It was all so bloody predictable; so bloody Everton. A struggling team; no Premier League wins in forever and none at Goodison Park in their hsitory; looking to be on its way back out of the Premier League barring a miracle; a new signing awaiting his first goal. Then there was Everton: A place in the top five, level on points with Liverpool and six points off second place with a further two games in hand on the teams above them within reach of a side that was on the crest of a wave following Wednesday’s climactic 5-4 FA Cup win over Tottenham in extra-time. And then they turn in that kind of performance, arguably the worst of the 2020-21 season so far.
The sense was that, perhaps, Carlo Ancelotti’s gradual shift in the mentality of this squad had finally reached a tipping point in midweek where the psychological block of “Everton, that” might finally be consigned to history. But, no — collectively, this group of players remains depressingly weak and prone to shooting itself in the foot any time it gets within touching distance of achievement. Champions League? For now, you’re definitely having a laugh.
Ancelotti put the performance down to fatigue but given that only four of his players played all 210 minutes of this and the game against Tottenham, it’s an assessment that doesn’t wash. Almost everything about this horrendous performance was wrong — the team selection from the manager, his choice of at least two of the substitutions and the timing of them, the lack of tempo, desire and application from the players, all the way down to the limp attempt to mount any kind of effective late attempt to even salvage a point.
Ancelotti has made some grave miscalculations this season and the hope was that he had learned from them. No doubt the midweek cup exploits had lulled him into a false sense of optimism but there can be few occasions where selecting Gylfi Sigurdsson, André Gomes and James Rodriguez in the same team makes sense any more, particularly when you don’t have an out-and-out centre-forward at your disposal and one of those players played a gruelling two-hour cup tie just four days earlier.
Worse, it was painfully obvious before half an hour of this match had elapsed that the system the manager had gone for wasn’t working. It demanded urgent change, probably in the form of a bold, early substitution, because the writing was on the wall from the opposition’s performance. The visitors could have been two or three goals up by that point but Ancelotti stalled and even allowed the match to drift 10 minutes into the second half before acting. By then, Everton were 1-0 down and, without an attempt on target up to that point, looking nowhere near scoring apart from Seamus Coleman’s low drive that bounced off the outside of the post 10 minutes before half-time.
To give Scott Parker and his players their due, Fulham were very good and they basically played Everton off the park while diligently closing off passing lanes and making life difficult when they didn’t have the ball. This wasn’t merely the Blues making them look good by how terribly they played — the visitors were quicker, sharper, more adventurous and inventive than their hosts — but, by the same token, the almost complete lack of urgency and pressure from the Toffees until it was far too late meant that the Cottagers were hardly tested.
Two meek shots on target in 90 minutes against a team that hadn’t won in 12 games spoke for itself — this was an Everton performance mystifyingly but infuriatingly bereft of any passion, ideas or penetrative football. As would have been expected, James had some of the Toffees’ best moments in terms of distribution yet he struggled throughout to make any impact and, frankly, didn’t look like he fancied the battle at all by the time he hobbled off with 68 minutes gone and the Blues 2-0 down.
The Colombian has looked like an ill-suited luxury in all of Everton’s dismal home defeats to Leeds, West Ham, Newcastle and now Fulham, unable to dictate any of the games in the manner you would expect from someone of his ability. It’s a worrying dilemma — how do you shoe-horn someone who doesn’t adapt easily to a pressing game into a team built on that defend-from-the-front strategy? — but this evening, his ineffectiveness wasn’t that surprising. Playing in a midfield devoid of any pace and an overall system lacking width, he had precious few options, no overlapping runners and he generally cut a frustrated figure as Fulham’s hungrier players buzzed around him.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s absence with a recurrence of his hamstring problem was always going to pose a problem but recent acquisition Josh King was ready to make his full debut and Richarlison had rattled in two excellent goals against Spurs to apparently signal that he was getting back on form. Instead, Ancelotti left King on the bench, kept the Brazilian out wide and deployed Sigurdsson as an awkward “false nine” role. The Icelandic international would finish the match as a deep-lying midfielder after Tom Davies had been harshly withdrawn, another perplexing move from Ancelotti to go with the fact that Gomes, who was pretty terrible, completed the 90 minutes.
