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A Depressing Gulf in Class

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The fact that so little was expected from this game — no doubt most of us hoped for a surprise but hope was all it was — doesn’t make the result or the relative ease of Manchester City’s victory any easier to take. Reflecting on just how good Pep Guardiola’s team is…? Well, that does make it a little more palatable but it also serves to underline just how big the gulf has become between what has been built at the Etihad over the past decade and where Everton currently find themselves despite huge (though not comparable)investment under Farhad Moshiri.

This is, on paper, a decent Blues squad, blessed with some very good players, but it remains weighed down by the recruitment mistakes of recent years, is severely lacking in terms of creativity and attacking depth, and still doesn’t play with a consistently discernible style. It is also short on self-belief, fatigued from a glut of fixtures over the past few weeks, and there was an uneasy inevitability about the way this match unfolded, even though Richarlison’s goal at the end of a really nice move had left the contest level at 1-1 at half-time.

By the end, City had won at Goodison Park by two goals for the fourth season running. The last time an Everton side beat the team at the top of the table was that memorable 4-0 thumping of the Citizens in January 2017 but apart from a creditable 1-1 draw at Eastlands in the early days of Ronald Koeman’s second season, Guardiola’s teams have had their way with Everton.

The Blues might have inflicted upon the visitors only their third goal in 17 matches and the first they have conceded from open play since 3rd January but City still ran out comfortable victors to open up a 10-point lead at the top of the Premier League, the reclaiming of their crown from Liverpool looking like a mere formality now. Their indifferent start to the season, when they were languishing in the bottom half and Everton were top with a 100% record seems like a long time ago now.

Back then, Everton had James Rodriguez in his pomp, Allan prowling in front of the defence and Dominic Calvert-Lewin scoring on a weekly basis. None of that trio were in the starting line-up this evening — Allan was, we hope, merely withheld for this weekend’s Merseyside derby, Calvert-Lewin missed a second successive game with a hamstring injury, and James was named among the substitutes after taking a minor knock in that horrendous defeat to Fulham last weekend.

In that respect, Carlo Ancelotti picked about as strong a side as he could to face City, although in view of his allusion on Sunday to his players’ tiredness, the decision to include Gylfi Sigurdsson rather Josh King, for instance, was a curious one. Even more curious was how and why the 30-year-old Icelander stayed on the pitch for the entire game, finishing the match as an ill-advised holding midfielder and racking up his 320th minute of consecutive action in the space of 11 days in the process.

The back four of Mason Holgate, Yerry Mina, Michael Keane and Ben Godfrey restored the strongest central defensive pairing and, as a whole, arguably the tightest defensive unit available to Ancelotti, even if it comes at the expense of some attacking dynamism. Lucas Digne played wide on the left, Alex Iwobi come in on the right and Richarlison was handed the Calvert-Lewin role… literally, as he spent much of the contest chasing the ball around and acting as target man for a succession of punts forward by Jordan Pickford, who also returned to the starting XI after four games out.

The pattern of the game was established early, with City bossing possession as only they can. Joao Cancelo a save from Pickford from distance that the keeper pushed away and a rare mistake by Tom Davies let Gabriel Jesus in but he fired over the bar.

Everton had struggled to get things going in forward areas but, nonetheless, had had some promising openings, not least when Digne swept a ball into the box that was met but Abdoulaye Doucouré but rather than go for a volleyed attempt on goal, he tried to tuck it inside for Richarlison but it hit a defender instead.

Ancelotti’s best-laid defensive plans were ruined after 17 minutes, however, when Mina was forced off with a calf problem and was replaced by Seamus Coleman, with Holgate moving inside to centre-half.

And in the 32nd minute, Everton fell behind. Another Manchester City corner was only headed as far as Riyad Mahrez, he twisted and turned before crossing for Rodri and when his header bounced off Keane and fell to Phil Foden, the young midfielder lashed a heavily deflected shot in past Pickford. The goal owed much to fortune but it had been coming.

To Everton’s credit, they rallied rather than folded and equalised just six minutes later at the end of a fine move, the like of which that you wished they had produced more often. Sigurdsson found Iwobi down the right, he slipped a clever square pass into the box for Coleman and when Digne met the Irishman’s floated chip with a left-foot volley, the ball bounced off the post and Richarlison was there virtually on the goal line to knock it in with his thigh.

Such moments of incisiveness were rare from the Toffees, though, and their defence was by far the busier in the second half. Holgate gifted the ball straight to Bernardo six minutes after the interval but Pickford parried the Portuguese’s shot away and four minutes later, Kyle Walker played Jesus in but the Brazilian smashed his shot narrowly high and wide.

Sigurdsson had a half-chance at the other end when Iwobi picked him out on the edge of the box but his shot was blocked and looped into Edersen’s arms and in the 63rd minute, City restored their lead. Bernardo laid a short pass off to Mahrez who had all the space he needed to line up a shot from 18 yards, bend it around Pickford and in off the post.

Ancelotti responded by withdrawing Davies and Iwobi, both of whom were hugely unfortunate to leave the field as both had done really well, in favour of King and James but a tiring Everton were unable to create anything of note.

Rodriguez had some nice touches and executed some lovely turns in the middle of the park but he had few options to carve out opportunities. Everton had shown in the first half the trouble they could cause when they had some adventure and threw bodies forward but they didn’t do it nearly enough in the second half and it was City who wrapped things up 13 minutes from the end.

Sigurdsson lagged well behind Silva allowing him to run unchallenged across the edge of the area and drill a shot in off Pickford’s gloves to make it 3-1. The more you see it, the more you question how, despite the power on the shot, the goalkeeper wasn’t able to get a strong hand on it it divert it past the post but frustrations over that part of the team are nothing new.

City almost added a cruel fourth in stoppage time when Sigurdsson simply gave the ball away in front of his own box but this time Mahrez was much less accurate, placing his effort wide of goal with just Pickford to beat.

If there are positives to take from this game they are that Everton at least gave a better account themselves than they did against Fulham (which also makes that performance in what was a far more important game that much more angering), Davies had another good game in defensive midfield, Richarlison’s energy and feistiness is back if not his confidence to beat his man, and Doucouré, despite being a bit sloppy with the ball at times, underscored just how important he is to this team as the dynamo in midfield.

Playing better, with more spirit and desire than they did against Fulham was the easy part but they couldn’t move the ball well enough and their passing ability pales in contrast to City’s. Most teams’ do but Everton’s reliance on Pickford’s erratic kicking, and deep or cross-field balls from defence or the flanks as opposed to moving it through midfield and getting sufficient bodies in the final third has been a limiting factor for much of the season. Much of this can be coached, of course; it’s not all about buying top quality at sky-high prices but Everton sides aren’t coached to play intricate, passing football.

Guardiola’s side are pretty irresistible when they’re at their best but even in second or third gear they were too much for the Toffees who have a long way to go in terms of quality and sheer footballing ability before they can even hope to match them. Everton only managed two shots on target in the 90 minutes and failed to force a single corner.

That’s the depressing part but also the part that requires patience and faith that it will eventually come. How long is anyone’s guess but Everton don’t need to surpass City to achieve any of their goals in the League this season — the FA Cup is now a different matter, of course, and how daunting that Quarter Final tie next month now looks! — they simply need to better than one or two of the next five teams and at the moment that possibility is slipping away.

A win at Anfield would go a long way to changing the outlook once more but that’s a whole other game of rock bottom expectations and a lot of hope…

Follow @EFCLyndon


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