As magical as Everton’s start to the season has been, there were always going to be setbacks and bumps in the road but as reality checks go, this one perhaps came sooner and more brutally than expected. With a first-choice XI as good as most teams when firing all on cylinders, Carlo Ancelotti’s side stormed to the top of the Premier League with four straight wins but if cracks had started to emerge in the derby last weekend, a wedge was driven into them on the south coast this afternoon.
Richarlison’s unnecessary sending off against Liverpool last week felt like it was going to be costly and, in combination with the loss to injury of Seamus Coleman and fitness concerns over James Rodriguez, that proved to be the case as the Toffees put in their worst performance since the final day of last season. In retrospect, that shouldn’t be surprising because Ancelotti was forced to turn to some of 2019-20’s under-performers and the lack of depth in quality of his squad was disconcertingly exposed on a chastening afternoon at St Mary’s.
It would be remiss not to point out at the outset that Southampton were excellent and, in many ways, were everything Everton have been up until now but patently weren’t today. Quicker, more energetic, more imaginative and more incisive, they were full value for the victory. A year ago today, seven of Saints’ 11 starters today they were crushed 9-0 on this ground by Leicester and it was only a few weeks ago that they lost 5-2 to Tottenham, so credit must go to Ralph Hasenhuttl for continuing to work with his players to engineer improvement.
However, Spurs’s victory was notable in that they ruthlessly exploited Hasenhuttl’s high line with the pace in transition of Son Hueng-Min, scoring three more goals than Everton managed shots on target today; with no Richarlison and with Southampton playing a far more intelligent game this time around, there simply weren’t the opportunities for the Toffees to do the same.
Instead, it was an examination of how weak this Everton team can be when the “second string” players like Alex Iwobi, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Bernard simply aren’t able to step up and provide what their hosts’ midfield, all of them supposedly inferior players, offered, particularly in the first half.
Like Marco Silva before him, Ancelotti’s challenge with all three players is that they are best playing centrally behind the striker(s) and, as such, they are luxuries, particularly in a team that doesn’t really accommodate a “No 10”… and if it did, James Rodriguez would be the one to fill it.
True to his erratic form since joining from Arsenal, Iwobi endured a torrid 45 minutes and was rightly hooked at half-time by which time Everton were trailing 2-0 and had barely laid a glove on Southampton. The problem was that, also shoved out on the left flank, Bernard was only marginally better and it wasn’t until Anthony Gordon came on just short of the hour mark that some of that pace, direct running and unpredictability that Richarlison provides was injected into the side.
Unfortunately, any hope that Everton could retrieve something from the game vanished when Lucas Digne became the second recipient of a straight red card in the space of a week. The debate will run over whether it was accidental or a “dangerous” challenge worthy of a straight red card and a three-game ban — don’t hold your breath on the club’s appeal against the decision being successful given the narrative that has been playing out since the incident with Jordan Pickford and Virgil van Dijk — but the Frenchman was always risking contact and “taking a yellow for the team” by running so closely behind Kyle Water-Peters in the way he did.
With James then being forced to amble his way through the closing stages with a hamstring strain because Everton had no more substitutes available, it really was just a case of keeping the score down and getting back to Merseyside to regroup ahead of the trip to Newcastle next weekend.
In what frame of mind Everton will travel to the northeast will be down to Ancelotti’s motivational and inspirational powers because this defeat and the manner of it does raise questions over whether this team is as far along as we thought. When the increased competition was spurring those players who had lost their first-choice roles to operate at 100%, it felt as though the depth was there but the performances of Iwobi, Sigurdsson and even André Gomes last week will give the manager plenty to think about in the days ahead.
Southampton making a strong start to the game wasn’t unexpected. Coming off a stirring 3-3 draw at Chelsea, their tails would have been up but it quickly became apparent that Hasenhuttl’s men were moving the ball more effectively through the lines than Everton who were having trouble playing past the Saints’ press.
The Austrian manager had clearly done his homework, instructing his players to push through the gap behind James on the right to target Ben Godfrey who made a full debut to forget, struggling out of position at right back. It was down that avenue that Ryan Bertrand almost served up the opening goal after 11 minutes but Nathan Redmond scuffed a great chance wide and 12 minutes after that, Stuart Armstrong air-kicked another low cross from the same position.
