24 hours hasn’t diminished the annoyance at last night’s defeat to Norwich or the dismay at just how routine Everton’s elimination from the League Cup in all its sponsored guises over the years has become.
That last season’s exit at the semi-final stage offered no consolation was simply because of the manner in which we threw away a two-goal advantage thanks to the kind of mind-boggling management that eventually got Roberto Martinez the sack.
Last night, meanwhile, was just irritating because it felt unnecessary given our strong start to life under Ronald Koeman in general. Perhaps, given the Dutchman’s high standards, his ability to change the course of a couple of matches already this season, and the burning collective desire to finally land some silverware, we Blues were entitled to expect a bit more from a home tie against lower-division opposition.
That last term is obviously relative; recently relegated and sitting second in the Championship, Norwich were always going to be an entirely different kettle of fish to the Yeovil side we faced in the last round, even if Alex Neil did make 10 changes of his own for the trip to Goodison. To their credit, the Canaries were well-organised, savvy in how they assessed Everton’s diminished ability to hurt them, and they took the only two chances that came their way.
Steven Naismith’s opener obviously owed a lot to fortune — still, Koeman will hopefully be asking why his left back was the last man covering the Scot’s shot on the right side of the penalty area, though — and Norwich were lucky at the other end when Aaron Lennon’s goal-bound effort struck Steven Whittaker’s arm without any action from referee Andrew Madley. Nevertheless, you can’t help but feel that, not for the first time, the number of changes Everton made to a settled side was ultimately their undoing.
While you could question the wisdom of it, the rationale was more obvious: by giving starts to the likes of Lennon, Tom Cleverley, Ramiro Funes Mori, Mason Holgate and Enner Valencia, Koeman was not only sating a need by those players for game time, he was also using the tie as an opportunity to gauge their suitability for more regular action in the Premier League.
As David Moyes and Roberto Martinez found out before him but nonetheless never seemed to learn, the price of making that many changes is significant disruption to the rhythm of the side and that was clearly evident in last night’s defeat. Often, it isn’t necessarily down to the quality of the replacements either — switching out half the side for players who haven’t had recent action just upsets the balance of the team.
Nevertheless, while they may individually have been just as affected by the wider team performance as some of the regular starters, it’s unlikely that many of those players who were given an opportunity to shine helped their cause much. Despite the odd flashes of good play, neither Cleverley nor Lennon could sustain much influence on the game; Funes Mori toiled in a baffling left-back role to which he has looked unsuited every time he has played there; meanwhile, Mason Holgate’s inexperience was exposed on a couple of occasions but there is an argument to be made that this was the right kind of game for him, providing the rest of the XI wasn’t changed too much.
While it’s unlikely that Evertonians learned much more about Enner Valencia’s suitability — or lack thereof — to a lone striker role, the biggest disappointments on the evening , however, were Gerard Deulofeu and Ross Barkley. If ever there was a situation where two of the squad’s most gifted players could have come to life and bossed the match, surely this was it.
Barkley was brilliant against Yeovil last month and the mastermind behind a couple of emphatic FA Cup wins against lower-division sides last season but on this occasion he was sloppy in possession and generally wanted far too much time on the ball to be the creative pulse in midfield. By the same token, Deulofeu has excelled against supposedly inferior sides in the cup in the past — Barnsley last season and Stevenage the season before that — but he was awful against Norwich and he will surely see it as a spurned opportunity to impress the new manager. Both players are 22 and, as such, are still quite raw but, as has been said many times already in recent weeks, they are running out of runway where that mitigating factor is concerned. They have to start delivering on a consistent basis.
Apart from the hugely deflating confirmation that the first avenue to a trophy has already been closed to Everton this season, last night also opened the door again to nagging doubt as the team prepares for Saturday’s trip to Bournemouth and the visit of Crystal Palace on Friday week beyond that. Both fixtures were enormously frustrating in their own right last season — indeed the Eagles’ visits to Goodison since their return to the top flight in 2013 have been recipes for Evertonian disappointment — and might have held some trepidation for that reason alone. But morale would have been that much higher had we despatched of Norwich as expected and rolled down to the south coast on the back of six successive wins in all competitions.
The setback of last night will have confirmed concerns over the depth of the squad and fear of what we’ll do if, God forbid, Romelu Lukaku is out for any significant length of time in the coming months. It will also have been highly instructive for the new manager and, coming in the wake of a partially failed transfer window, reminded supporters that despite the club’s best start to a league campaign for 38 years, a good deal of patience will still be required as Koeman rebuilds the squad.
Ultimately, the question that should Blues fans should return to in times of doubt, however, is a simple one: are we better off than we were a year ago? The unequivocal answer to that is yes and we have to faith that things will only continue to improve under Koeman’s stewardship despite — or maybe in part because of — this mis-step in the EFL Cup.
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