This is not what I expected to feel like a few weeks ago.
The Brothers Vera depart for England fourteen days from the time of this writing and amidst the usual pre-international travel anxiety, I’ve had a couple of zany bad dreams in which I find myself at long last on Merseyside and just as I’m about to enter Goodison for the very first time, an attendant points to a photo of me (at least it’s a flattering photo) hanging somewhere near the entrance under a sign that says DO NOT ADMIT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE. Absolutely flabbergasted by this turn of events, I beg to know why and the attendant references a nasty, venomous piece I wrote about the Everton manager about a month back on some site called Everton Aren’t We. Me being me, of course, I take the logical route and play the ignorant American card that I look forward to playing as often as possible while in England.
“You keep saying ‘Everton, aren’t we?’ Is that a question? Apologies, I don’t really speak ‘the language’.”
This “who, me?” strategy goes on for a while before I finally wake up in a cold sweat wondering if I’d gone too far with all my mean words on the internet about the current Everton manager. And like a warm rush of water over my feet on some tropical beach in the Caribbean, I realize a few things:
- I’m a complete nobody. Amen.
- My country’s current government is just one bit of proof that you can NEVER be too mean on the internet.
- If Everton were going to start banning supporters from the ground for talking shit on Sam Allardyce at some point, the place would be as empty as the souls of the average Chelsea supporter.
So this is where my mind has been at as we’ve seen our increasingly shithouse Everton right the ship under Big Sam of late. What am I to make of an outfit who only a few weeks ago had me genuinely fearing my trip to Merseyside would be to bid adieu to my beloved obsession’s eon’s-long Premier League status and who now find themselves increasingly safe in the middle of the table? And does this fundamentally change my feelings about the appointment of Allardyce? In a word, “Ummm…”
This is not what it felt like only a couple weeks ago.
Clearly. It’s nice to at least feel safe again. We all like feeling safe. Not saying we’re out of the woods completely, but it’s hanging less heavily over your head lately. Admit it. Your stomach is churning less. You may be sleeping better. You may be resenting your significant other a bit less lately for “not getting” your existential English football crisis that you never talk too much about with her/him for fear of them realizing the true extent to which you are a miserable, obsessive troll of a human being about SPORTS of all things. Good lord man, why would anyone ever love you? Well if they knew the extent to which you were actually pained over the uncertain futures of Sandro and Michael Keane, the answer is that they wouldn’t love you and they’d be right to get out as fast as humanly possible. But anyway…
This is not the long term path forward.
Yes, I love clean sheets. I love taking points we may not “deserve”—especially from a club who don’t deserve the entitlement lodged frighteningly far up their ass who devolve so easily into a spoiled-American-millennial-child-named-“Braylon” hissy fit because my prick father spilled beard oil on my responsibly sourced and boring kale lunch salad when things don’t magically go their way. Yes, I love our once unforgivably soft bunch of players suddenly playing for one another, putting in shifts, being kick the ball away before a free kick/fake an injury while coming off the pitch petty, etc. Yes, I love the version of Everton willing to be diabolical for both points and for the cause in general. And while all of these things collectively have—if by VERY fine margins—turned around our fortunes in the table, we ought not to mistake this for anything more than a short term remedy to a sickness—albeit a significant one. Because if you’ll remember, the long term goal isn’t just to get healthy. The long term goal is to get GREAT. This style of football has its virtues, but we’ve got plenty of evidence in the modern game that this style of football has a pretty defined ceiling to it.
And it’s also important to realize that by all accounts, the major shareholder understands this. If this style of football was the chosen path forward, we’d have probably pulled the trigger on Sean Dyche. Credit to him and a Burnley side that are knocking at the Champions League door in December, but whom I suspect will eventually settle into somewhere between 6th and 9th in the table by end of the season. So while this style of football is stabilizing and fits the national media talking points of those who like to pat us on the head as a club that value “hard work and putting in a shift” over anything else—as if these fundamental competitive characteristics are the same as true ambition—this style is ultimately a short term fix to avoid a long term calamity.
It is in this context that I still view Allardyce as a stopgap. Don’t get me wrong, stopgaps have their time and place and the time appears to have been this season with the place being this club. He’s transformed some soft and uninspired zombies into some real fookin’ war boys lately and it’s been a refreshing change given what we all endured not so long ago. This has been tough, dogged, intelligent, all-hands on deck, avert crisis football from our Everton. But it’s a style with mid table ambition that might get us as high as 7th this season (If we’re lucky. Which would be SO fine by me).
This is not sex.
This is some heavy petting. A bit of the dry hump, but the underwear and the action is all still very PG-13. But it’s better than before. The spark is coming back a bit. And that works for now.
This is not, in fact, the worst Everton team of the last couple decades.
Not even close. But they sure played like it. This shows the extent to which a losing mentality had gotten into their heads under Koeman for reasons that still feel like they aren’t completely understood. No, not even Wayne Rooney’s patented “winning mentality” seemed able to stem the dark tide of the start of this season. But alas, his goals—even and maybe especially when he plays poorly—have started to make a difference instead of being mere window dressing on previously horrific team performances. Also, a touch more positional discipline and what appears a concerted effort to build a rapport with Gylfi Sigurdsson have made a huge difference.
The following statements are not mutually exclusive.
- Wayne Rooney has been better than the majority of us (including me) thought he would be.
- Wayne Rooney was part of the problem under Koeman.