In between Sigurdsson had come within inches of opening his Premier League account for the season with an almost brilliant strike from the corner of the box following a typically sublime Rodriguez pass but the shot bounced off the top of the crossbar. Little did they know it then but apart from a Rodriguez free-kick dispatched straight at Alex McCarthy, it was as close as the visitors would come to scoring on the day, although there was a case for a penalty when James got around Che Adams and the striker shoved him over the byline with no attempt to play the ball. (It makes you wonder how penalties are given for unintentional handballs and the like but not for obvious fouls like this.)
Back at the other end Oriel Romeu had space to test Pickford from distance but the England ‘keeper pushed his shot away but only a minute later, the hosts took the lead. This time, the attack came down the right and rather than be the goalscorer, Danny Ings became the provider with the first of two assists on the day following an admittedly clever piece of mis-direction from a throw-in.
James Ward-Prowse and Armstrong switched positions allowing the former to ghost away from Sigurdsson, flick the ball over Allan and collect a return pass from Ings before slamming a shot across Pickford and into the far corner.
Eight minutes later, Everton were 2-0 down and facing a mountain to climb if they were to keep their unbeaten start intact or even get back to winning ways. Adams found Ings down the left flank where he drove past Godfrey and flighted the ball to the back post and over the head of Sigurdsson as the only player in “sea foam green” in attendance. That left Adams time time to line up a shot that deflected off Sigurdsson and past the keeper from the angle.
Had Armstrong’s “goal” six minutes before half-time not been ruled out for offside, this would have been over as a humiliating contest by half-time but, as it was, Ancelotti had time to try and engineer a comeback with his changes. The way that Southampton were now set up — compact in defence of their two-goal advantage — made things that much harder for Bernard who often found himself boxed in by the touchline and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who wouldn’t end up registering a single shot on target all game, remained isolated.
There were occasional moments where Doucouré’s determination threatened to force a mistake which was why his withdrawal in favour of Fabian Delph in the 58th minute was a somewhat perplexing one. The French midfielder had provided the only box-to-box presence for Everton and with Allan looking out of sorts and less than 100% fit, it seemed like the Brazilian would have been the more obvious candidate to make way.
Gordon came on at the same time and the two new introductions looked as though they might give the Toffees a platform from which to mount a challenge over the final half hour but Digne’s dismissal 14 minutes later put paid that. The French fullback had already clipped Walker-Peters’s ankle as the Saints man pulled away from him but in attempting to chase him down, Digne caught his foot when planting his own down, stopping the run and prompting referee Kevin Friend to brandish a red card. Video Assistant Referee, Simon Hooper, didn’t disagree and Everton were forced to play the final 20-odd minutes a man down.
Thankfully, the scoreline remained the same, with only Jan Bednarek coming close to padding Southampton’s lead with a header that Pickford palmed over from a corner.
So, unless the Football Association elects to overturn Digne’s ban, it was another damaging afternoon for Everton and Ancelotti but not a catastrophic one if they can find focus on the training pitch this week and formulate a plan and team selection that could usher back in some of the free-flowing passing and movement that has under-pinned their strong start to the campaign.
The manager will, unfortunately, have learned who can be relied upon to come in and affect things and who failed to take their opportunity but an overall lack of quality options means that he will have to struggle through for the next couple of games until Richarlison, in particular, is available again.
The Brazilian offers so much in terms of work-rare, power and space-creation that he is always a massive miss but without him, the team needs to find other ways of playing. That didn’t happen today.
An Everton side well below par, wearing a hideous green and grey kit, rocked up at Saint Mary's seemingly determined to surrender all the good work so far this season.
Ben Godfrey got his first start in place of the injured Seamus Coleman but it was a baptism of fire as he was relentlessly targetted, with James Rodriguez declared fit but not helping him in defence.
Richarlison was suspended after his late red card in last weekend's derby, with Iwobi preferred to Bernard as his replacement. Gomes stepped down to the bench, with Sigurdsson preferred and taking the captain's armband. Theo Walcott, on loan with Southampton, is ineligible to play against his parent club.
The game kicked off in the autumn sunshine on the south coast with Everton in their sickly green and drab grey strip — why not royal Blue? — getting things going but scrappy stuff to begin, Southampton getting a free-kick that was headed behind by Keane.
