How early is too early for a must-win game? The second fixture of the Premier League season should never feel like an all-or-nothing tie, but after Everton’s opening day defeat to Blackburn Rovers three points against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday are vital to avoid memories of last season’s stuttering start.
Fresh from the humiliation of losing 6-1 to Arsenal on their own turf, Everton travelled to newly-promoted Burnley 12 months ago desperate to get their season back on track, but a game that saw Louis Saha miss a penalty and Steven Fletcher bag the only goal of the game, deflected past Tim Howard by Phil Neville, only piled on the misery at Goodison Park. At least last August there was a 4-0 thumping of Sigma Olomouc between the two league defeats to briefly lift the gloom, but this year has been free of Europa League action leaving Blues’ fans dissatisfied over the weekend’s result with little to do but ruminate over the team’s failings at Blackburn and hope for better against Wolves.
Whether Everton’s lot improves on Saturday evening depends a great deal on the manager, David Moyes. For all the talk of Moyes having the best Toffees squad in a generation at his disposal, it may take time for the Scot to fully work out just what combination of players works against which opposition. The thinking behind picking an apparently unfit Marouane Fellaini against Rovers was to combat an aerial bombardment that never really arrived, and instead Everton were left with a midfielder off the pace and out of the game. Similarly, Leon Osman was chosen on the right wing at Ewood Park, a position the little midfielder has taken in years past but one to which he was never his most suited, and it showed. The selection of Osman over Diniyar Bilyaletdinov raised eyebrows as, much like Fellaini’s inclusion for his added height, many thought the tall Russian would play for the same reason, especially when Osman’s lack of pace was taken into consideration, an important quality for a wide man and one Everton lack. Wolves can be as agricultural as Blackburn on their best – or should that be worst? – day, but are also capable of snappy counter-attacking football too. Moyes has to find an XI to cope with both styles, perhaps through the same 90 minutes.
The meeting between the two sides last season was one of the more frustrating of Everton’s year, a 1-1 draw that saw the Blues concede an utterly shambolic goal, although not quite the level of Nikola Kalinic’s last weekend. Instead, Everton deployed an offside trap barely worthy of the name, let Kevin Doyle stroll through to face Howard one-on-one, and as the American star-jumped to block the impending shot, the Irishman coolly rolled the ball under the leaping goalkeeper, leaving heads shaken in dismay and faces red with embarrassment both on the pitch and in the stand. With Doyle likely to have recovered from injury in time to face Everton – but just as likely to start on the right of a five-man midfield – Everton will be faced by the scorer of Burnley’s goal in the aforementioned game last year, Fletcher. Phil Jagielka was imperious against Blackburn but the Scottish international will be a handful for the England man and whoever partners him in the centre of defence, but a solid backline will be necessary to give Everton the platform to attack as the home crowd will demand. Another 1-1 draw will only add to the doubts threatening the early stages of Everton’s season but with such a long way to go before May arrives, no one should tear up their season ticket whatever the outcome.
Victory over Wolves would confirm the defeat at Blackburn as mere teething problems, a squad not used to having so many fit and ready members learning how to both play with each other and against a team so ruggedly determined as Sam Allardyce’s men. Those lessons need to be learned fast, however, as Mick McCarthy is every bit as adept at drawing a hard-working, dogged and disciplined performance from his players as the Rovers boss. A draw or loss would sting Moyes, the players and the fans, and give the manager more work to do moulding a cohesive unit, but with the top six hopefuls liable to take points from each other all season any damage done now is not irreparable, but Moyes will be keen to avoid further comparisons with events a year ago.