After beating Stoke City on the first day of the Premier League campaign, Everton’s season seems to be getting progressively worse.
That win was followed by a draw away at Manchester City – a creditable result, but one which is perhaps mitigated by the fact that the home side dominated greatly in the second half despite playing more than 45 minutes with only 10 men – and then progressively heavy defeats away to Chelsea, at home to Tottenham and away to Manchester United. Sandwiched in between the final two of those defeats was a 3-0 thumping at the hands of Italian side Atalanta in the Europa League. Not only have the Toffees had a horror start to the season, they’ve had one which got worse and worse with every result.
There are, of course, reasons to mitigate the start. One is the difficulty level. Playing Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City away before September is out is the sort of start to the season which leaves you cursing the software that draws the fixtures. And as if that weren’t bad enough, one of Everton’s two home league games so far this season was against a Spurs side who finished second last season and who now seem to enjoy any and all away trips just so they don’t have to play at Wembley.
As traumatising as that start to the season may have been, there is solace in the fact that the tough run is over for now. Bournemouth and Burnley at home are followed by a trip to Brighton in a run of three league games in a row which see Everton play all of the top division sides whose names begin with B, and should really see the Toffees pick up all of the points, too. More good news comes in the fact that the next two Europa League games are at home, meaning no long-distance travel issues until the form picks up. That’s the plan, anyway.
Yet, the fixtures themselves aren’t the only reasons why Everton have struggled. Losing Romelu Lukaku in the summer was a big loss to the team not just because of how good he is, but also because it means Ronald Koeman is deprived of a striker who will run in behind defences and is useful on a counter-attack. Indeed, much criticism has been levelled at Everton’s inability to buy a striker in the summer, and that lack of pace was obvious as they have been unable to severely threaten three of the Premier League’s best defences over the past few weeks.
But despite the run of horror fixtures robbing the Toffees of a chance to let their multitude of new signings gel, there is one more worrying criticism of a team who now sit in the relegation zone with the joint-worst goal difference and the joint-worst defensive record in the league, and that’s the sort of rhetoric which is now coming from the manager.
After the Atalanta debacle – which came after the Spurs capitulation and before the Manchester United fiasco – Ronald Koeman appeared to front up admirably to the media after the game. He took responsibility not just for the defeat, but for the performance, too. And that is admirable, though part of what he took responsibility for was his players’ lack of ‘passion’, something that the coach can’t really do all that much about. Players have to have passion for themselves, and identifying that as a weakness in his own managerial ability sounds more like a veiled jibe at the players, and an attempt to – ultimately – pass the buck.
Even more worrying is the Everton manager’s reaction to Jose Mourinho’s comments in the United boss’s programme notes which suggest that the Toffees’ summer spending means they should be targeting a top four finish.
Now, it might be unfair to criticise Everton’s £140m spending spree this summer. Especially when the very manager making the criticism is the United one who gave the Toffees £70m for their best player, forcing them to rebuild and, in a way, forcing them to appear to spend twice as much whilst doing it.
But what isn’t unfair is the suggestion that a top four finish should be a realistic aim for Everton. In fact, that’s exactly what they should be aiming for, and it’s what they’ve been aiming for since Roberto Martinez promised Champions League football when he took over as manager back in 2013. Indeed, the quest for a place in the group stages of Europe’s top club competition for the first time has been going on much longer even than that.
And so, given the circumstances, it really is worrying to hear the Everton manager – by all accounts an ambitious man who wants to manage at one of Europe’s powerhouse superclubs one day – suggest that his aim this season doesn’t even extend to a top four finish.
Sure, his side isn’t as established as the current top six, and it’s true that they would have to finish above two fabulous sides who have some sort of title ambitions in order to grab a Champions League spot (barring victory in the Europa League), but the whole point of the Premier League’s ‘big six’ at the moment is the fact that we simply don’t know which order they’re going to finish in. In essence, once you’re part of that group, you may as well aim for the top four. You may as well aim for the title. If your glass ceiling is fifth or sixth, then you’re not really part of the ‘big six’ – or ‘big seven’, just a club who got lucky for one year.
And why shouldn’t Everton aim to break into that cabal of big clubs situated just above them in the table last season? Why should Koeman be so emphatic in telling Mourinho to ‘get realistic’ about the idea that Everton should be targeting Champions League qualification? Last season, they finished so far ahead of the teams below them, and finished only eight points behind Manchester United despite dropping ten points in their in last five games, by which point it had become clear that Champions League football would be beyond them and motivation was lost.
Indeed, two wins in 12 between September and December last season was also to blame. Those streaky runs of form have cost Everton in the past, and it looks like it’s what could cost them this season, too. It’s not solely down to how good they are.
All of that means Everton should be aiming to compete with the teams above them last season, not consolidate seventh place from those below them. Koeman was wrong to say that a top four spot was unrealistic for his team, and perhaps it’s that sort of defeatist attitude which has caused his players to concede 11 goals without even scoring once in their last four games. It may ultimately cost them a place in the Champions League, too.