Why Ashley Williams’ loss of form is more a loss of identity

‘Gutless’. ‘A joke’. ‘A fat useless sack of ****’. ‘I’ve never hated an Everton player more’. ‘Nothing short of a disgrace’. ‘Bereft, lazy and over the hill’.

These are just a random selection of comments found on an Everton forum concerning their occasional captain Ashley Williams. They are accompanied by a serious suggestion that the Toffees should put in a frivolous appeal on the defender’s three match ban for raising an arm to Burnley’s Ashley Barnes last Saturday with the aim of getting the suspension extended to four games.

It is fair to say that the Welsh centre-back is not a popular figure among the Gwladys Street brethren at present and so deep does the antagonism lie it is difficult to see any way back for a player approaching his 34th birthday.

The question is – how on earth did it come to this?

Casting our minds back to eighteen months ago reveals a very different estimation of a Welsh skipper fresh from leading his nation to a highly impressive Euro semi-final. With his stature having outgrown Swansea’s limitations many saw Williams as the perfect muscular presence to bolster Arsenal’s back-line while former international Danny Gabbidon said of him: “He has a sixth sense for danger and is decisive when going to snuff it out”.

It would have taken an exhausting search to find anyone in disagreement of that assessment and once his availability was confirmed the defender was in high demand as what he offered top ten clubs was an absence of nonsense, committed consistency, surety, and, yes that word again, leadership. And all for a thoroughly affordable fee.

Ashley Williams - Everton

In the event it was Ronald Koeman’s Everton that won out and secured his signature and its worth remembering how this signing was greeted on Merseyside. With celebration and excitement. As for Swansea fans his departure after six years of outstanding service drove them into a communal funk. He was, they all testified, irreplaceable.

‘Gutless’. ‘A joke’. ‘A fat useless sack of ****’. ‘I’ve never hated an Everton player more’. ‘Nothing short of a disgrace’. ‘Bereft, lazy and over the hill’.

The question needs repeating, so dramatic has been Williams’ fall in reputation. How on earth did it come to this?

His dip in form and effectiveness was sudden and startling but at least in those early few months there were caveats attached, namely injury concerns that took their time to fully heal and an acclimatisation process for a player that thrived on being the leader of men (a position that could only be earned rather than automatically assumed). Evertonians were rightfully concerned but erred on the side of ambivalence. He’d sort it out. He’d get there.

And he did. Sort of. The mishaps were minimised and a string of relatively balanced performances brought echoes of his Swansea dominance as Williams metaphorically found his feet only then came a startling decline that took him right back to the start then way past that point into hopelessness.

He struggles in a back three; his concentration and positional awareness are all over the place; his fighting spirit has frayed to hot-headedness as evidenced by his ridiculous meltdown against Lyon last September that ignited a mass-brawl; and most tellingly of all individual and costly mistakes have almost become the norm. This is not a player enduring a sustained period of poor form: this is a player who every time he steps onto the pitch has forgotten his password.

Recently Williams has been stepping onto the pitch a lot less. This term he’s made 30 starts from 42 games as the inevitable consequence of his culpability to Everton’s soap opera campaign has led him more and more to the bench. You can’t even lead from there. You just sit in a large jacket and look utterly miserable.

Quite why and how this has all happened will perhaps forever remain a mystery. It’s certainly one that those around the club are growing bored of trying to solve.

On paper Sam Allardyce as manager with Michael Keane and Ashley Williams as a centre-back pairing ensure you a mean defence. It won’t be pretty and it won’t be nuanced but by god opponents should have to work around the clock to break through such organised stoutness.

That in actuality the Blues’ back-line has been porous and calamitous this season surely means that at least two of the three names mentioned above won’t be at Goodison Park this time next year. For Evertonians that would be a cause for celebration and yes, even excitement.