reasons for optimism than the 2 away performances we have shown.
While it is generally unhelpful to decry bad luck the context of the games, given they are from such a small sample size must be factored in. Richarlison’s red card was needless and petulant (and cost us 2 points) but on another day we would have had another penalty for a clear pull back on Tosun. The Wolves red card for Jagielka is also the sort of tackle that looks awful when slowed down, but is also one that has seen many similar tackles ignored as the league has started. Such a lottery in refereeing does little for the product of the Premier League and doesn’t help football fans get on board with respect agenda’s for officials. There was a double punishment as the free kick is moved forward to such an extent that had it been taken from anything approaching where the offence took place Pickford gets more than his finger tips to it and comfortably turns the ball over the bar. The additional 2 points from Wolves would have given (I believe) a fairer reflection of the performance level of the first 4 games. While it has not been overwhelming I would say it has been positive and a sharp improvement on last season.
In each side we have faced, we have been presented not just with the difficulty of the premier league but also the variety of the league. At Wolves two ball playing central midfield players would control the tempo of the game (once we were reduced to 10 men). Southampton are something of a hybrid team, who while possessing some good players look to lack a clear identity to me and were the poorest side even if they had some of the best individuals we faced. Bournemouth are a very ordinary team across the pitch, barring the 2 lads up front who are not only each a handful individually but seem to synchronise naturally with one another. In an era where (particularly central) defenders are used to marking only 1 striker, having 2 lads with such power, pace and intelligence will cause a number of sides difficulties this season. Finally Huddersfield I felt were a very well organized, physical and powerful team. I was oddly very impressed with David Wagner who seemed to line his side up in an unorthodox manner but one that posed manner, primarily to be difficult to be beaten, but also one that could pose a threat going the other way. They did both.
For Silva I’d imagine he would look at Southampton as being the best result, at Wolves for arguably being the best performance, Bournemouth being the most frustrating and Huddersfield at being the most alarming. The stream that runs through all of the games and can hardly be avoided is that the defence of set pieces has to be better. Had we avoided conceding from set pieces this season we would have 12 points and quite possibly a heavy victory against Southampton.
The frustration for me is that the side that was put out against Huddersfield was not lacking in height, there is Zouma who is an enormous player with a huge leap, then lads like Calvert Lewin, Sigurdsson, Tosun, Schneiderlin and Holgate who are all the right side of 6 foot. To back them up you then have Davies who is by no means small, and Coleman/Digne who are better than their height suggests in the air. Having watched us at times field any number of Peinaar, Osman, Neville, Hibbert, Baines & Arteta (often at the same time) all of who’m are inferior to the above listed players in the air and avoid conceding goals of set plays so frequently leads me to think it is a matter of care and application not aptitude.
Much will be made of the zonal system. I have little problem with it, though personally prefer more of the hybrid system where defenders mark and the other big lads line up across the box zonally. The flaws in what we are doing currently seem to be that; 1) we don’t seem to react to the 2nd phase (Bournemouth, Southampton and Huddersfield all score off the 2nd header) and that 2) we appear to leave the zone of 3-6 yards out in front of our goal empty. This zone cannot be emptied as easily as it is being and I would suggest players need to stop being sucked towards the first ball as easily. What it suggests again though, is work on the training ground should improve this area. The improvement in the number of chances and goals we have made/scored going the other way should show to fans that Marco Silva both believes it is an important area to focus upon and that his methods can lead to improvement.
For me they are the two areas that we will need to improve most and our ability to do so this season will ultimately decide how close we can get to the 6 sides above us (and Burnley). We need to stop shooting ourselves in the foot (and giving away goals at set pieces seems a prime reason for this) and we need to be able to effectively bed in and get the best out of a number of new first team players. If we can do the latter, and Mina, Gomes & Bernard can have the impact of Richarlison and to a lesser degree Zouma/Digne (as I still think they both will improve as they get fitter) there is no doubt in my mind we can finish in the top 4. Yet this pronouncement is based on everything going perfectly to plan and it doing so in a quick time frame. A more realistic time frame may well be that we begin to resemble a side that looks as if it can be competitive for the top 4 by the end of the season. This is really my expectation for the season. Looking to see improvement where possible and a team I will begin to judge once the new players have bedded in towards the end of the season.
