Everton manager Marco Silva is running out of time to find solutions to the same old problems, writes Ben Grounds
Friday 17 April 2020 09:45, UK
Back-to-back Premier League defeats have left the natives restless once more at Goodison Park. With champions Manchester City the visitors this Saturday, live on Sky Sports, Ben Grounds assesses where things are going wrong for Marco Silva.
In February this year, Manchester City went top of the Premier League on goal difference after a 2-0 win at Goodison Park. To soften the blow of defeat for Evertonians, Liverpool had been overhauled in the title race, and City would stay there for the remainder of the season.
But with Pep Guardiola's side returning to the famous old stadium this weekend, the overall mood is very different.
A 2-0 victory in the Carabao Cup over Sheffield Wednesday eased the pressure on Marco Silva, and, while the situation is not yet at crisis point, Everton cannot afford to focus on anyone but themselves.
"We have the conditions inside the club to solve this situation," said an embattled Silva this week. "It is up to me to keep talking with them, it is up to me to keep working with them. It is not easy to change the players' personality so fast."
In last Saturday's 2-0 home defeat to Sheffield United, supporters streamed for the exits with 10 minutes remaining, resigned to a third loss in four league matches.
By then, an Everton side worth £317m - the most expensively assembled in the club's history - were hitting a wall made of Yorkshire brick, registering just three shots on target despite 70-per-cent possession against a highly-organised, determined, but somewhat limited, newly-promoted outfit.
"It is not the moment for anyone to hide," Silva added before Tuesday's trip to Hillsborough. "I said it in the dressing room, too - there is nowhere we can hide, we have to show stronger character, personality.
"Now I don't want anyone hiding, not me, not them. It is a moment for us to go and play football and to take responsibility as well."
Of Everton's opening six Premier League opponents, only Wolves finished in the top half of the top flight last season but they have just seven points on the board. With the the club 14th in the table, breaking into the top six feels further away than at any stage since Farhad Moshiri became the club's major shareholder in February 2016.
So, what are the problems?
Jordan Pickford came to Everton's rescue during the opening-day draw at Crystal Palace with two vital saves in one-on-one situations to preserve a point, while he also rushed from his line to deny Troy Deeney an equaliser in the club's first league win, an unconvincing 1-0 success over bottom-club Watford.
However, when Silva cited a "lack of personality" from his players last weekend, he was not excluding Pickford in that regard. The England No 1 will not be proud of his record of conceding the most number of goals from set-pieces since the start of last season.
He failed to show any command of his area as he lost the flight of Oliver Norwood's wicked corner in the sun for the Blades' opener, while Bournemouth's crucial second goal in the 3-1 defeat at the Vitality Stadium came from another set-piece where the Everton goalkeeper did not cover himself in glory.
Lys Mousset's composed finish for the Blades bore similarities to Wesley's opener for Aston Villa in Everton's first league loss of the campaign, with Pickford slow to come from his line.
Jonas Lossl was signed in the summer on a free transfer despite Everton already having Maarten Stekelenburg as deputy, indicating that those within the club already felt more pressure was needed on their first-choice stopper.
His Everton career has been a tale of peaks and troughs but, now aged 25, far greater consistency will be demanded from a player who has set such high standards.
Idrissa Gueye's arrival at Paris Saint-Germain this summer may have flown under the radar, but the Senegalese firmly announced himself as one of the world's best holding midfielders during his side's 3-0 win over Real Madrid in the Champions League last week.
Gueye's importance to Everton was widely known, but having attempted the most final-third passes (27), won the most tackles (4), and created the most chances (3) in such a high-profile game, it is only in light of his former club's recent slide that the significance of his departure is being fully appreciated.
No player made more tackles last season in the Premier League than Gueye's 142 - with only Etienne Capoue of Watford (86) and Leicester's Wilfred Ndidi (83) managing more interceptions among midfielders.
Jean-Philippe Gbamin was signed from Mainz in the hope that he could provide Gueye's tenacity and reading of the game, but he will remain sidelined for at least another month due to a thigh injury.
