Progress Stalled Again – 2020-21 Season Review

A season hugely affected by the pandemic petered out with Everton winning just three of their last 12 matches and ending the campaign on the flattest of notes with a dispiriting defeat on the final day

Lyndon Lloyd 25/05/2021 3comments  |  Jump to last

A season hugely affected by the pandemic petered out with Everton winning just three of their last 12 matches and ending the campaign on the flattest of notes with a dispiriting defeat on the final day. There was an air of fatalism and resignation about the players that was mirrored in the manager who questioned the mentality of the squad at his disposal and was looking to make significant changes in the summer.

Sound familiar? That was Everton a year ago having ended 2019-20 by losing 3-1 to Bournemouth in limp fashion, a fortnight after they rolled over at Wolves, a performance so bad that it prompted Carlo Ancelotti to publicly express his frustration with his players and Seamus Coleman to issue one of his “it’s just not good enough” speeches to the cameras.

The club seemed like it was miles away from European qualification, that collectively the players lacked bottle and sufficient quality, that some serious inroads would need to be made in the transfer market to deliver the players that Ancelotti feels he needs… and, frankly, the prevailing sense at the end of 2021-22 isn’t all that different. Progress? It doesn’t feel like it.

Denise Barrett-Baxendale sent a slightly premature and overly rosy email to supporters before the Blues were humiliated by Manchester City, proclaiming that “clear progress” had been made this season but in reality any forward movement by the team was incremental at best. Yes, looking purely at the numbers, Everton improved by 10 points and two places on the season before, almost equalled the club record for away wins and picked up some hoodoo-busting wins at teams like Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal. But they also had one of the worst home records in the club’s 133-year history and ended the league campaign in the lowest position they had occupied all season with a negative goal difference.

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Ultimately, all the discussion over how 59 points is the most amassed by a team that finished 10th in the Premier League era or how, at the start of the season, Evertonians would have grabbed a chance of making Europe heading into the last match of the season with both hands are pretty meaningless without the context of where Everton sat on Boxing Day or, indeed, the position they occupied as late as early March. The Blues were in second place after beating Sheffield United the day after Christmas; after winning at West Bromwich Albion on 4th March they were fifth with a game in hand on all the sides above them.

The manner in which they fell apart after that and, more pertinently, proved incapable of winning another home game until it was practically too late spoke volumes about the mentality of the players and a broad failure on a coaching and motivational level from the management. That, and the failure to secure European qualification of any description despite the door being open for much of the campaign, ended up being the storyline of the season.

Spirit of the Blues

It had all started so positively following a protracted close season and a late start to the campaign brought on by the suspension of play of the previous Premier League season by the COVID-19 outbreak. Everton had made six signings, three of them directly addressing a critical need to bolster the club’s “black hole” of a midfield. Abdoulaye Doucouré was finally pried away from Watford to provide legs and dynamism, Allan was signed from Napoli to inject some tenacity in the centre of the park and the rumours of interest in James Rodriguez eventually solidified into the acquisition from Real Madrid — on a free transfer, no less! — of the most technically gifted player the Blues have had in the modern era.

Potentially significant from a commercial point of view, it was also hoped that James could be a transformational signing on the pitch and the opening-day victory at Spurs seemed to confirm that as the Colombian, in tandem with those other two incoming midfielders, made an immediate impact. All three made excellent debuts as Everton won on Tottenham’s home turf for the first time in 13 years thanks to Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s thumping header and followed it up with six more wins in all competitions to head into the first international break of the season top of the Premier League and having booked a place in the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup.

James was proving to be instrumental, weighing in with three goals in his first four League games while Calvert-Lewin had started 2020-21 in electrifying form, scoring hat-tricks against West Bromwich Albion and West Ham on the way to a tally of nine goals in that opening flurry of fixtures. So much seemed possible at that stage and for Evertonians so long deprived of anything even approaching success, it felt as though the stars had finally aligned and descended upon Goodison Park, ready for Everton to capitalise on a pandemic-affected season that already looked as though it was going to be anything but normal.

The mood among supporters was crystallised by a series of Twitter memes set to the bouncy 1980s anthem “Spirit of the Blues” which took hold to such an extent that the track ended up displacing Miley Cyrus at the top of the UK iTunes singles chart. Few Blues were under any illusions that the team would be able to remain top of the pile over the course of a gruelling 38-game season but there was a sense that with the new players and Ancelotti now embedded for his first full season, a tilt at the top four was possible.

Derby Fallout

Not for the first time, though, a Merseyside derby and the psychological fallout they can produce intervened. This one’s ramifications would be particularly impactful, however; firstly, in terms of the availability of two of Everton’s most important players but, secondly, in terms of a relentless media narrative against Jordan Pickford in the wake of his collision with Virgil van Dijk whose season was ended that afternoon by an anterior cruciate knee ligament injury.

