It was fun while it lasted, eh? Just for a few brief weeks up to the derby, we had the temerity to dream a little that, in these unpredictable times of no fans and crazy results, a team backed by someone as astute and experienced as Carlo Ancelotti, might be able to put together the kind of confidence-fuelled run that could carry them to a top-four finish.
That certainly looked possible over those first four games, while Everton also scoring a hatful of goals in the Carabao Cup to advance to the last eight, but doubts over the strength and depth of the squad once selection problems started to bite were only ever just around the corner. And how costly that rush of blood to Richarlison’s head, combined with James Rodriguez succumbing to injury so soon, has proved to be.
The Brazilian’s importance to this team can’t be understated and the fact that Ancelotti had to publicly urge his players to prove they would win without Richarlison ahead of this game merely underlined the fact. His pace, power, versatility, creativity and goal threat have been hugely conspicuous by their absence over the last two defeats and it’s hard to see Everton overcoming an unpredictable Manchester United next week without him as well.
This dreadful loss to an utterly ordinary Newcastle wasn’t simply about the absence of Richarlison, though. This was about a questionably narrow, defensive posture from the outset from the manager; about a lack of imagination and tempo for almost the entire 90 minutes; about a lack of any kind of real response to the disappointment at Southampton; about a dearth of speed of movement and thought in the ranks; and an increasingly worrying lack faith in a young player in Anthony Gordon who might have provided an antidote to the dirge but who never made it onto the pitch.
This was about the isolation of the country’s most in-form striker and a galling lack of urgency and joined-up attacking football until it really was too late. And, finally, it was about seasoned professional midfielders proving incapable of consistently stringing together enough forward passes or conjuring a genuine goalscoring chance between them to cause a middling opposition defence any real problems until very late in the game. In short, this was Marco Silva’s Everton and the worst of “Project Restart” reborn… from the team that began this round of matches sitting on top of the table.
What Ancelotti witnessed at St Mary’s had clearly rattled his confidence that without his age-defying captain and three most creative players in Richarlison, James and the suspended Lucas Digne what was left of his team would be able to take the game to a Newcastle side that had been taken to the proverbial cleaners by United in their last home fixture. The Italian packed his line-up with five central midfielders — Allan, Abdoulaye Doucouré, André Gomes, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fabian Delph — with Delph often dropping back into the left-back role to allow Niels Nkounkou license to bomb forward.
The young Frenchman got precious little opportunity to do so, however. Delph consistently looked backwards, sideways or attempted lazy cross-field balls aimed in Jonjoe Kenny’s general direction; Gomes kept missing blue shirts with the kind of quick five-yard passes that should have been used to try to open the Magpies’ defence up and Gylfi Sigurdsson’s persistent desire to take one too many touches meant that there was no tempo to anything Everton did.
The result was as moribund a first half of football as any Evertonians have been forced to sit through in recent memory, with the home side going closer to breaking the deadlock with an early chance for Callum Wilson that he fired wide and a big moment for debutant Robin Olsen when he came up big to foil Allan Saint-Maximin as the home side counter-attacked off a corner at the other end.
Olsen had been a surprise replacement for Jordan Pickford, with Ancelotti saying beforehand that he simply want to give the Swede some minutes but it was hard to ignore the media fallout from the England international’s incident with Virgil van Dijk a fortnight ago and the fact that he has had to hire security in the face of threats to his family.
Doucouré technically registered an effort on target when he stabbed the ball tamely at Karl Darlow but much more was hoped for in the second half, particularly after the hour mark when it was expected that Ancelotti would try and introduce some creativity having effectively aimed for keeping things level for the first 60 minutes.
Unfortunately, Everton fell four minutes short of that milestone. Gomes caught Wilson’s leg as he tried to clear the ball following a corner and, under the new rules where intent is irrelevant, referee Stuart Atwell awarded Newcastle a penalty. Wilson took it himself and sent Olsen the wrong way to make it 1-0.
Olsen made an important intervention almost immediately after the restart, however, when he made an excellent save to prevent Sean Longstaff from quickly doubling Newcastle’s lead.