Keane tried to get Iwobi moving for an early forward ball but the Nigerian wasn't interested. When Iwobi did get a chance to cross, he stalled, allowed the Southampton defence to form while wasting more time before crossing straight to McArthy.
Some good build-up play saw the ball fall to Iwobi again but his ball in was poor. Doucouré and Allan were doing fine work to pick up possession in midfield but a giveaway by Godfry led to a strong attacking move that saw Adams stroke his shot wide of the far post.
James fed his trademark cross-field ball to Iwobi who again took too long but saw his lame shot deflected behind and nothing coming from the corner. Calvert-Lewin drew a foul in a dangerous area that Sigurdsson and James discussed, and then James drove through the Everton decoy players in the wall but straight at McArthy.
A fine piece of build-up play through Allan and James was this time seized on by Sigurdsson who put his foot through it and got the ball to dip viciously, flying off the top of the bar. That effort was well worth a goal.
But Saints looked tricky in attack, playing in low balls that were getting close to being converted. The game went through a flat spell symptomatic of neither side being able impose themselves although Romeu fired in a pile driver that Pickford had to parry. But on the next phase, Ward-Prowse drove through and lashed his shot wide of Pickford to open the scoring.
It needed more care from Sigurdsson, who gave the ball away in an advanced position, and Everton resorted to working the ball around the back until it was launched aimlessly out of play.
Mina was spoken too over something, as Everton looked at risk of being unable to kindle the required intensity, with the Saints now moving the ball well and it was some shocking defending at the end that let Adams lash the ball into the net, deflected past Pickford at the near post.
Everton's forward play was seriously lacking with only 5 touches so far for Calvert-Lewin, Digne advancing far less often down the left. But the Saints strolled forward, striking a third only for it to eventually be flagged offside.
A couple of Everton corners were easily defended, although James was blatantly shoved off the ball on one of them. Everton tried to build but sloppiness ensured they went nowhere as the clock ticked toward the break. Godfrey was set up nicely for a cross but drove it far too hard and behind.
The utterly useless Iwobi was thankfully spared the second half, with Bernard, who has been little better, on in his place but struggling as he usually does to create enough space for his artistry to influence the game.
Godfrey was badly taken out by Redmond but no card from Friend. No guile on the ball in from Sigurdsson, that was easy meat for the Saints defence. Digne was overlapping better without Iwobi in his way but a corner was well wasted by Rodriguez, playing it short and then getting flagged for offside. Dreadful stuff.
At the other end, a rather clumsy challenge by Godfrey on Bertrand was waived away. A deliberate handball by Walker-Peters saw Digne put in a decent ball from the free-kick but not picking out any of the sickly green shirts as Dooucoure was replaced by Gordon and Sigurddssson by Delph.
And it looked like an immediate improvement with Bernard getting into the area and getting the ball to James but he could not get the shot off. At the other end, Keane needed to be sharp to stop Ings advancing on goal.
Gordon had the ball stolen and the Saints swept forward, so close to getting a third. Bernard was late getting to the ball and went in the book. Everton were attacking persistently but the final ball just wouldn't drop for a green shirt. Nothing was really coming off but at least now they were really trying.
That was until Digne tried to stop Walker-Peters and failed, then idiotically chased him from behind and stood on his Achilles... straight red card. How utterly fucking stupid can professional players be??? With a quarter of the game still to go, that ended it as a meaningful contest and underlined Everton's new reputation as the dirtiest (read stupidest) team in the Premier League.
Everton tried to break but James this time risked frustration. He was really suffering going into the at 10 minutes but, with all subs used, he would have to stay on the pitch with Everton effectively down to 9 men. Calvert-Lewin got a late card for blocking Vestergaard as they went through the motions of a well and truly lost cause.
Scorers: Ward-Prowse (27'), Adams (35')
Southampton: McCarthy; Walker-Peters [Y:57'], Vestergaard, Bednarek, Bertrand; Armstrong (86' Diallo), Romeu, Ward-Prowse, Redmond; Adams (89' N'Lundulu), Ings.
Subs: Forster, Stephens, Long, Tella, Vokins.
Everton: Pickford, Godfrey, Keane, Mina, Digne [R:], Allan, Doucouré (57'Gordon), Sigurdsson, Iwobi (46' Bernard [Y:63']), Rodriguez, Calvert-Lewin [Y:90+2'].
