Back on The Chain Gang

“To a place in the past
We’ve been cast out of
But now we’re back in the fight”

And so ends what has been a fraught and almost entirely underwhelming mini-segment of the season.

With defeat to Manchester United (a 3rd successive defeat) Everton have slipped from outright 1st to 7th in the league in the space of 4 games and with us having only 13 points from 8 games you sense all of the positive buffer we had built in those opening games has now gone. Understandably within this context discussions are being had about the players, recruitment and even the manager. While it’s important to look to avoid kneejerk conclusions, the sharp divergence of performance that has occurred is right to raise concerns amongst supporters. Without trying to minimise this, any analysis that we take has to attempt to fit the last 4 games into a wider context of the 11 we have played this season, the 30 or so we’ve had under Ancelotti and arguably the 4 seasons that have preceded him. This is not to make any excuses but to acknowledge that the general trajectory may be positive notwithstanding the current dip we are in.

What is most important, as a starting point in any credible discussion about the last month is to acknowledge the start to the season was unsustainable. We were not going to continue to win every game henceforth. Indeed, two teams who have gone very close to that over recent seasons (Liverpool and Manchester City) are not currently doing that. Even with our abject run of results we still sit sandwiched between them. There was an inevitability that we were going to lose. What is perhaps harder to take, and by no means an inevitability – is the response to those setbacks has not been where we would like it to be. This is bitterly disappointing and perhaps indicates to supporters that some of the frailties that existed prior to Ancelotti’s arrival still exist. For anyone who has watched us over the past 4-6 years it is not an enormous surprise, but any hopes that the opening to this season had banished some of the mental weakness of the squad do need to be re-evaluated. It remains a group of players who struggle with adversity or when we have to divert from plan A (be that through injury, suspension or lack of form).

So turning specifically the 4 games in question and what has gone wrong? There are competing theories, each of them meritable in their own and in truth it is probably a mixture of all of them. Initially there has been some reversion to the mean over the last 4 games. Everton now sit around where you might expect them to sit in the upper part of the middle of the table. While we had hoped that we had qualitatively kicked beyond this, there has to be some acknowledgement doing this is neither a linear process nor is it a switch that becomes flicked. There is a longer term process at play that takes time to embed. There are still big positives this season (notably winning at a “top 6” opponent that have hinted at some positive movement, and it is these small glimpses of potential that need to be built upon.

To give some defence of the team, there was also some misfortune in the timing of an international break. We seem to have completely lost our rhythm in that time. The hope will be that the timing of this break can also act as a re-set button for the management and the players. Alongside the international break, injuries have also hit us hard. Injuries to Coleman, Allan, Mina, James, Gomes & Godfrey alongside costly suspensions to Richarlison and Digne have also curtailed rhythm. For the first 4 league game we could name an almost unchanged side that regularity has been lost and the players seem to suffer when there are too many changes. Again it is not just the quality of players that are missing, but the routine and familiarity being disrupted which tends to throw our team off more than it ought too.

To me there is little doubt we have been rushing players back. On Saturday Holgate and Coleman looked some way off while James still looks to be a player suffering with the injury sustained from a reckless tackle from Virgil Van Dijk in the derby. On top of that, the stupidity of both Lucas Digne and Richarlison, needless getting themselves sent off has compounded a wider set of problems. In much of the discussion, Richarlison in particular seems to have avoided any substantial criticism for his decision. If you are as important as he is to our team, needlessly getting yourself suspended shows a lack of discipline and a petulance that has to be taken out of his game.

To a lesser or greater degree, injuries, an ill times international break, and some acknowledgement of a reversion to mean are all explanations for the rapid shift on fortunes. To a greater or lesser degree all of them can be patched up. There is now another mini break to re-set and players are now returning from absence. One factor that does not just impact the last 4 games though, is the defensive fragility and needless mistakes we have made allowing opponents to be gifted goals. In the first 4 league games we conceded 2 against Brighton and West Brom in home games, and of those 4 goals certainly 3 were as a result of unnecessary defensive errors (be it Pickford, or giving away cheap possession/free kicks in our defensive 3rd). This has continued into the next set of fixtures, but with our attacking intent nullified due to injury and suspension it has now started to cost us. While to a certain degree the attacking aspectof the game is resolved when Richarlison returns and James overcomes his injury, the defensive mishaps are much more rooted and fundamental.

The real concern I have, is that conceding cheap goals has become somewhat habitual for the team. Perhaps there was a sense emerging that our attacking play will always bail us out, yet it is not sustainable to keep expecting to score 3/4/5 goals every game to win. In truth the 4 games between the 2 international breaks have all been underwhelming performances, but performances whereby we could have clawed something out of games had we avoided sloppy defensive play. If we want to break into the top 6 this season, we will need to develop an ability to “win ugly” or pick up 1-1 drws in games where we are not firing offensively. The move to a more settled team following the international break should allow for the conditions to have the stability required to start to do this, but it’s up to the players to ensure there is that commitment to preventing goals.

So with all that in mind, where are we now?  The underlying numbers at this point are mixed and there is still evidence that the season is still very alive for us. 13 through 8 still leaves us above 2 of the perceived wisdoms “top 6” and in touch with the remaining sides. Further European games will likely lead to inconsistencies in results and opportunities for ourselves. 13 through 8 across a season gets you 62 points, which would be the joint highest we have achieved over the last 6 years. It would not be a stellar season by any stretch, but there is a chance you could finish in the top 4 with this total and almost certainly in the top 6 which would be mission accomplished.

There has been some suggestion we had an easy start, though I don’t think the reality shows that. We have played 3 of the current top 4 this season and the average position of the teams faced is 9th in the table. While it has not been a start filled with all of the top teams, it has been a slightly harder start than normal. We have also played 3 of the “big 6” in just under half of the games. The fixtures of Leeds, Sheffield United, Burnley & Fulham who look amongst the most appetising fixtures are still to come and it will be critical we iron out problems to secure close to top points against them. West Ham, Arsenal and Wolves all look winnable fixtures too, if we can get a sense of consistency back into our game.

While I remain less negative than perhaps the standard interpretation, it is worth noting one alternative metric against last season. From the equivalent fixtures last season we picked up 15 points, but this season we have only 13. So we are behind the total of 49 points we got last season. That is not a good place to be and hints at underperformance. The important caveat is that it perhaps indicates that sides such as Southampton, Tottenham and Crystal Palace have actually improved on last season on the 6 points we have achieved from those away games is potentially worth more than last season, though it’s a slightly worrying trend.

As indicated above, you sense any buffer Ancelotti and the team had built up at the start of the season has now gone. Another 4 games like the last 4 would likely see Everton sitting in the bottom half of the league through 8 games, facing a more challenging run of fixtures. It feels the optimum moment for a 2 week re-set and for Ancelotti and the players to perhaps re-evaluate slightly their approach and look to get the team back on track. I am not sure this has to look like 7 straight wins at the start of the season but as a base line we can’t really be doing much worse than the first 8 of the season again. 26 from 16 would be about the bottom end of what we would consider acceptable as we move forward.

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