Gomes appeared to injure himself in the incident with Wilson and was withdrawn three minutes later in favour of Bernard but, in truth, the Portuguese had had another turgid outing and should have been hooked regardless. The diminutive Brazilian was followed into the pitch nine uneventful minutes later by Cenk Tosun who made an unexpectedly early return to action but he would make almost no direct impact on the game.
Instead it was one of Steve Bruce’s substitutes who effectively killed the game. After Dominic Calvert-Lewin had headed straight at the keeper and Sigurdsson had deposited a long-range shot into Darlow’s arms, the Magpies countered again quickly, with Ryan Fraser out-stripping Yerry Mina for pace and sending a cross off the Colombian’s boot to the far post where Wilson just had to touch it over the line.
A frustrated Calvert-Lewin came very close to making a game of it sooner than he eventually did after Alex Iwobi came on with impressively quick feet and a snap-shot that just flew the wrong side of the post but the arch poacher was there in stoppage time to plunder what would only prove to be a consolation goal.
Iwobi fired a dangerous ball in towards the near post and the striker stole in ahead of Darlow to prod it past him and give Everton faint hope of pulling off the kind of rescue act that Newcastle did at Goodison Park earlier this year.
However, even though the Toffees forced a last-ditch corner and the 6’ 5” Olsen was sent up to bolster the aerial attack, Sigurdsson floated a harmless dead ball into Darlow’s arms and the game was up.
Having had a 100% record in all competitions going into the international break, Everton are now winless in their last three and have dropped eight of the last nine available points. The optimists will point to the fact that the Blues remain in second place for now but, in the knowledge that Ancelotti won’t always be able to field his strongest side, this was a poor result on the back of an even more depressing performance. Questions will rightly be raised over the Italian's team selection as well, one which either paid Newcastle way too much respect or betrayed a disconcerting lack of faith in his own players' ability to take the game to the Barcodes.
Supporter frustration with Sigurdsson is well documented. A Talisman for his country, the Icelander seems incapable of being a driving force in any capacity for Everton. Though ponderous and ineffective, his manager continues to talk him up in the press, presumably in an effort to coax more out of him on the pitch when it seems, as has been remarked on social media this week, that he’s only in the side because no one else can take a set-piece if Digne and Rodriguez aren’t there… which makes that injury-time corner all the more galling.
The fans’ faith in Gomes is rapidly evaporating as well. The player many hoped would make the most of his recall after watching on from the bench last weekend, he, too was incapable of offering any leadership in deed this afternoon and it’s got to the point where you have to ask what it is that he offers this side on recent form.
Then there is Delph, a player who was signed for just this kind of scenario — to come in as a replacement and use his experience and supposed leadership to be a force in midfield to push the team forward against sub-standard opposition but, played out of position, he robbed the team of width and was patently not any kind of answer to the lack of creativity in the middle of the park.
Instead, while Bernard, Allan and Doucouré tried manfully to make something happen but often ran into brick walls, it was Iwobi, the man criticised more than more for his display at Southampton, who provided the spark late on to create the goal for Calvert-Lewin. While Gordon remained on the bench, no doubt wondering what he has to do to get a game, the Nigerian at least provided the width and trickery to carve out a genuine opening and DCL pounced. Too bad the striker’s reward for his own industry came so late in proceedings.
So, with the bubble well and truly burst, thoughts turn to the clash with United next week, one for which the Everton of last month would have had little fear but will now await with some trepidation. Digne will be back and, perhaps, Mason Holgate will be ready but it’s further up the pitch where the bulk of Ancelotti’s work needs to be done. In that sense, he will be hoping James is passed fit but even he won’t be enough without significantly better productivity in the rest of the midfield.
Everton are in the northeast this weekend for a game that has taken on added significance and complexity in the wake of last Sunday's loss to Southampton and the absence of three key players.
With the Toffees flying after winning their first seven matches in all competitions, a run of fixtures against Saints, Newcastle and erratic Manchester United didn't seem all that daunting but the loss to suspension of Richarlison following his card in the derby, injury to James Rodriguez, defeat at St Mary's and now a one-game ban for Lucas Digne have altered expectations.
