For much of this season, Everton have aimed and occasionally succeeded in playing football worthy of the Champions League. What we got last night against Southampton from the club however, was football more worthy of the Championship.
This was unquestionably Everton’s worst performance of the campaign so far. It was difficult to believe that the team which took to the pitch yesterday, specifically in the first half, is the same one that has at times outclassed some of the Premiership’s big boys during this season.
If you were really pushed to find excuses for Everton’s limp display then you could cite the fact that Southampton had a new manager, something that can often produce unusual performances in teams. Although there’s every chance that the introduction of a new man at the helm could, specifically in light of the way in which he was installed, have meant a calamitous display by a group of players unsettled by the managerial shift, equally the arrival of fresh-blood in charge can also have the potential to create a spirited display by a team eager to impress. Sadly for Everton, it was the second of these potential outcomes that came to fruition.
It’s very rare to see Everton outplayed so comprehensively for such a long period of the game. But this is what happened yesterday. Virtually from the kick-off, Southampton took the game to the visitors, belying the gulf that separates their respective league positions and being very unlucky not to go ahead within the first ten minutes.
In fact, it was only a fantastic performance by Tim Howard in the Everton goal, combined with some woeful finishing by the Southampton forwards, that meant both teams went in level at half-time. It was a whistle that must have been much welcomed by Moyes, the Everton players and every Evertonian following the game last night.
As good as Southampton were, there’s little doubt that their opponents were crap during the first 45. Everything that has made Everton so impressive this season, the side’s movement down the wings, Fellaini’s dominance of the midfield, the ability to create chance-after-chance was entirely absent in the first half. Far too often, all Everton had to offer was the long-ball, pumped aimlessly forward in the hope that either Jelavic or Fellaini might get their head to it.
The players who have done much this season to drive the team forward were also on pretty poor form yesterday too. Fellaini, Pienaar and Baines were largely ineffective during the first half and you know something is seriously wrong with the side when our consistently out-standing left-back is having a bad game.
Probably the most disappointing performance of the night was that of Jelavic, whose form during his first full season at Goodison has been wretched. Once again, he produced nothing of note for the team and is now as fruitless as Saha or Yakubu were during their darkest days at the club. All that hope and promise from last season has evaporated, leaving many an Evertonian to wonder if we’ve got another dud on our hands and if the club is somehow jinxed when it comes to forwards. Somehow we’ve managed to get through the last 25 years without ever having a natural goal-scorer in the side.
Probably the instance that summed up Jelavic’s night, and possibly his season so far, was his miss in the second-half. A rare Everton move enabled Anichebe to get behind the Southampton back-four and whip in a low cross direct to Jelavic’s feet. All the forward had to do was connect with the ball. At the very least this would have forced a save from Southampton keeper Boruc. Instead, Jelly contrived to miss the ball completely and kick his own foot, quite a skill. The replays showed that he’d managed to take his eye off the ball, something you’d expect of a five-year-old, not someone playing for one of the country’s leading clubs. It’s the second time that Jelevic has done this in recent games, further proof, if further proof be needed, of his dire form at the moment.
It was telling that Everton’s fortunes only really improved when Anichibe took to the pitch. He might be something of a joke to opposition fans - and some Evertonians - but right now, Victor is far more potent going forward than Jelavic and more likely get a goal. When he was later complemented by the much-missed Mirallas, who came-on for the lamentable Jelavic, Everton looked the best they had all night. There’s a case to be made for these two to start the next game and stick Jelavic on the bench. Victor has worked hard to impress this season and so why not give him a chance? It’s not like Jelly is offering anything at the moment and his link-up play with Mirallas was never that good to begin with.
When I looked at this fixture a few months back, I was relatively confident that Everton could get a win from the game. We were on great form and Southampton were in the doldrums. I can honestly say that based on the performances of the respective sides yesterday, Saints’ fans would be justified in feeling that they were robbed of two points.
For Everton, despite coming away with a lucky, undeserved point, our grip on a top-four place is looking looser by the day. The clubs around us are playing better and better all the time and at the moment we seem to be the only team in the top seven whose form suggests a downward trajectory. I’m hopeful that yesterday was a one off and that with the possibility of some new blood in the transfer window our form can improve and we can continue to hold our own amidst the higher echelons of the league. But if this turns out not to be the case then those dreams of Champions League qualification are going to remain just that.