Subs not Used: Olsen, Nkounkou, (57' Delph) Gomes, Davies.
Referee: Kevin Friend
VAR: Simon Hooper
Everton travel to the south coast on Sunday to take on Southampton where they will be looking to build on their unbeaten start to the 2020-21 season.
The Blues lost their 100% record amid the controversial events of last weekend's Merseyside derby where Dominic Calvert-Lewin's 10th goal of the season earned a 2-2 draw and they will hopefully be fuelled by the confidence that their new-found resolve has brought them so far.
Everton's task will be made more difficult by the loss of Richarlison, a hugely member of Carlo Ancelotti's attack, and fitness concerns over James Rodriguez, another vital component of an attack that has registered 14 goals already, second only to Tottenham's 15.
Richarlison begins a three-match ban following his dismissal against Liverpool for a rash challenge on Thiago Alcântara but Ancelotti has been handed a boost after James took part in training today and is expected to make the trip to St Mary's.
The Italian had indicated only yesterday that the Colombian was a major doubt for the clash with Southampton because of bruising from a knock sustained in the Merseyside derby from a "mis-timed tackle" from Virgil van Dijk but the news today has been more positive.
"James is not definitely out,” Ancelotti said. “He had a big hematoma and was not able to train until today. He is much better now and we have confidence that maybe he can play.
“He had a partial training session. I hope he is going to train tomorrow and we will see if he is in condition to play on Sunday.”
Seamus Coleman is ruled out, however, as he deals with the hamstring problem that has forced him out of each of the last two Premier League games and with Jonjoe Kenny still not fully recovered from an ankle injury, it means that Ben Godfrey is in line to make his full debut at right back after coming on as a substitute in the derby.
Richarlison's absence is a big loss and it will force the manager into his first alteration to his forward line in the Premier League since the start of the season. Alex Iwobi has been Ancelotti's first option off the bench in recent games and while he doesn't provide the same outlet of pace and power as the Brazilian, he has displayed some impressive skill and ability to pick a pass at times when he has played.
Anthony Gordon offers a different dimension but the fact that the teenager hasn't been called upon in Premier League games so far suggests that he is an unlikely starter. The same goes for Bernard, a different kind of player again, and Ancelotti's reluctance to play him away from home last season suggests that he, too, will more likely start on the substitutes' bench rather than be named in the starting XI.
Should James not be able to start, however, Ancelotti will definitely be presented with more changes than he would have liked and, in that event, a player of Bernard's technical ability might make sense as long as there is robust midfield support from Abdoulaye Doucouré and Allan.
The presence of those latter two in the centre of midfield does give the manager choices in how he deals with the absence of Richarlison, with Gylfi Sigurdsson one more option, perhaps in a number 10 role behind Dominic Calvert-Lewin or sitting in that midfield three with Iwobi wide on the left.
André Gomes's disappointing outing against Liverpool, a game in which he was substituted during the second half, might see him drop back to the bench to give Sigurdsson an opportunity to impress.
Southampton pose a typically unpredictable task for the Toffees. They come into the weekend sitting in 12th with two wins, two defeats and a draw, having comfortably beaten West Bromwich Albion at home and eked out a 1-0 victory at Burnley. They played their part in a thrilling 3-3 draw at Chelsea last time out, with the threat posed by Danny Ings very much in evidence, but they showed their defensive frailties when they were drubbed 5-2 at St Mary's by Spurs last month.
With an available Richarlison, Everton might have looked to exploit Ralph Hasenuttl's high line but without his ability to break away on the transition, they may need to take a more considered approach. If James plays, the odds are in their favour that Dominic Calvert-Lewin will get the service he needs to add to his goals tally for the season but the key at the other end will be keeping Ings quiet given that he has scored in four of his last five appearances against the Blues.
The game will be featured live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Premier League.
Kick-off: 2pm, Sunday, 25 October, 2020
Referee: Kevin Friend
VAR: Simon Hooper
Last Time: Southampton 1 - 2 Everton
Predicted Line-up: Pickford, Godfrey, Keane, Mina, Digne, Allan, Doucouré, Sigurdsson, Iwobi, Rodriguez, Calvert-Lewin