There are few ‘must-win’ games in September. You don’t win tournaments this early, but you can make it more difficult to achieve your goals come the end.
It’s doubtful that either Everton or Tottenham will be disappointed not to win the Premier League this season, but a top four finish and a trophy outside of the title doesn’t seem out of the realms of possibility for either. For Spurs, top of the table challenges in the last two seasons probably mean they’ll be expecting more of the same this time around, too. Everton will be looking to challenge for the top four.
And yet, both teams come into this game with a point to prove. If the pair have legitimate aims of challenging the likes of Chelsea and the Manchester clubs this year, they’ll have to start winning games like this weekend’s: now that the league’s top seven have been firmly established as a cut above the rest, the games against the others in that category take on an obvious significance.
And so far this season, both teams have had disappointments in games against their biggest rivals.
Everton have dropped the most points to the teams around and above them last season. Defeat at Chelsea was one thing, but a 2-0 defeat that never looked like becoming anything other than a loss was probably disappointing, even if there were mitigating circumstances.
That defeat came on the back of away trips to Manchester City and Hajduk Split in a European tie which looked like being trickier than it should have been by half time, before Gylfi Sigurdsson put the it beyond the Croatians in stunning fashion. Admittedly, the Thursday night jaunt to Croatia made the Chelsea game much more difficult, especially as the champions had no midweek game at all, but it’s also something that the Toffees will have to deal with this season no matter what. At least until Christmas, and hopefully afterwards. The Europa League might be a hindrance, but it’s also a competition worth being successful in, as Manchester United showed last season, and tiredness after away trips isn’t an excuse which helps very much: it simply has to be done.
That perhaps made it two disappointing league results against top seven opposition in a row. A draw at the Etihad Stadium and a defeat at Stamford Bridge doesn’t suggest panic or disappointment, and one point from those two away games is, on paper, a good return. But although Everton played well at the Etihad Stadium, and although Wayne Rooney and Dominic Calvert-Lewin formed a worthy partnership and looked dangerous on the break while the defence looked solid, there’s surely no hiding the fact that City dominated the game. That’s usually to be expected against Pep Guardiola’s side, but this was a team who played for the entirety of the second half with ten men.
Indeed, City could well have found a winner on another night, and although Everton would have taken a valuable away point before the game, the nature of the match surely means it should have been more.
The chance to take all three points off teams like City and Chelsea will come around again, of course. The nature of having a well-established top seven means that big games happen quite often. But even though there will be other chances between now and the end of the season, Everton would do well to make sure that points from these games aren’t seen as bonuses, but rather massive games in their quest for Champions League football. Spurs at home is most definitely one of those games.
For Mauricio Pochettino’s side themselves, it’s been a similar story, and one they seem to repeat to their own detriment.
Since the Argentine coach’s arrival at the old White Hart Lane, Spurs have been a different team. But there’s still one recurring failing, and one that has simply come back to bite them every season: a poor start.
Last year, Spurs were unbeaten until mid-December. The season before that, they lost the first game to an unfortunate own goal against Manchester United but didn’t lose again until almost exactly the same point in the calendar. But those sorts of stats only mask the true nature of those unbeaten runs – they were filled with too many draws.
Six of first 11 were draws last season, and it was six of the first 12 the season before, on top of that initial opening day defeat. That’s 12 points dropped before the Christmas period, and just from draws alone. Some were positive results, grinding out a point when defeat looked most likely, and others were signs that Spurs were a solid team capable of consistency. That would be shown later on in both seasons, when Tottenham were able to consistently win rather than constantly draw. But because of that lack of early victories, both solid ends to the season came too late for title wins.
This year, a defeat to Chelsea and a draw with Burnley are clear signs that the start of the season is once again the problem, even if the stadium move and a rocky summer transfer window are factors for Spurs which, just like for Everton, can be presented in mitigation. Indeed, the giving up of last-minute goals in both of those Wembley games could be considered unlucky.
But it’s imperative that Spurs manage to get three points on the board against a fellow rival for a top four finish. Just as it’s imperative for Everton to show that their one point from two games against City and Chelsea was a decent return from away games, but that playing the Toffees at Goodison Park is a different beast.
We are only in September, and there will be plenty of chances for both Spurs and Everton to pick up good results against top seven rivals and deprive their nearest challengers of points. But given the fact that both teams have so much to fear from poor starts to the season, it’s clear that this game already matters a great deal.
Only three points are up for grabs at Goodison on Saturday, but for both sides, a win looks essential to kickstarting successful seasons.