Silva settled on Gueye and Andre Gomes as his first-choice midfield pairing last season, but with the latter currently out with a rib injury, he has had to rely on Fabian Delph alongside Morgan Schneiderlin in that department for the last two league outings - a double act that lacks the mobility to take the club onto the next level.
If Silva can be excused for not having his first-choice midfield options available to him, there can be little sympathy for how his side leaks goals routinely from set-pieces.
The warning signs were there when the 42-year-old first took charge; in his five months at Hull, his side conceded 11 goals from set-plays, while the problems continued at Watford where 12 goals were shipped from dead-ball situations in half a season.
Since the start of the 2018/19 campaign, no side has conceded more set-piece goals than Everton, a chronic problem that continues to puncture optimism on the blue half of Merseyside.
A lack of leadership is inextricably linked to the nervousness that sweeps the side when faced with a corner. Seamus Coleman possesses the captain's armband but Djibril Sidibe staked a claim for dislodging him with an encouraging display in the Carabao Cup.
The failure to make Kurt Zouma's loan deal permanent over the summer has not helped matters, with Silva left with very little option but to stick with Yerry Mina and Michael Keane at the heart of his defence, but it is a partnership that requires nurturing with Mason Holgate the only viable alternative.
It has been reported that his efforts to rectify the set-piece conundrum have become counter-intuitive, with hour-long, repetitive tactical training sessions focused on defending dead balls leading to mental fatigue. So far, it has brought very little improvement.
Gylfi Sigurdsson is a fascinating case study that embodies Everton's imponderable identity during the Moshiri era. The Icelander became the club's record signing at £45m when he joined from Swansea in July 2017 at the same time that two other natural No 10s - Wayne Rooney and Davy Klaassen - were part of a summer splurge under Ronald Koeman.
From the moment he arrived, then, it has been an arrangement full of contradictions: fleeting moments of brilliance from a playmaker who rarely creates in open play. A set-piece specialist who has missed three of his last five penalties.
Sigurdsson will point to the 74 chances created across the 2018/19 campaign - only James Maddison (100), Eden Hazard (98), Ryan Fraser (93), Joao Moutinho (84) and Willian (79) contributed more.
But the 30-year-old has fallen desperately below his standards, going missing at times so far this season. He had been substituted in three of Everton's opening five games, and it came as a surprise that Silva kept him on the pitch during another anonymous display last weekend.
Silva has not veered away from a trusted 4-2-3-1 formation that suits the former Swansea playmaker, but with Alex Iwobi arguably Everton's best performer in the opening six weeks of the campaign, there are other options beyond sticking with the set-piece specialist.
Bernard is another talented individual who too often drifts in and out of games, but the challenge of facing City would naturally lend itself to drafting in an additional midfielder that could be the best approach moving forward.
Tom Davies, who announced himself against City during a memorable 4-0 win in January 2017, was named captain of the side a little over a year ago during a 2-0 loss at Arsenal, but the young England midfielder appears to have fallen out of favour with his manager.
While the spells of Rooney and Klaasen were abruptly cut short, it is the young midfielder whose career has arguably been affected most by Sigurdsson's mercurial presence.
The 21-year-old was an unused substitute in each of Everton's three league defeats, but having been forced to watch his team-mates toil in recent weeks, he made his first start of the campaign against Wednesday and he was progressive with his passing after overcoming a nervous start.
Gueye's influence accounted for two players, and Silva is understood to be waiting to have the personnel available to him to move towards a more solid, counter-attacking 4-3-3 system - a switch that would suit the academy product.
Romelu Lukaku was a striker who could create chances out of nothing during his time at the club, but the search to replace the Belgian who left over two years ago remains a significant obstacle.
Cenk Tosun has eight goals in 39 appearances, while Theo Walcott (8 in 51), Oumar Niasse (8 in 31) and Calvert-Lewin (12 in 83) have all struggled to nail down a position in the side.
Everton managed just three goals in seven pre-season fixtures, underlining the need for extra firepower as the summer transfer deadline loomed, but attempts to sign Wilfried Zaha proved unsuccessful.
Moise Kean - with 11 goals in 35 games for Juventus - and Alex Iwobi (11 in 100 for Arsenal) were signed without any short-term guarantees of goals.
