Any time you cast your eye down the fixture list and find yourself wondering where the next win is going to come from, you’re in trouble and that’s where Everton find themselves after another horrible away defeat.
With Arsenal and Liverpool to come at Goodison Park over the next nine days, then two more games on the road to close out the year, it’s not inconceivable, based on what unfolded at Vicarage Road, that Ronald Koeman’s team will go into 2017 having won just once in 14 games. That is relegation form any way you slice it and it may sound pessimistic but, apart from the desperate hope that Koeman and Steve Walsh have some game-changing signings up their sleeve in January, there is a pretty desperate feeling hanging around Everton at the moment regarding the state of team.
Today, for the first time since they beat West Ham on 30th October, the Blues scored first and, even more out of character, they actually started a game in acceptable fashion, even if it didn’t manifest itself into much until Gareth Barry unlocked the Watford defence for Lukaku to score his first goal in five matches.
Unfortunately, they failed to capitalise on that precious advantage thanks to some alarmingly poor defending that allowed Watford back into the game. With 20 minutes gone in the second half, the Evertonians who had made the journey south were in a familiarly dismal state of deja vu, shaking their heads at another defensive horror show and the concession of three goals by their team.
As Stefano Okaka heel-flicked his way to his first Premier League goal and then added a second from an unchallenged header either side of Sebastian Prödl’s own unforgivably free header, it prompted serious questions like: was that poorly executed zonal marking by Everton’s defence? Why was Seamus Coleman marking a towering centre half? Just what do Koeman and and his coaching staff do at Finch Farm every day and are his players buying into any of it?
Because there is precious little evidence of a style of play emerging under the Dutchman and his side remain largely ineffective going forward until desperation takes over in the last 10 minutes. (Someone should tell them that even if you draw all 38 games, you’re still likely to go down with that many points so they may as well start every match from here until May thinking they’re losing if that’s what it takes to get them going.)
Yes, they took the lead but as the clock ticked past 80 minutes, Everton’s shots-on-target tally from their last three away games — some 260 minutes of football — stood at an embarrassing three. They would double that in the final 10 of this one, one of them a text-book striker’s header by Lukaku from substitute Aaron Lennon’s pin-point cross, but it wasn’t enough to save them. Still, they look a much better side with both Lukaku and Enner Valencia’s wiling running up front; Koeman just stubbornly refuses to try it from the start.
Instead, in response to Yannick Bolasie’s injury and the need to try and inject some energy into the side, the manager fielded Gerard Deulofeu and James McCarthy as two changes to the XI that had started against Manchester United last weekend. Coming into the team at the expense of Tom Cleverley, McCarthy was deployed, somewhat surprisingly, as the furthest forward of three defensively-minded central midfielders and he offered about as much offensive threat as one would have expected.
To be fair to the Irishman, he did cover a lot of ground and, for the most part, pressed in the manner in which is manager would have expected but it was Barry who laid on the opening goal for Lukaku after 16 minutes. He clipped a beautifully flighted ball over the top for the Belgian to bring down and slot under the body of Heurelho Gomes.
Watford tried to respond immediately and their best passing move of the game thus far ended with Okaka in a good position but his low shot was comfortably saved by Maarten Stekelenburg.
He would convert a more difficult but more spectacular effort nine minutes before half-time though when Ashley Williams inexplicably pulled out of an aerial duel with Troy Deeney, allowing the Watford striker an unchallenged header that was worked out wide to Nordin Amrabat. His low cross found Okaka in the centre and he did the rest with an impressive finish from close range to level the scores.
That goal galvanised the home side and thanks to niggly fouls by Everton in threatening areas of their own half, they were able to punish the Blues’ sloppy marking. Idrissa Gueye chopped down Valon Behrami — the Swiss had played on despite vomiting in the centre circle prior to the start of the second half — and Prödl rose easily above Coleman to power the Hornets ahead in the 59th minute.