Then there was central defence where a policy of rotation has probably been prudent during a part of the season where matches are coming along every three of four days but it has come at the cost of continuity in a very important part of the field. Today, Mason Holgate and Ben Godfrey, two young defenders, were paired together for the first time between Seamus Coleman and Lucas Digne.
It robbed the defence of its best distributor of the ball in Michael Keane (until he came on as a second-half substitute and Holgate was shifted to right back) and it’s tallest asset in Yerry Mina and that proved problematic because Holgate had a pretty dreadful game in his favoured central role and Everton posed no threat from attacking corners.
In the end, though Holgate was poor overall, it was a porous and over-run midfield that, at times, sat bafflingly deep and invited the kind of inroads that led to Fulham’s opener that was the bigger problem than who was at centre-half but the selection was illustrative of a complacency on Ancelotti’s part and, perhaps, an underestimation of his opponents.
Everton’s problems started early when Robin Olsen, starting again as Jordan Pickford continues to recover from a rib complaint, punched ineffectively at a free-kick but Josh Maja hooked the loose ball over from close range in the eighth minute when he might have done better.
A minute later, Bobby Decordova-Reid flicked a corner across goal and onto the post before Harrison Reed fired narrowly wide and Ademola Lookman came within inches of marking his return to Merseyside with a goal but somehow bobbled his effort the wrong side of the post.
Everton briefly threatened as the interval approached when James played Gomes in but the Portuguese’s shot was well off target before Coleman went on his driving run and clipped the woodwork.
The second half was just three minutes old when the visitors got the goal they had been promising, capitalising on a complete lack of tactical shift from Everton. With the Blues’ midfield dropping off, Ola Aina advanced unopposed towards the penalty area, played a one-two with Lookman and then centred for Maja to easily convert in front of goal.
Ancelotti’s response was to hook Davies, the only player apart from Abdoulaye Doucouré able to carry the ball out defence and go forwards rather than constantly looking backwards, and replace him with King and take Coleman off for Keane, a move that at least provided some forward motion out of defence.
The changes didn’t have the desired effect, though. Everton were still far too narrow, with angled balls aimed towards Digne and Richarlison fruitless when the recipient didn’t have another blue shirt within 25 yards of him. It meant that play was repetitively cycled backwards to the centre-backs and this monotony even continued into stoppage time when desperation should have led to an intense barrage of Fulham’s defence but, instead, the ball kept going horizontally in front of the West Londoners’ penalty area.
Instead, it was Fulham who almost doubled their lead within three minutes of Ancelotti’s first substitutions when Digne was dispossessed, the away side countered and Lookman smashed Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s pass over the bar.
The second goal did arrive in the 65th minute, though. Reed was given space to line up a shot from distance that Olsen could only palm softly onto the post and Maja was on hand to turn the ball into the empty net.
Bernard came on for James with 22 minutes left – realistically, it should have been the more direct and pacier Alex Iwobi – and Sigurdsson finally put the ball on target with a bouncing shot from 20 yards while Keane had a tame header easily caught in the 89th minute but, on the whole, it was dreadfully poor fare from Everton.
So, once more reality sets in and in the absence of something truly remarkable happening in the next six days against Manchester City and Liverpool, Everton can forget about the Champions League and, perhaps, the Europa League as well… unless they can negotiate their way past City in the FA Cup Quarter-Finals and win the pot at Wembley in May.
Because demoralising let-downs in eminently winnable matches like this are going to keep happening, at least, it seems, until Ancelotti and Marcel Brands are able to add some more quality to this squad. However, the same notion that a manager of Ancelotti’s quality should be able to coax more consistency, better decision-making and train his players to play through the press with the ease with which teams seem able to do to his, keeps nagging away.
Top four may never have been truly realistic but if you can’t dream and on some level believe that it’s possible, particularly in a season that keeps opening the road up for the club to fast-track their three-year plan, then what’s the point? Everton under Carlo Ancelotti will, no doubt, continue to improve but for the short-term at least, the dream of something extraordinary coming out of this season is pretty much over for now. Unforgivable results like this have seen to that.
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