A doubt for Southampton, Rodriguez has been ruled out of the trip to St James's Park meaning that Carlo Ancelotti will be without his three most creative outlets. To underscore the point, Everton haven't won a Premier League game when Richarlison hasn't played at least some part and the task of replacing him was muddied further by Alex Iwobi's failure to grab his chance last weekend.
Ancelotti said in his pre-match press conference today that James had a "little problem" and needs rest. "We hope he will be available for the next game."
Even though Seamus Coleman will remain sidelined with a hamstring problem, there was at least some good news at the back with Jonjoe Kenny and Jarrad Branthwaite both fit again following their respective ankle injuries. Kenny's return offers, of course, a more like-for-like replacement for the skipper but Branthwaite, as a fourth fit centre-half, does at least allow Ancelotti to consider a switch to a three-man central defence.
That would afford Niels Nkounkou, the presumed deputy for Digne, more license to get forward and better cover behind him for those marauding runs of his. Fabian Delph has played at fullback before, of course, but not for Everton and he lacks the young Frenchman's pace and dynamism, something this Blues side generally lacks without Richarlison in its ranks.
Whether it's 5-3-1-1, 4-3-3 or some other variant, finding the right balance in the middle of the park is going to be key and that is at least one area where Ancelotti has an abundance of choices. André Gomes will itching to get back into the team after not featuring against Southampton, Delph did came off the bench in that match and performed well, while the manager's comments in his pre-match press conference suggest that he still retains a lot of faith in Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Then, of course, there is Allan and Abdoulaye Doucouré, one of whom looked off-colour against Saints while the other was, for many Blues, one of the best of Everton's players on the day but was surprisingly taken off to give Delph his chance.
In the more creative and potentially wider roles, it would be a surprise if Iwobi was named in the starting line-up for a second week running even if Rodriguez's absence means there is another spot up for grabs, not just that of Richarlison, but Bernard and Anthony Gordon are in contention, with teenager desperate to get his chance to shine. Whether that is from the start this weekend remains to be seen; it's unlikely Ancelotti would start two youngsters in Nkounkou and Gordon on opposite flanks as wing-backs, but he might be tempted to reprise their League Cup partnership down the left flank in more conventional roles as left-back and left-winger.
Whoever gets the nod and whatever shape Ancelotti goes for, the keys to the game will be keeping Newcastle's main danger man, Allan Saint-Maximin, quiet at one end and providing more support for Dominic Calvert-Lewin on the other. Steve Bruce's unpredictable side will be missing their main play-maker in Jonjoe Shelvey so they will lean more heavily on Saint-Maximin's explosive talents but while the French winger caused Manchester United problems in their recent meeting, he tired and faded as a force in the second half and the Red Devils ran away with it, eventually winning 4-1.
Compensating for an otherwise rudimentary side with industry and spirit, the kind which saw them come back from the dead to stun Everton at Goodison in stoppage time earlier this year, the Magpies are hard to predict but their defence is one that can be “got at” with the right approach. The Toffees may be without their assists king in Rodriguez and their supplier of ammunition from the left in Digne but there is enough talent in the ranks to win of they can get the formula right.
“We have to be focused on the opponent," Ancelotti said. "We have to find the weakness in that team but we have to be focused in ourselves most of the time, we are preparing to avoid the mistakes we made against Southampton.
"I think that the fact we have players out, it's important to know the quality of the squad."
This will, indeed, be an examination of the squad's depth and another chance for those more fringe players to stake a claim. Most important, however, will be offering a clear response to last Sunday's disappointment on the south coast.
Kick-off: 2pm, Sunday 1 November, 2020
Referee: Stuart Atwell
VAR: Craig Pawson
Last Time: Newcastle United 1 - 2 Everton
Predicted Line-up: Pickford, Kenny, Keane, Mina, Nkounkou, Allan, Gomes, Doucouré, Sigurdsson, Bernard, Calvert-Lewin