A strong first-half performance was all it took to blow Sunderland away on Wednesday night, but Everton fans may be concerned about their team’s inability to perform for the full 90 minutes. After an insipid first-half led to the Blues being dumped out of the FA Cup by Birmingham City last weekend, the second-half against the Black Cats was worryingly apathetic.
It is too easy to say the root cause of the malaise that affected the second period was a lack of passion, commitment or any variation on that theme, as some local radio phone-in regulars like to suggest. There is also no singular reason why Everton were so dominant for the first 45 minutes and listless for the second. And while the performance level did dip for the second-half from the first, Everton came closer to scoring a third goal after half-time than Sunderland did to opening their account for the whole of the game. But it is still a troubling affectation the Toffees have developed, and one which David Moyes and his staff need to get to the bottom of quickly.
One of the major sources of Everton’s half-hearted recent showings is related to that old chestnut – injuries. While the ranks have been boosted by the returns of James Vaughan, Mikel Arteta, Leon Osman and now Victor Anichebe, many players have gone since August with barely a break, such was the depletion of the squad. Marouane Fellaini, Tim Cahill, Tim Howard, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Leighton Baines have shouldered the burden as the names around them changed regularly. Cahill in particular has suffered, spending time earlier this season as a makeshift left-winger. The Australian may have excelled in a number of roles for Everton, but left-wing is not one of them. However, with Arteta making gradual steps to recovery, Stephen Pienaar back and approaching his best form and Landon Donovan settling in nicely, Cahill and co do not have to inspire the team themselves when their own tanks are running on empty. As the returnees continue to re-accustom themselves with the rigours of Premier League football, Everton’s ability to sustain their performances for the duration is sure to improve.
The opposition are also a factor in why Everton have struggled to go the distance lately. Birmingham, despite their mauling by Chelsea, are an excellent team and the one that booted Everton from the FA Cup was much better than the side that ground out a draw in December – something that certainly took some of the fans inside the ground by surprise and perhaps some of the players too. While that is unacceptable, it is understandable. Similarly, the Sunderland that masqueraded as a top flight football team in the first-half on Wednesday was replaced by one much closer to Premier League standards in the second, although they were still behind an Everton team that barely got out of second gear the whole game. Even with that in mind, Donovan came inches away from scoring his second goal of the game, but for a George McCartney goal-line clearance. The Mackems had a succession of corners that came to nothing, with their only chances being a rasping Bolo Zenden effort that Tim Howard kept out and a Kenwyne Jones header the American tipped over the bar. Jones’ late header was the only notable contribution to the game from the big striker, who entered a performance so lacklustre it was greeted with chants of “Rafa, sign him up” from the home fans.
If the halves had been reversed, and Everton had disappointed early but recovered to take a deserved two-goal win by the final whistle, the reaction would have been much different. The side would have been praised for their perseverance, for staying the course and getting the desired result. But as it was, the disappointing end to the game left a bitter taste in the mouths of some who witnessed it, bringing feelings of discontent to the surface again despite the three points taking the Blues above Roy Hodgson’s Fulham, heavily praised for their season so far. Doubtless some Everton fans will point to the motto on the club’s badge that reads: Nil Satis Nisi Optimum – Nothing but the Best is Good Enough – and bemoan their club’s situation, where overtaking Fulham is something to be celebrated. But Nil Satis… should be an aspiration Everton always strive to achieve and not the standard every game is judged on. Being the best is not a level you reach by beating Sunderland. Instead, you get there through patience and hard work – two things David Moyes excels at.