By Christmas you usually have a pretty good indication of how the Premier League is going to shake out. The title contenders are jostling for position at the top, the candidates for the drop are already digging in for the fight and the potential European qualifiers are weighing up what reinforcements they might need in January to make that a reality.
When the turkey is being carved this year and Evertonians are drinking to forget yet another defeat in the derby, Everton will be sitting seven points adrift of sixth place, a position likely — but not guaranteed — to deliver Ronald Koeman's stated goal of European qualification.
That widening gap between the Blues and that predictable top six has been foreshadowed by three months of poor form from the Dutchman's team. Two wins in 12 league matches, six defeats and just 10 goals scored is well below what was expected when Koeman came from Southampton billed as one of most highly-regarded managers in Europe.
No one expected miracles. Everton were dreadful in the last three months of Roberto Martinez's reign and the so-called best Toffees team since the 1980s has fallen well short of those estimations, exposed for the overhaul it so badly needs if the club is to truly compete in the next couple of years.
Few could have imagined we'd be quite so bad at times though. Granted it was a meaningless end-of-season encounter played in an almost celebratory atmosphere against a relegated team but the Everton that thumped Norwich 3-0 last May played with energy, movement, tempo and attacking verve.
After a decent start that yielded four wins from first five games in charge, the Blues have regressed into an outfit devoid of any flair — a team built for power and intensity but lacking the guile and creativity that, historically, Evertonians expect from their team. Nothing exemplified that more than Monday's Merseyside derby and it's troubling to hear Koeman describe the performance as “outstanding” because it clearly wasn't.
If his assessment of the performance was a psychological tool designed to acknowledge that his players had put in the requisite graft and aggression, then that's one thing. They had, after all — Ross Barkley's horrible tackle on Jordan Henderson aside — channeled the aggression he had called for into hassling Liverpool out of their stride until they dropped so deep that Jürgen Klopp's men had the space they needed in which to eventually work a winner. But it was a worryingly inept display going forward.
Everton acquitted themselves well in the first half within the parameters of stopping Liverpool but in failing to test Simon Mignolet once before half time they didn't offer anything aimed at actually winning the game themselves. The second half, with the clear mitigating circumstance of losing James McCarthy to injury (with Maarten Stekelenburg's own enforced departure robbing the manager of a third outfield sub), was, in a word, garbage and fans have a right to be concerned when the entire game plan appears to rest on one player — a player who appeared to some to be heading out the door in January — or the general stamina of the team as a whole. While Liverpool weren't good by any stretch of the imagination, they were better and if there was to be a winner, few could begrudge the red horde being the ones to take the points after they had allowed the Blues to burn themselves out.
The manager's inference was that he would have been delighted with having ground out another ugly point which, in a local derby, is fair enough even if supporters can, with justification, say that that isn't good enough, particularly with the opposition playing without their best player and best centre half. But this wasn't an isolated case of huff and puff being preferred to actual craft. As has been mentioned on these pages before, Koeman's Everton don't actually play much football.
Life under David Moyes could be mind-numbingly dull but when he was able to blend the silk in the form of the likes of Arteta and Pienaar with steel of your Cahills, Gravesens and Carsleys, the Blues also played some lovely stuff at times. Koeman will hopefully get there — Rome wasn't built in a day and he will clearly need lots of time but there is justifiable concern that a manager of his pedigree cannot get the current lot to string more than three passes together.
This is a man after all who played for a Barcelona under Johan Cruyff, steeped in the Netherlands' “Total Football” traditions and a member of the team that won the 1988 European Championships. Yet his yardstick for an outstanding performance on Monday was how well the team defended, pressed and how much his players ran themselves into the ground again. If that's what constitutes “outstanding” in his eyes, he's less Cruyff, and more Tony Pulis with a better CV.
If that sounds harsh, it's born of a belief that the Evertonians who have packed Goodison Park to capacity almost every home game so far and routinely sold out away allocations for season after season are entitled to expect a little more than one shot on target per game. The Grand Old Lady has witnessed just eight Premier League wins in 2016 — admittedly, half have come under Koeman — and has yet to see Everton put in a complete performance under the new manager. Patience is wearing thin but it's patience in abundance that we need again as the club goes through another evolution on the pitch.
While there are those calling prematurely for Koeman's head, it makes no sense to do so at this early stage because, again, he needs time — time to impress his methods on the team, time to identify who needs to be shipped out and time to bring in the players he and Steve Walsh feel they need to get Everton playing the way he wants them to. He was able to steady the ship at Southampton after a poor run of results last season and steer them into Europe and it seemed as though the Saints played some decent enough football under his guidance. We have to see if he can repeat that feat at Goodison.
In the meantime, however, it's not unreasonable to expect a little more subtlety and imagination from the team than has been served up in recent weeks. There have to be alternative routes to victory beyond constant pressing, particularly when the two most forward players merely pay the tactic lip-service. There are clearly problems to be addressed in the squad — the “Barkley question”, the need for a second striker and more creativity in general — but they shouldn't preclude work being done on the training ground focused on ball retention and basic concepts like pass and move. After all, Eddie Howe, for one example, has been able to get Bournemouth playing attractive football with supposedly inferior players to the point where, if results go in their favour on Boxing Day, they'll go above Everton in the table. We were supposed to have consigned such ignominy to the history of last season.
If there is comfort to be taken as 2016 comes to a close and the picture off the pitch looks ever rosier it's that football can change quickly and sometimes defy predictions. If the club can succeed where many others have failed and make some genuine game-changing additions in the January transfer window, then hope of bridging that gap to the top six won't be mis-placed. It could be that three or four targeted additions will flip a switch in Koeman's team and bring about an altogether more effective way of playing with players better able to make it a reality.
That is why Blues fans need to tap into their dwindling reserves of patience to see what the remainder of this season brings before a better assessment of the Koeman regime can be made. Change is rarely achieved without a degree of turbulence and readjustment; we just have to hope that it isn't too long in bearing fruit and doesn't culminate in another dead end.
The life of a Blue, eh? Happy Christmas.
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