Nothing was said by the press of the Dutch defender’s cynical late challenge on Rodriguez in the first couple of minutes of the Goodison derby but the hysteria in the media over Pickford’s rash tackle on Van Dijk would last for months, and plenty of hand-wringing occurred over Richarlison’s lunge on Thiago Alcantara while Andy Robertson raking his studs down Allan’s calf went completely ignored.

Richarlison was sent off in the 2-2 draw, a match that featured impressive resilience and determination from the Toffees to twice come from behind as well as another imperious Calvert-Lewin header, and had to serve a three-match ban while James sustained an injury to his nether regions that would affect him for a lot longer.

The Colombian would start the next game, a miserable 2-0 defeat at Southampton in which Everton were out-played to an alarming degree and Lucas Digne also picked up a red card, but he clearly wasn’t right and it was no surprise when he was absent from the trip to Newcastle where Ancelotti exhibited the first of some perplexing selection decisions that would crop up over the course of the season.

With no Digne, Richarlison or James, the Italian packed his side with central midfielders and Everton went down to a 2-1 defeat which turned into three consecutive losses when Manchester United ruthlessly exploited the Blues’ weaknesses down their right flank by winning 3-1 at Goodison, putting a very different complexion on Ancelotti’s fine start to the season.

Victory at Fulham on 21st November seemed to signal a return of Everton’s mojo and a resurrection of the side that was able to shrug off conceding goals because they had an innate belief that they could score at will themselves. It was an attitude that had served them well in those first few games where they beat West Brom and Brighton 5-2 and 4-2 respectively but it didn’t last.

Leeds came to L4 and left with a 1-0 victory against the kind of Everton performance in an empty Goodison Park that would completely derail their European hopes in the second half of the campaign. With supporters in the ground, as there were against Chelsea and Arsenal in December as the Merseyside region was briefly designated as “Tier 2” by the UK Government, the Toffees beat those visitors from the Capital either side of a handsome win at Leicester City.

Having those 2,000 home fans didn’t prevent Everton from exiting the League Cup at the hands of Manchester United but a slender win at Sheffield United on Boxing Day left them in second place the day after Christmas and a belief that the team had weathered its autumn wobbles, setting them up for a run at the top six at least after the New Year.

Home Discomforts

2021 began with another home loss, though, as West Ham plundered a late victory and Ancelotti’s side yet again displayed a worrying ineptitude on their own ground without fans. A brilliant Rodriguez goal had set them on a path to victory in the return match against Leicester but the Toffees couldn’t hold on and ended up having to settle for a draw having managed just two shots on target. Three days later, struggling Newcastle, who were winless in 11 matches at the time, came to town and embarrassed Everton 2-0 and in February both relegation-bound Fulham and Champions-to-be Manchester City came to Goodison and won handily, sowing serious doubts on the team’s ability to make Europe.

If the Blues’ home form was becoming increasingly dispiriting, their results on the road were the complete opposite. Through defensive discipline and maximum attacking efficiency, Ancelotti’s men racked up further away wins at Wolves and Leeds before coming back from 3-1 down to draw 3-3 at Old Trafford with a last-gasp Calvert-Lewin equaliser. Then they made the short journey across Stanley Park to Anfield where they hadn’t won since September 1999. In a season that ultimately delivered very little, this was to be the high mark of the campaign as Rodriguez laid on what was effectively the winner in just the third minute and Gylfi Sigurdsson secured the points with a late penalty to banish one of the most enduring and painful hexes on the club.

A first home win of the calendar year, secured by another Richarlison strike and a vital save late on by loan acquisition Robin Olsen, over Southampton was followed by a razor-thin victory at West Brom and on 4th March, Everton were in the top six having played a game fewer than any of the teams above them.

Ancelotti had settled on a fluid five-man defence anchored by the emergent and dependable Ben Godfrey, the £20m summer signing from Norwich and undoubted surprise package of 2021-22, which had served him well away from home but couldn’t either inspire his players or engineer them to play anything resembling effective attacking football at Goodison where the Blues were required to be more proactive.

Rodriguez’s inconsistent availability combined with medium-term injuries to key personnel like Doucoure and Allan were cited as determining factors while Burnley and City (in the League and FA Cup) won in L4 and Crystal Palace took advantage of poor finishing at one end by Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin to salvage a point. It’s true that with the substitute’s bench occasionally stuffed with U18s players, there was precious little depth in the squad when Ancelotti needed to change things during matches.