Six minutes after that it was 3-1. Miguel Britos had gone very close to scoring from another criminally unmarked position but Stekelenburg made an excellent save with his fingertips to divert the Uruguayan’s downward header over the bar. But from the resulting corner, Okaka peeled away to meet the delivery and steered a header past the ‘keeper’s vain flap and in off Leighton Baines on the line.
Cue the first of three Koeman substitutions as Ross Barkley came on for Gueye before Valencia replaced the industrious but ineffective Mirallas with 20 minutes to go. The Ecuadorian bent an ambitious effort wide from 25 yards while Lukaku failed to emulate Okaka’s first goal when his flick missed the far post but he was, in any case, flagged offside yet again.
Valencia then headed wide from Lennon’s cross before the sub served Lukaku’s second on a platter, sparking brief hopes of another last-gasp equaliser but despite strong claims for a penalty — predictably they were ignored by referee Anthony Taylor — when Britos got away with climbing all over Valencia, Everton weren’t able to muster the scoring chance to make it happen.
So that search for the next elusive win continues while the inquests into just what is going on under Koeman’s tenure only become more urgent. Whether the Dutchman is simply discovering the severe limitations and mental fragility in the squad that dogged his predecessor or there is something deeply amiss in the culture, spirit or atmosphere in the dressing room under the new manager is hard to say.
Perhaps it’s a mixture of those factors but while it’s clear an overhaul of personnel is overdue at Goodison, the fact that a manager of Koeman’s pedigree and Premier League track record — albeit comparatively short — can’t rouse more fight and cohesiveness from a squad that does possess a fair amount of talent is deeply concerning. And things don’t get any easier over the next 10 days either…
Ronald Koeman made a couple of changes, with McCarthy and Deulofeu getting the chance to impress. Mirallas and Funes Mori retained their places. Jagielka and Barkley failed to start a second successive game as Everton continue the season without record signing Yannick Bolasie.
The now standard Everton kick-off ensued: back to Williams, the ball lofted forward and possession conceded. But it was Everton who attacked through Deulofeu but he could not get past the defender and ended up conceding a free-kick. Holebas tried his trademark long throw at he other end, another long ball pumped up toward Lukaku, Mirallas called for a push.
A half-chance came from the next ball forward and almost fell for Lukaku but he did not attack the ball and it was cleared. Guedioura was carded for a stamp on Gana's ankle.
A zipped ball out to Deulofeu was glanced behind for Everton's first corner that was powered in at Gomez along the goalline, who was forced to do a volleyball save and deflect it away from goal.
Watford mounted their first decent attack, Amrabat getting past Funes Mori with ease but crossing poorly. But they put a good move together that saw Capoue cross dangerously, Funes Mori preventing any shot on Stekelenburg's goal. Deulofeu clipped the heels of Zuniga and his name went in the book. The kick for Watford came to nothing.
Watford had settled better and were setting the tempo but a bouncing ball over the top from Gareth Barry fell nicely for Lukaku and he side-footed it past Gomez to give Everton the lead. That gave Everton a surge of life, with attacks developing down both sides, crosses from Deulofeu and Baines threatening more goals.
But at the other end, Deeney got a chance to shoot but it was weak and Stekelenburg saved comfortably, with nothing coming from a Watford corner soon after. Everton looked more solid but the focus of all forward movement was Lukaku.
Amrabat again caused havoc down Everton's left, beating Banes then Funes Mori but Deeney could not get a clean strike on it and Everton escaped. Then it was the turn of Okaka and Holevas down the Everton right but that came to nothing.
Williams was called for climbing over Troy Deeney, the kick fired straight at Lukaku and the ball was back with Everton, to the frustration of the home crowd. But it was scrappy stuff from the visitors as well, and not pretty to watch at times.
Mirallas zipped in a nice ball right to Lukaku's feet but the big man was under pressure and it came right back. The pressing game saw lack of any fluidity from both sides in a tight and competitive midfield. Okaka was flattened by a Funes Mori clearance and was spoken to by the ref for his 'You watching?' gesture.