Huddersfield gave us a flash of what we can expect this season. They essentially set Everton a challenge of “beat us if you are good enough” and Everton were some way off meeting the challenge. The truth is Everton looked what they were, a side full of effort and desire but lacking quality and experience. There’s no doubt they are trying and looking to win (which is a big change on most of the previous season) yet it remains a young team. The 11 that took the field had an average age of under 25 and when Walcott came off for Lookman of under 24. While I haven’t looked into each PL team I highly doubt any would even be close to the youthful look of the side Everton put out. In many ways this was underpinned by Calvert Lewin, Davies, Holgate & Lookman all playing at the same time, few sides will give 4 players under 22 a league opportunity in the same season never mind the same match.
To a lesser or greater degree all had inconsistent matches. Calvert Lewin scored a good goal but remains unorthodox in a wide position, Lookman put a wonderful cross in but didn’t influence the game enough, Holgate continue’s to build possession from the back elegantly (and to great affect) but struggled to handle the physicality of striker Mounie and while at times Davies took possession and moved the team forward too often he was dispossessed in promising positions. On top of this, Sigurdsson and Tosun had underwhelming games and Coleman had a game where nothing seemed to go right for him. There will be games where players are not at the races and there should be some gratitude we escaped with a draw and a continuation of the unbeaten run.
Patience is of course needed within this context. The reasons for this are numerous. You have a number of young players being used this season, added to the 4 we have seen there are also Richarlison, Kenny and Dowell. While there seems to be a fierce debate on the ability of many of the young players what shouldn’t be in doubt is they all look as if they are improving under working with Silva. Whether they are improving at a quick enough rate, or there is ultimately a good enough player in the long term can certainly be open to debate, but it is positive to see young players again moving forward as opposed to regressing like we saw for much of last season.
You also have a new coach who is keen to implement a system that is more akin to a side competing to win trophies than one languishing around the lower reaches of the table. For many of the players they are more comfortable with the latter and I have little doubt that over time many will need to be sacrificed. Yet it will take time to embed this change.
Finally we have both a number of new signings to bed in and lots of players to bed in. I would guess that most of the 11 you have seen this season will be squad players towards the end of the year. On Saturday we have still yet to see Mina or Gomez, Bernard has only had a cameo and Richarlison, Keane and McCarthy were unavailable. Added to this Walcott would injure himself during the match. All of the above I expect to be available quickly into autumn as we return from the International break. Most of the names I’ve mentioned would have been valuable and useful additions to what was ultimately a youthful team that struggled at times to get a foothold in games.
The question of patience for Evertonians is as much an existential question that a logical one. I feel most would agree with the logic outlined. We too have seen some of our great managers, Catterick & Kendall in particular take time to build some of the best sides this country has seen. Younger Evertonians have seen David Moyes slowly craft a side that went front relegation candidates to top 6 regulars. Yet the emotional discipline to stay consistent to this position challenges us all. Whether it’s Tom Davies giving the ball away, or Holgate being out muscled it is counter intuitive to accept that this is forgiveable. Understanding that there’s an inevitability to it is challenging and so too is trying to be objective in judging whether you can see improvement as opposed to excellence (or at times even decency).
It also challenges us in that we have gone far too long without a trophy. Promising roses tomorrow is a difficult ideology to subscribe too when you have to accept more scarcity. We have also been let down in giving managers time. Ultimately Moyes hit a glass ceiling he himself had little ability or arguably intention of getting beyond, Martinez would preach the need for patience when it was clear everything was falling around him and Koeman spoke of a 3 plan yet took short term decisions that made little sense.
Faith remains a very difficult thing to have, and it’s not for me to tell you you have to get on board with the project. All I can say, is that in my mind is that the best opportunity we have of competing for trophies is to make the right decisions for the long term and be consistent in their application.
Whatever your view of the start of the season lets hope that the underwhelming results so far can be learnt from and we can build upon the positives that have been seen so far.