Pre-season optimism is a funny thing. For supporters of some clubs it had completely evaporated before even the final whistle of the first game of the new campaign. Everton fans at least got until Saturday’s 3-0 home defeat by Tottenham Hotspur before reality hit hard.
It wasn’t the Toffees’ first defeat of the season. That instead came prior to the international break, a 2-0 reverse at Chelsea that, while disappointing, at least represented a darkly comic kind of progress after last season’s 5-0 thrashing. It was more the manner of the loss to Spurs that hurt. Everton, at home, with returned prodigal son Wayne Rooney and club record signing Gylfi Sigurdsson in the starting XI, were outplayed, outthought and ultimately embarrassed. Everton were taught a lesson, and not even a helpful one like how to win at football betting.
Spurs won at a canter, ruthlessly and repeatedly exposing the gaps in an Everton selection that placed Rooney and Sigurdsson together with Davy Klaassen behind Sandro Ramirez, three No 10s getting in each other’s way, all desperate for the kind of time and space Mauricio Pochettino’s well-drilled troops were never going to allow. There was no width, no pace and no positives. Ronald Koeman served up a one-speed, one-dimensional team, perhaps best described by one internet observer as built to hold on to a lead with no idea of how to get it.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Rooney came home in a blaze of good press, England’s best young goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and one of the country’s most promising centre-backs Michael Keane were signed and sealed without any drama and there was time for the holes in the squad to be filled. Romelu Lukaku left but that was expected and the fee received was hefty. Money, for once, wasn’t the issue at Goodison Park. Koeman, and director of football Steve Walsh, had time and resources to build a squad capable of challenging for a Champions League place, or maybe winning a trophy after more than two long decades without. Early results, while not outstanding, were at least decent.
Then the transfer window closed without the arrival of the striker or defender Koeman publically confirmed he wanted - Nikola Vlasic was brought in from Hajduk Split, but at 19 isn’t really what was required. Rooney was plastered across the front pages, wiping out the good feeling that had surrounded his homecoming. Everton lost at Chelsea and then to Tottenham on the same day Liverpool were hammered by Manchester City, Harry Kane’s double meaning Everton fans couldn’t even enjoy their rivals’ misfortune.
It’s in these circumstances Everton travel to Emilia-Romagna for the first round of Europa League Group E fixtures. It’s not all doom and gloom - Pickford was caught out by Kane’s first but he’s generally started well, and if not for him the score line would have rivalled Liverpool at the Etihad proportions, and Keane has been solid too. Dominic Calvert-Lewin has won admirers for his hard work and cool finishing. The rest have something to prove.
Perhaps Everton were stung into life by the yawning chasm between them and Spurs last weekend, and will go to Atalanta with the energy and ideas lacking in their last outing. Maybe Koeman will ditch trying to fit Rooney, Klaassen and Sigurdsson into the same side - unlikely since all three arrived on his watch - or maybe he’ll make it work. It’s a confused, work-in-progress Everton that has travelled to Italy, and Atalanta will never get a better chance to take their scalp.