A header on target was saved easily by Stekelenburg. But in the next attack, it was Amrabat who fired in a tremendous cross and Okaka ran past Williams and did a brilliant flick on the turn to bamboozle Stekelenburg and put Watford back in the game.
Gana gave the ball away in a forward position and it put Everton under real pressure. More clever stuff from Amarabat, and a good ball to Deeney on the far post was thankfully fluffed by the 99-goal Watford man. Capoue looked to beat Barry as he drove into the Everton area, Barry clipping the ball away.
Deulofeu whipped in a tremendous cross that Mirallas could not quite reach. It was frenetic stuff at times with no lack of effort from both sides, fighting for every ball. Coleman was next to cross in well but Mirallas was not determined enough to make a chance out of it as the half ended.
Behrami started throwing up before the restart which was a little delayed. Deulofeu did his trademark run with 15 stepovers and no delivery, the ball going behind as Barkley was out to warm up early.
Deulofeu fired in another cross, earlier this time, but straight to Gomez as the second half so far lacked the vim and vigour of the first. Mirallas and Coleman combined but the Irishman was called off side before he crossed to Baines.
Deulofeu was fouled on another run in and he risked censure for his animated reaction. It was Deulofeu again into the area, but he played it behind both Mirallas and Lukaku. A good move was spoilt by Lukaku advancing offside.
It was scrappy and formless with neither side doing very well, silly fouls and offsides breaking the tempo. Guedioura fired in one free-kick that was headed over. The next silly foul by Deulofeu on the other side was punished by Prodl, headed in with ease.
Baines seemed to take out Amrabat with a raised arm, and he was booked. Britos came around the back and it needed a smart save from Stekelenburg. But Holevas headed in the corner undefended, a shocking capitulation by the Blues.
Barkley came on with a massive task to turn around an absolute disaster on the part of the Blues who had ominously failed to build on their lead, and had now yielded three goals in a shocking collapse.
Deulofeu fired in a low cross and Lukaku for once was ahead of his defender but Prodl was too clever for the big man. Deulofeu did well to run down the channel but Mirallas had been turned and could not do anything with the ball.
Another silly free-kick this time given up by Williams almost gave the Hornets another chance. Everton were being pressed hard as Valencia replaced Mirallas. Into the final 20 minutes and Watford slowed the tempo to a walking pace, pulling everyone back and making Everton's task harder than ever.
Everton did finally put together a decent move, Valencia winning a corner that Deulofeu swung in well but Barkley could not fire in the second ball. Barkley's free-kick was punched away by Gomez. Deulofeu tried his luck from the left but Barkley could not dig out the shot. Gomez collected a corner easily but the Blues kept pressing. Valencia fired a shot wide.
Holevas got free and was sandwiched but no penalty called, as a bearded Aaron Lennon replaced Leighton Baines for Koeman's final throw of the dice. A great cross-field pass from Barkley and tremendous ball in from Deulofeu for Lukaku to flick home... only he didn't and he was called offside anyway.
A good cross in from Lennon was headed behind lamely by Valencia. Finally a better play from Valencia and a great cross from Lennon headed home by Lukaku.
It was desperate stuff as Everton fought for an equalizer, Valencia being impeded by Britos but no call from referee Taylor. Barkley played a soft free-kick straight at Gomez. Spoiling tactics from Watford as they looked to run down the clock.
A dismal result for Everton from the scoreline despite some tremendous effort put in by the Blues in a very competitive game, who slip down another place in the League despite two goals from Lukaku.
Watford: Gomes, Zuniga (90+2' Kabasele), Prodl, Britos, Holebas, Guedioura [Y:7'] (61' Janmaat), Behrami, Capoue, Amrabat, Okaka (81' Watson), Deeney.
Subs: Success, Sinclair, Ighalo, Pantilimon.
Everton: Stekelenburg, Coleman, Williams, Funes Mori, Baines, Barry, Gueye (63' Barkley), McCarthy , Deulofeu [Y:14'], Mirallas (70' Valencia), Lukaku.
