For all the inconsistencies that Everton have displayed this season, one thing has been all too dependable – poor away form. The Blues have won just three times on their league travels this term and had they picked up a few more points away from Goodison Park, they would be firmly in contention for a European place. Instead, David Moyes’ side are left hoping those above them slip up while resigning themselves to a year of mid-table mediocrity.
The Toffees have beaten Portsmouth, West Ham and Wigan Athletic in their own back yards this year but struggled against similarly ranked teams, including defeats against Burnley, Bolton Wanderers and Hull City. Losing to Liverpool and Manchester United may be hard to stomach for supporters but there is no disgrace in those results, although performances at Anfield and Old Trafford left a lot to be desired. Further beatings came from Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham – three points and one place behind the Toffees – and Everton’s past record against these outfits are far from glorious. White Hart Lane is a regular scene of Everton disappointment while last season’s final day victory at Craven Cottage was Everton’s first since Alan Ball made his league debut there in 1966.
With the business end of the season fast approaching, it is imperative Everton’s away form improves, starting with the trip to Birmingham City. Of the teams above the Toffees, Everton still have to travel to both Aston Villa and Manchester City after facing Birmingham on Saturday, leaving their faint European hopes in the hands of their results on the road. The two fixtures with Villa and City are Everton’s last against teams currently above them, leaving each remaining game highly winnable, especially if Everton can maintain the style they showed in dispatching Hull City last time out.
The latest test of Everton’s metal comes from Alex McLeish’s Blues – the revelation of the winter months – who were on a tremendous run of results at a time when Everton’s own performances were frustratingly pedestrian. As winter has turned to spring, however, Birmingham have stuttered somewhat and Everton now find themselves just two points shy of the Blues – a position that seemed out of reach at the turn of the year. A fourth away win of the season would take the Toffees above City and go some way towards avenging their FA Cup elimination two months ago.
Last week’s domination of Hull was achieved not only through Everton’s delightful attacking football but the Tigers’ shoddy defending, a helping hand the Toffees will not receive at St. Andrews. Birmingham have built their season on a solid defence and a hard-working midfield, led by Liverpool-born Scott Dann and intelligent anchor-man Barry Ferguson respectively. The taming of the Tigers allowed Everton to show their flair but to get a result from Birmingham will take a dose of the old Everton, the one that ground out points with non-stop running and disciplined teamwork – exactly the performance Birmingham gave at Goodison twice in a matter of weeks between December and January.
Whether the current vintage of Everton players are capable of doing that remains to be seen, packed as they are with wonderfully skilful attacking midfielders who can be guilty of forgoing their defensive work. The presence of John Heitinga playing just in front of the back four gives the Blues brains as well as brawn, and while Mikel Arteta has added tackling to his already-dazzling array of skills, his first instinct is to go forward which could leave Everton exposed on the break. Meanwhile, Victor Anichebe has started the last few games on the right wing and while he gives the Blues a useful physical presence and has performed suitably, particularly against Hull, more effort is needed from the Nigerian in tracking back when possession is lost.
Given the disparity between Everton’s position and those in the European places, it is a stretch to say Moyes’ men still have it all to play for, reliant as they are on other team’s results to creep back onto the European stage. However, those hopes have yet to be extinguished but defeat by Birmingham would do pretty much that.