In the aftermath of Everton’s poor defeat against Reading, it is difficult to know what is most troubling. That Everton have not kept a clean sheet since mid-September, that Everton have won only once in their last six games, or that the short-term loss of Marouane Fellaini and the much longer-term absence of Phil Neville means David Moyes is running short of players are all issues in contention for the unwanted honour.
Dealing with the latter factor first and the strain is going to be mostly felt in midfield, especially if Darron Gibson does not return soon. The former Manchester United midfielder has not played since Everton recorded a score to nil, the 3-0 victory at Swansea on September 22. Those two facts may be co-incidental but what is more certain is that without the Republic of Ireland international, Everton have rarely controlled a game in the manner they did in south Wales. It was much the same at Reading – lots of possession but precious little control. Everton were vulnerable too often against the Royals and the backline was subsequently breached.
Neville has undergone knee surgery and faces up to two months before he is ready to return. Thomas Hitzlsperger took his place against Reading and was decent enough but did not look the answer to Everton’s problems in the centre. While Steven Pienaar et al are the creative force behind Everton, it is Gibson – and to a lesser extent Neville – that provides the base on which the flair players build. Without that solidity in midfield the back four comes under increased pressure as possession turns over quickly and Everton are suddenly without a clean sheet in two months’ of football.
The defensive problems are greater than just the balance of the team, though. Neither Gibson nor Neville would have effected much about Reading’s two goals, although if Neville was at right-back in place of Seamus Coleman it is unlikely he would have been as rash as the Irishman was when he conceded the winning penalty. But the marking for Reading’s equaliser, a free-kick delivered by Nicky Shorey, was lax. The last thing Everton needed was inattentive coverage from a set-piece, but that is exactly what happened and not for the first time in this goal-laden run.
Replacing Fellaini when Norwich visit next week is something likely to be on Moyes’ mind too, but at least it is only for one game and not the same number as Neville. It may even give the Belgian a well-earned rest from being buffeted around by central defenders before Arsenal follow Norwich to Merseyside only days later. If Kevin Mirallas is fit then Everton can at least welcome back a quality replacement, but the winger is another injury concern after twice coming off early in consecutive home games.
If the season was to end today, with Everton fifth, it would be hailed as a fine campaign. But the games are still coming thick and fast and the problems are quietly mounting. How the manager solves them will define how the season is judged when it does come to a close.
See what the expert tipsters are tipping on OLBG