Subs: Robles, Jagielka, Lennon, Cleverley, Holgate.
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Ronald Koeman remarked last week that he was fully aware of how difficult the Everton job could prove to be, at least in the early going, and the Dutchman is certainly being challenged as his team grinds through a run of just one win in nine league games.
Not only that but he has now been hit by the loss of Yannick Bolasie to an ACL injury which will deprive him off his most expensive signing and most productive outlet on the flanks. It's a turn of events that will have significant ramifications not only for his and Steve Walsh's January transfer plans but also for this weekend's trip to Watford.
Having fielded Bolasie in every game since his arrival from Crystal Palace, Koeman will be forced to turn to one of his similarly inconsistent but less reliable wingers while also needing another of them to perform on the other flank. It provides a terrific opportunity for perhaps two of Kevin Mirallas, Aaron Lennon and Gerard Deulofeu to step up and stake their claim to Bolasie's starting role.
It's possible, of course, but unlikely that one of Enner Valencia, Tom Cleverley or Ross Barkley could be pushed into a wide role, depending on what formation the manager opts for at Vicarage Road. Valencia was ineffective as a winger at West Ham and even cited that role as a major factor behind his poor form for the Hammers in his second season with the club. Cleverley struggled on the left side of midfield against United last Saturday and Barkley exposed the futility in Roberto Martinez continually trying him out wide.
Given how more effective the Blues were in the closing stages against United after Valencia had been introduced for Bolasie in the second half, there is a growing number of Blues fans who would like to see Koeman try a 4-4-2 formation for once to see if it affords Romelu Lukaku any more room and lessens the attention on him from opposition defenders.
While the Belgian could certainly help his own cause more by offering more movement across the forward line, there is no question that he has been starved of service. Koeman acknowledged both aspects of Everton's faltering attack in his pre-match press conference but the statistics don't read well for Lukaku.
A recent analysis highlighted that the Blues' striker has covered less ground than any other Premier League player this season and he has been outshone by his compatriot, Christian Benteke, who has had twice as many shots over the last five games even though Crystal Palace have been on an atrocious run of results since they came to Goodison Park at the end of September. Something has to change by thus far the manager doesn't seem to have known the answer.
Ex-Belgium boss Marc Wilmots once likened Lukaku and Benteke to lampposts but the Palace man has been far more active recently despite his team's awful run
A three-man defence and a return for Phil Jagielka is another option for Koeman — albeit a less interesting one — against a Watford side that have proved, on the one hand, how effective they can be at times this season but also how erratic they are on the other. A 4-2 win at West Ham and a 3-1 home win over Manchester United signalled that new manager Walter Mazzarri might have quickly found a winning solution. They've won three times since, beating two struggling sides in the form of Hull City at Leicester at home and edging Middlesbrough away but they also got hammered 6-1 by Liverpool and fell 3-1 at West From last weekend.
The Hornets are a physical side and won't provide Everton with an easy ride this weekend. Miguel Britos and yellow-card magnet Valon Behrami both return from suspensions but Roberto Pereyra serves a ban of his own and Craig Cathcart is ruled out with injury.
As difficult a test as Watford could pose if they're on their game, there is scope for Everton doing something they haven't really managed since the opening day of the season — unsettling the opposition early and getting out to a quick lead to sow doubt in the minds of their players and fans.
Show the kind of intensity with which they finished the game against United last weekend for the majority of the 90 minutes and they will clearly stand a great chance of finally getting that next victory, one that will keep them in and around the top six. Another draw would be of little use points-wise but it would at least help foster some sorely lacking confidence ahead of two difficult assignments back at Goodison.
3pm 12:30pm, Saturday 10 December, 2016
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Last Time: Watford 1 - 1 Everton
Predicted Line-up: Stekelenburg, Coleman, Williams, Funes Mori, Baines, Barry, Gueye, Lennon, Mirallas, Barkley, Lukaku.