Good for Rooney scoring when it seemed no one else could early on in the season. But you can’t convince me his play was doing anything to make those around him better. Now, it feels different. Rooney’s uptick in form after a few games on the bench seems to be coinciding with the elevated form of those around him. Some of that credit has to go to Allardyce for at least instilling some previously absent certainty, some lineup stability (which really got going under Unsworth), and a general philosophy that fits the context of this roster’s current state ahead of a critical January window. But credit to Rooney for finding a way to score AND lead at the same time.
This is not my attempt to cause trouble, but what do we do when Seamus Coleman is fit? How does Jonjoe Kenny lose his place this season? For all the calls to make Seamus the next captain, I wonder what his actual playing future is at the club given all the current factors at play.
This is not a repeat.
I can’t honestly remember the last game (if ever) where Morgan Schneiderlin and Idrissa Gueye were paired together and played as well as they just did at Newcastle—especially defensively. The more I watched Schneiderlin on Wednesday, the more I started to see something click for him. He wasn’t at his best—not nearly like what we saw this past spring (which somehow feels years ago), but he was engaged, covered ground, made smart (if not exciting) passes, and made some key tackles/interceptions—which was especially key in a game which saw Rooney early on giving the ball away like the mafia had incriminating photos of him. Now to see him do it again. And again. And again. And again. Our disgraced Le Hunk is a long way from being back in the black. A LONG way. Gueye can’t hit an elephant ten yards away with his shot and it’s painful, but he did so many great things in this game. I can’t remember the last time Gueye generated what could be termed as “productive havoc” at quite this level. He hasn’t been awful this season, but the attention that has rightly been on Schneiderlin’s poor play has probably served to provide some cover from harsh criticism of his very average play. If either or even both of Schneiderlin and Gueye can consistently find last season’s form, the back line suddenly becomes less of the shambles that it’s been up to this point.
This current run is not without its fair share of luck.
Two fantastic Newcastle chances hit the woodwork. They had that snake bit look on their faces we had not too long ago. We were a bit fortunate. If we’re honest, we’ve seen some strokes of luck/fortune start to go our way of late. From all the way back to Cleverley’s missed penalty before the last break to Pickford’s slightly (ahem) off the line penalty save against West Ham to a few incidents against the sad sack reds, we’ve definitely benefitted from moments that could’ve gone the other way. But if luck is merely preparation meeting opportunity (which is at least somewhat true), we’ve begun to earn it.
This offensive attack will only get us so far.
From the setup to the personnel, more is obviously needed to be competitive against better teams than we’ve played recently. Dominic Calvert-Lewin runs his socks off and he’s growing despite being in an outsized role at this stage of his development, but a true finisher is ultimately required. Here’s hoping his headers improve. Martina and Sigurdsson couldn’t have handed him the ball in better spots in the box than they did a couple times on Wednesday. You can see the improved chance creation in particular of Sigurdsson and begin to imagine what an average to above average target-man could mean for this thing. But DCL has been wonderful to watch. His ability to hold up the ball, his willingness to continually chase the ball into areas that give pause to the opposition back line, and his underrated and still developing ability as a passer provide a ton of hope for the future. And he will begin to finish more of the chances that guys like Sigurdsson create for him, but in the short and medium term, Everton will simply need more production.
This is not a coincidence.
As Sigurdsson’s influence in the team has grown, the results have improved. Despite not getting on the scoresheet, the Icelandic Prince of Princes put together yet another in a string of really good performances. He’s still not in his highest gear quite yet, but with more time and another goal-scorer, it feels that the effort he’s putting in combined with his ability will most certainly pay off.
This is no mirage.
Mason Holgate and Ashley Williams have been dynamite lately. If there’s anything that Allardyce can be given unqualified credit for, it’s the personality transplant he’s done on Ashley Williams in particular, who only weeks ago cut a figure of a man who was riding shotgun with calamity without the ability to open the car door from the inside. But suddenly, Williams is playing no-nonsense, largely error-free football. There’s nothing in his footballing skillset that will remind you of the previously anointed “Cadillacs” we all tend to fawn over, but in this Big Sam brand of football, he’s fitting in nicely. There’s still a long term place for Michael Keane in my estimation, but Williams has earned his place in the XI for now. And confidence appears to be absolutely oozing from Holgate in particular. You wouldn’t have been wrong to have doubts about his ability to be a central defender. He was average to poor of earlier this season when given his limited chances in the middle and only a bit better on the right. But he’s looked reborn under Allardyce for reasons that evade me at the moment, and the difference is night and day. Hell, even Cuco Martina playing out of position looks suddenly serviceable (ONLY serviceable). Without slighting a club legend like Leighton Baines, the fact that an out of position Cuco Martina has been as good or slightly better than what Baines was able to provide this season is a damning indictment of his current level, but an even more damning indictment of the club’s shocking decision/inability to sign a left back over the summer. Baines seems to be more suited for a reduced role and he’s earned the benefit of having his last couple seasons handled with more professionalism and care than has been afforded to him up to this point by those in charge.
This is not a mea culpa.
The bad decisions and performances of the management and players up until Allardyce came aboard would’ve been almost comical if it wasn’t so excessively sad. There’s a lot of making up to do across the board and they have a long road ahead to pay off that ugly debt. But while I’m no more convinced that Allardyce is a long term solution, I’m at least more convinced that he was the right solution for now. For a club so terminally beset by the weight of yesterday’s glory and tomorrow’s unfulfilled promise, maybe just embracing the challenges of today is enough. For now.