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Another New Year’s Day Hangover

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Everton 0 – 1 West Ham

It’s all very “Everton” that this team exploded into a seven-match winning start to the season, took just a single point from matches against Southampton, Newcastle, Leeds and Burnley and then won four on the bounce in December, a month in which they were expected to struggle mightily as injuries to vital players bit and the fixtures began to pile up. Then, having won another four straight and with the chance to pull within one point of the top of the table, they go and lose at home to a David Moyes team for the first time.

It’s absolutely maddening but, just like the Carabao Cup quarter-final against Manchester United — and, indeed the League game against the same team in November, this defeat exposed the shortcomings in quality and consistency with this Everton squad. It also didn’t help that it was New Year’s Day — Everton have now lost their last five matches played on the first of the year. Different managers, different players, seemingly the same mindset.

One of these sides was playing its third match in the space of six days; the other had had a fixture scheduled for Monday postponed, giving them a six-day period for recuperation and, you would have thought, the energy to go all out in search of three points that would have represented a fifth League victory in a row. It wasn’t so much that you couldn’t tell which was which — Everton didn’t necessarily exhibit any more fatigue than West Ham — but Carlo Ancelotti’s men were frustratingly cagey and unadventurous for long periods and simply inept going forward, a posture that belied the impressive run they were on coming into the game.

Credit to his progress this season, the loss of Alex Iwobi’s drive and unpredictable creativity down the right was a big miss and despite making such a positive impact off the bench at Sheffield United, Bernard wasn’t able to match it. The Brazilian had his moments, the best of which yielded one of only two shots on target Everton would manage all evening and a decent save from Darren Randolph at the end of the first half, but on the whole he was representative of a lack of cutting edge that plagued the home side for almost the entire game.

Bernard has never been a model of consistency so it was the ineffectiveness of his compatriot, Richarlison, that was more worrying. The 23-year-old returned after missing the trip to Bramall Lane under the concussion protocol, but after an iffy 50-odd minutes in that cup tie against United, he had another match to forget down the flanks.

Richarlison has always defied categorisation — neither an out-and-out striker nor a true winger with genuinely tricky dribbling skills, he’s established his career in England as a wide forward using his power and unpredictability to beat opponents but when he is effectively marked or playing without a natural full-back behind him, he cut a very frustrated and unproductive figure. He seems to have fallen into a rut where he believes just running at defenders is enough but over and over he would just end up sloppily giving the ball away.

Without either of those wide men able to influence the game against a Moyes team that sat back and deprived them of the space they enjoy hitting teams in transition, Everton found it tough going but they made things immeasurably worse for themselves with painfully slow tempo and a tendency to recycle the ball backwards time and time again. They compounded that with some very sloppy distribution at times — Mason Holgate, restored to centre-half to accommodate Seamus Coleman’s return and to give Michael Keane a rest, was a notable offender in this regard in the first half while Tom Davies’s pass accuracy went south in the second.

Picking up from his own laudable display in south Yorkshire, Davies had a tidy enough first half in the “Allan role” but was let down by a lack of movement ahead of him and, like Gylfi Sigurdsson who ran around a lot trying to close down passing avenues for Moyes’s team but ultimately offered precious little creativity, it left one pining for the day that Ancelotti is able to select something closer to his first-choice starting XI. The young midfielder didn’t play badly but it was another performance that underlined the fact that — again, like Sigurdsson — he simply isn’t good enough for a side with Champions League aspirations.

It’s understandable that a side that is still make-shift in places wasn’t able to play free-flowing football but the lack of intensity that was so prevalent during that poor run of results between the defeat at St Mary’s and the draw at Turf Moor that was so disappointing. Teams can overwhelm their opponents at times by just upping the tempo and putting them under the cosh but apart from some fleeting moments after James Rodriguez and André Gomes stepped off the bench to significantly improve things, Everton were the epitome of passive.

West Ham had a momentary scare in the sixth minute when Craig Dawson diverted a low Sigurdsson cross towards his own goal, forcing Randolph to reverse direction to pounce on it and one occasion — it might have been the only time in the game that West Ham’s back line didn’t repel anything that was delivered aerially into the box, thereby completely negating the Blues’ threat at set-pieces — where Dominic Calvert-Lewin got his head to a corner but it went well over but otherwise there was nothing of note from Ancelotti’s side until the 45th minute.

That’s when Bernard brought a headed clearance from another corner down on his chest and rattled a half-volley towards the bottom corner but Randolph parried it behind to preserve parity going into half-time.

For their part, West Ham had shown slightly more penetration, better ability to negotiate the press gone closer to breaking the deadlock in the first period. Jarrod Bowen and Tomas Souček had had headed opportunities in front of goal but failed to get enough purchase on the ball while Aaron Cresswell had flashed the ball across Jordan Pickford’s goal with half and hour gone.

Then, after the home side had started the second half with a bit more purpose and energy, the Hammers almost caught them out with a 55th-minute free-kick where Declan Rice found too much space down Everton’s right flank and whipped the ball across the six-yard box. Five minutes later, Pickford was forced to bat away a Cresswell free-kick with a strong right hand and Pablo Fornals tested the keeper with another more tame effort and then planted a free header well wide a few minutes after that.

Moments of incisiveness were all too rare from Everton but Bernard and Coleman combined well in the 63rd minute, although the Irishman’s shot didn’t unduly test the keeper and it would be the Brazilian’s last involvement before he was withdrawn in a double substitution that saw Rodriguez and Gomes come on and Sigurdsson also leave the fray.

The positive change was almost ruined by Coleman’s ill-advised back-header that gifted the ball to West Ham and their own sub, Michail Antonio, was played in only to be foiled by Pickford but Everton improved markedly after that going forward, albeit without being able to carve their opponents open. The removal of a visibly frustrated Calvert-Lewin who once again fed off scraps in favour of Cenk Tosun was a bizarre move that didn’t help and it smacked of “shop window” rather than any belief the Turk could win the game.

The Blues’ forward momentum forced a couple of decent dead-ball situations wide on the left but they came to nothing while West Ham finally made the breakthrough in what had become a disappointingly even contest. Pickford did well to parry away Souček’s 86th-minute shot but Cresswell fired the rebound back into the box, Yerry Mina dangled a leg back to divert it straight into Souček’s path and the Czech slammed it past Pickford.

As Ancelotti remarked after the match, this represented a point dropped from Everton rather than two because, simply put, his team didn’t do nearly enough to win. It was a pretty dreadful performance at a time when they had allowed fans to dare to dream a little again at what kind of surprise the Toffees might be able to pull off this season.

In the wider context, sitting four points off the summit on New Year’s Day is a lot better than many would have predicted but the congestion at the top of the Premier League table means that Everton are only three points above 11th place and are, therefore, as much in the hunt for Europe as West Ham who moved to 26 points with this victory.

While Ancelotti has significantly played down the possibility of Everton adding to their squad this month, there is hope of better performances on the horizon now that James is regaining fitness, Digne is getting close to a return and Allan should be back by the end of the month. The lesson appears to be, however, that as hard as it it may be, it’s pointless getting too high when things are good with this Everton squad the way it is and too low when results aren’t going according to plan. Inconsistency remains the watchword until further quality can be added.

Follow @Everton1an


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