But even once those two midfield components had returned and the team picked up vital wins at Arsenal and West Ham to keep them in the hunt of the top six, Everton’s struggles on home turf continued with insipid defeats to Aston Villa and Sheffield United which, ultimately, proved to be the final nails in the proverbial coffin of their European aspirations.

When they finally did manage to collect three points at home, against Wolves in front of 6,000-plus fans, in mid-May it was too late. It left Everton needing a miracle on the last day of the season at Man City’s coronation as champions to have any hope of scraping into the inaugural European Conference League. A pitiful 5-0 defeat while Tottenham won at Leicester put paid to that.

More Questions than Answers

Within the framework of a privately-held goal that was eventually vocalised publicly — namely, qualification for Europe — Everton’s 2020-21 season can really only be deemed a failure. The expenditure on the likes of Rodriguez, Allan and Doucouré, at 29, 29, and 27 respectively, was a departure from Marcel Brands’s initial vision of investing in younger talent with resale value in order to bring the average age of the squad down but, together with investment in Ancelotti himself, it was sanctioned, no doubt, with the aim of securing a spot in Europe, either via league placement or winning one of the cups.

The nature of the season meant that it was a campaign that offered a unique opportunity for the Blues to fast-track their progress by taking advantage of upheaval and inconsistency at the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool. Everton, more than any other club bar Man City, were able to capitalise on the fact that empty grounds had removed much of the advantage of playing at home, and team had done enough over the first two thirds of the season to have put themselves in a position to not only comfortably finish top six but perhaps gatecrash the top four. All they had to do was secure two or three more wins than they managed, particularly at Goodison, over the remainder of the campaign.

Instead, they found themselves tied themselves into ever-tightening knots trying to overcome the mental obstacles that their home form posed. Seemingly unable to summon in must-win matches like those against Aston Villa and Sheffield United the kind of chips-are-down mentality that Duncan Ferguson ignited during his brief stint as caretaker boss in December 2019 or find the wherewithal to play enough front-foot attacking football to force opponents back, they lost a succession of eminently winnable games against bottom-half opposition.

With Everton having precious little identity and too often lacking an alternative plan, a good deal of concern rightly surrounded the performance of Ancelotti and the coaching of his son, Davide. But the veteran’s track record meant that there was hope that given another summer transfer window and the chance to draft in the kind of quality he clearly needed in order to advance the club on the pitch, he could show genuine progress in 2021-22.

Certainly, while the division of responsibility for recruitment between Ancelotti and Brands was perhaps more blurred than was healthy, the Italian’s conviction in what he needed and his ability to entice players to Goodison was an obvious upside to his appointment so the club is no doubt looking ahead to next season with perhaps more hope than would otherwise be possible following such a mixed campaign.

Final Position: 10th
Top Scorer: Dominic Calvert-Lewin (16)
Player of the Season: Dominic Calvert-Lewin
Young Player of the Season: Ben Godfrey

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Reader Comments (3)

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Gary Mortimer
1 Posted 04/06/2021 at 09:07:15
Interesting to see that in review of the England squad in the Guardian's Euro 2021 section, the entry for Jordan Pickford contained "mainly remembered for wiping out VVD with a brutal, yet unpunished, assault in the 1st Merseyside Derby".

They just won't let it go and yet they call us the "bitters".

Bill Rodgers
2 Posted 08/06/2021 at 17:01:48
There was no progress. Progress is impossible at Goodison where we lurch from quick fix to quick fix.

I did not hear a single coherent statement from Ancelotti about how his team would play. He was all mumbles and reputation. The idea of building a system, team spirit, commitment and intensity are alien to Everton and the fans.

We are all guilty of looking for the next magical, instant solution. It will not come from a manager, new players or money – it will come from sound foundations and patience. That means clearing out Finch Farm and the production line of crocks, half-hearted first-teamers and arrogant youngsters.

And yet I see that Big Dunc is joint favourite with the fans for the hot seat. Half of me hope he gets it so we can cut the crap. But the other half knows that it would mean relegation and even longer in the desert.

Dale Self
3 Posted 08/06/2021 at 17:21:41
Fair analysis as always Lyndon. The season's numbers will always be burdened by the heightened expectations on that second good run of wins with James out. We hung around long enough while other clubs faltered that I believed a bit too much in the ad hoc systems being deployed. The table doesn't lie and I think there was enough to find some progress if you're willing to look for it but that isn't really where we're at on last season.

We are presently living through the consequences of last season's management spasms. Bringing Carlo in to inspire some veterans on the wage bill while ostensibly positioning Everton for CL competition was a good idea in the boardroom. Whether they forgot or could not keep Carlo happy is what we would like to know but good luck with that. You will be given several versions of that episode to buy into. I think the bottom line is that evaluation of last season is tied to the breakdown between Brands, Carlo and upper management.

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