Before Everton played Wolverhampton Wanderers in mid-August, this writer, mostly tongue-in-cheek, asked the question: How early is too early for a must-win game? It came after an opening day defeat to Blackburn Rovers, a game Everton controlled but contrived to lose thanks to stubborn Rovers defending and a Tim Howard blunder. Now, however, after Everton’s fifth Premier League game without a win – this time going down 1-0, at home, to Newcastle United – and an abysmal performance to boot, the Toffees are deep in must-win territory with no exit in sight and David Moyes has some vital decisions to make and questions to answer.
Everton were devoid of almost anything positive on Saturday. The lack of ideas, movement and class in the side was inexplicable – these are after all mostly the same players who, on form, where the third-best team in the Premier League for the second half of last season. To go from beating Manchester United and Chelsea in consecutive February games to being bettered in every department by newly-promoted Newcastle is a turnaround of staggering proportions. At least the blow of defeats by Blackburn and Aston Villa and even, to an extent, the draw with Wolves, could be softened by the knowledge Everton had played fairly well, looked comfortable in possession and hinted at better days to come.
A rousing, back-from-the-dead comeback against United, coupled with a first-half performance in which Everton were more than competitive, gave reason for Everton fans to be confident. Having rescued a draw from the jaws of defeat in the most thrilling manner possible, it seemed Everton had finally woken from their early-season slumber and were ready to start the campaign. But as each simple pass went astray, as each long ball was hoofed towards Marouane Fellaini for lack of another option, as Leon Osman toiled out of position on the right wing, whatever confidence was gained seven days earlier slowly ebbed away and Newcastle strolled to victory.
Quite why Osman is continually stationed on the right flank is unknown to every regular Everton watcher bar the one who makes the decisions, the manager. Osman is blessed with many positive qualities – quick feet, a calm head, good anticipation – but pace, even explosive pace over a few yards such as that possessed by Steven Pienaar on the opposite flank, is not one of them. Osman is a deliberate player, sure of touch and adept at bringing the ball out of defence, and could not be less suited to hugging the touchline, particularly when there are other options available on the substitutes’ bench.
Moyes could call on energetic youngster Seamus Coleman, a full-back who plays more like a winger, or the £10m signing of only a year ago, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, who gave his best performances last season in that very role. The Russian was wildly inconsistent but even that must surely be better than leaving Osman to become a target of the supporters’ unrest as he struggles out wide. Moyes may be waiting for Victor Anichebe to return from injury, and the burly Nigerian performed well as a winger in the last few months of last season, but while he waits Everton are floundering.
Osman, of course, is not the source of Everton’s woes but merely a symptom – he is just one of a number of players who started against Newcastle away from their most effective position. John Heitinga offered no protection to the Everton defence and little help going forward from midfield, where he has experience of playing, and would be better off either in his natural centre-back spot or watching from the sidelines. Fellaini was chosen as a second striker, the position he took when he first arrived on Merseyside, when a stream of goals masked some otherwise poor performances. The Belgian does not have the mobility to play with his back to goal, instead looking far more composed when in front of his own defence, breaking up the opposing side’s attacks instead of acting as the focal point for his own team’s moves. Fellaini only really brings an aerial presence and, on Saturday, Everton duly obliged, launching a bombardment that would have made even the Wimbledon of old blush.
Forcing these square pegs into round holes has left Everton disjointed and utterly lacking cohesion and a clear game plan. Newcastle showed what an organised, athletic team could do, playing with style, speed and strength, and deserved the three points they got in return. There is time to arrest the slide but Moyes needs a long look at every facet of Saturday’s mess, starting with his own role in the team’s downfall. He has earned the faith of Evertonians, but that faith is not limitless.