Any hopes of the Carling Cup providing Everton with a distraction from the drudgery of the league campaign were dashed when Phil Jagielka’s penalty fatally struck the post and, in many ways, the centre-back’s failure from 12 yards summed up Everton’s transformation from outside bets for the Champions League to struggling to win, or even score, at the wrong end of the table. Back in April 2009 Jagielka was a penalty shootout hero, netting the decisive kick at Wembley as Everton triumphed in an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United. Some 15 months later and the same team, with the same names making up the bulk, are unrecognisable. That was an Everton side that always looked capable of defying the odds and rising to whatever challenge lay in front of them – such as beating United on penalties – but this Everton side wilts under pressure and loses to Brentford. The defender’s own form has been fine – one of few Everton players who could honestly say they are performing to an acceptable level – if not quite up to the high standards he has set previously.
And perhaps the standard Everton set from January through to May of last season has been at the heart of this season’s bad start, not only raising expectations from fans and pundits alike but also installing a casual attitude into some players, convincing them results would come with relative ease, and then, when they did not, sending the form and confidence of those same players tumbling to subterranean levels. There is no risk to Everton’s play right now, no adventure, no player willing to make that run beyond the defence and no one with the mind to play the right pass even if the run was made in the first place. Players are either having too many touches of the ball and missing an opportunity to pass or not enough and hurriedly offloading when a calm head is needed most of all. These things all come with confidence, a confidence Everton had in January when they led Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium until the dying seconds and still had in May when Diniyar Bilyaletdinov wrapped up a victory over Portsmouth with the last kick of the season. Whether it was still there in August only the players know, but a Tim Howard blunder and an odd team selection from David Moyes gave Blackburn Rovers the win and since then – bar a 5-1 League Cup victory over Huddersfield Town and two minutes against Manchester United – everything about Everton has screamed insecure.
Much has been made of Everton’s supposed-tendency to start each season slowly, but this season’s bad start is not at all like last season’s bad start, or the bad start of the season before that, because everything appeared to be in place for a change this time. No big name players left over the summer, just one key squad member was injured – the only distraction was Steven Pienaar’s soon-to-expire contract and even that fire burned out in June with several quiet World Cup games. Anyone who dismisses Everton’s current situation with a casual ‘they always start slowly’ evidently missed the Newcastle United horror show or the warnings that were obvious in the preceding games, and to accept Everton always start poorly like it is an unalterable law of the universe, when it clearly is not, is ignoring any analysis as to why that should be the case. Prior years have seen a small squad decimated by a raft of injuries, important team members agitating for a move and not getting their way until the season had already started or a rash of transfer activity as the window closed leaving new faces with no time to bed in. There was none of that this year, just well-founded optimism obliterated before September was out.
This is not the usual poor Everton start to a season – the performance against Newcastle was of such dire quality it could never be considered the norm – but there is nothing for Moyes and his players to do but work hard at putting it right, starting on Saturday at Fulham.