The muddled transfer strategy has not been aided by Silva's questionable decisions at the top end of the pitch even with those at his disposal.
Kean's arrival for £27.5m was certainly seen as a coup, but the 19-year-old's efforts to find his feet have not been helped by being rotated in and out of the team at strange times.
Calvert-Lewin was the preferred option through the middle against Bournemouth, but he was dropped against Sheffield United despite scoring in the 3-1 defeat on the south coast.
When Everton needed a goal, Silva looked to Tosun rather than Calvert-Lewin, a player fresh from breaking a 971-minute goal drought and who would have been eager to impress against his former side.
Everton have lost four of their last five Premier League games against promoted sides (W1), as many as they had in their previous 45 in the competition (W25 D16).
Everton's resurgence in the second half of last season was largely down to starting games well, but a familiar pattern has emerged when opponents have been able to withstand the early pressure.
Since the start of last season, only Huddersfield have picked up fewer points from losing positions, with Everton locked on the same number as champions City - and both Silva and Guardiola share a similar gung-ho approach to rescuing games.
Everton ended the game against Sheffield United with Walcott at right wing-back with Iwobi, Tosun, Richarlison and Kean floating in front of Sigurdsson and Delph. Having failed to win a league game after falling behind since taking charge, Silva appears to be running out of ideas.
Dressed for the first time in their changed shirts of coral, it was not liquid football against Sheffield Wednesday, but it brought a win that was as important as any other during Silva's previous 49 matches.
Prior to the clean sheet at Hillsborough, Everton had conceded at least two goals in their last five games, but the support remains unwavering.
Travel coaches were double parked on Leppings Lane with many of the 5,000 fans who made the trip to the Steel City missing at least one of Calvert-Lewin's early double to settle the nerves.
It is an increasingly common theme under Silva; fast starts have needed to be converted into leads, and it is a startling reflection of his inability to affect games that Everton are yet to win when they have fallen behind.
"Everton still haven’t found the answer to the away form problem. The number of defeats on the road has been alarming. This adds tremendous pressure onto your home form to win games like at the weekend against Sheffield United.
“I think long-term, Marco Silva will be looking at how his side can win games away from home, which will be key.
“When Silva first arrived at the club, a turnover of players was needed and he was always going to need time to get his methods across.
“But the bedding in period is over now, and he needs to start getting results. At the moment, Everton just haven’t been consistent enough.
“The league outside the top two remains wide open, and that’s including a place in the top four. The likes of Everton, if they can find some form, Leicester and West Ham will feel like something can happen.
“I personally would take winning a cup over getting into the top six. Bringing silverware to Goodison Park is a must, and that would bring European football anyway, so that still has to be the primary aim for the club.”
The early weeks of the season have only further strengthened the belief that the upper middle class are catching up with flagging members of the established order. For all of Everton's issues, they remain four points off Arsenal in fourth.
The Portuguese has always felt a couple of poor results away from scrutiny, but it has been the side's home form since City last visited Goodison that has kept the critics at bay. Last weekend's loss ended a run of six straight home wins, but Everton's poor away form also points to a soft mentality.
Last month, the side had the chance to go top of the league temporarily when they travelled to face Aston Villa, only to be beaten 2-0, while the prospect of sitting third in the table evaporated after the loss at Bournemouth. The chance to break back into the top four was then squandered against Sheffield United.
Friday marks the 20th anniversary since Everton last beat Liverpool at Anfield, but the target this season remains breaking into the top six.
"In my opinion it is so easy to create a crisis inside Everton Football Club," Silva said.
"I know why but it is not my job to talk about that. I look at the table now and you have first position and then the second-placed team with 10 points.
"After that there's a big group with eight points and a big group with seven points. Some of those teams on eight points prepared the season to be champion and I hear they are doing a fantastic season. Everton has seven points and it's, 'Big crisis, everything is bad inside'. It is up to me as the manager to block that out."
Beating the champions will go a long way to getting his squad and fanbase back on side.
Watch Everton vs Man City on Saturday from 5pm on Sky Sports Premier League; kick-off 5.30pm. Also watch in-game clips and highlights on skysports.com and Sky Sports app.