Everton must take handbrake off at Newcastle after positive Liverpool draw
As recently as two weeks ago, with preseason optimism buried under an avalanche of dismal defeats and performances, Everton were a team in chaos and seemingly destined to spend the remainder of the season scrapping at the foot of the league table.
Everton began November in the relegation zone and ended it with a 4-1 loss at Southampton. That marked the lowest point of a startling run of form that yielded just three wins in 18 matches. This was a team in freefall, losing 12 of those 18 matches and conceding 44 goals along the way. That run of form and the increasingly desperate displays accompanying them pushed the club hierarchy to recruit manager Sam Allardyce.
He inherited a fragile team, one bereft of confidence and every other trait needed to win games at this level. By the time Steven Davis fired home the fourth Southampton goal in that heavy defeat last month, Everton had conceded 27 goals in nine games.
Such disarray and a lengthy injury list is the context behind the primitive but effective approach Allardyce employed in the Merseyside derby on Sunday. Everton had won their three previous matches without conceding, but West Ham, Huddersfield and Apollon Limassol were no comparison to a trip to Anfield. Derbies there are generally a wretched experience for those in blue.
In recent years, Everton too often reached the hour mark at Anfield with the game already beyond them, and that is something Allardyce would have been well-aware of heading into his first Merseyside derby. Even with confidence slightly restored by three clean-sheet victories in as many matches, the last thing Everton could afford was a demoralising defeat against their neighbours. Everton needed to remain in the match for as long as possible, knowing there is always likely to be at least one opportunity to respond. In the end, that was just enough.
Armed with a makeshift defence and no recognised left-back, Allardyce was never going to get involved in an expansive contest against a home team that warmed up for the derby by scoring 12 goals in two games. Liverpool are unbeaten at home this season and averaging just shy of three goals per game at Anfield. An Arsenal side in far better shape than Everton left nursing a 4-0 defeat earlier in the season, while Chelsea and Manchester United both managed a point.
From the moment Mason Holgate hammered the opening kick off out for Liverpool goal kick, the Everton plan became clear. The visitors were not going to be easy on the eye, but they would be delivering a performance full of organisation, resilience and no little graft. Allardyce set out to frustrate Liverpool, did exactly that, and left with a point. Despite 79 percent possession for the home side, Jordan Pickford faced only three shots on target and two of those were routine saves.
The upshot is a well-earned point and another strong defensive display. This four-match unbeaten run has lifted Everton into the top half. All involved with the club can begin to look forward. After all, even Allardyce acknowledged the need for a different approach for the upcoming trip to Newcastle on Wednesday.
Despite a reputation as some sort of football philistine, Allardyce has audibly voiced his displeasure at the possession problems experienced on Sunday on more than one occasion. Much of the match, but especially the opening 10 minutes, seemed to consist of nothing more than Everton regaining the ball before senselessly hammering it forward to nobody in particular.
Yet with the necessary defensive foundations in place, Allardyce and the players can take confidence from the defensive aspects on display, while remaining aware that a more proactive approach is needed against Newcastle. This second successive away match starts of a run of games that should allow Allardyce to show his teams are about more than self-preservation and stout defence. Aside from a home game against Chelsea, Everton end 2017 against teams below them in the table, playing Swansea, West Brom and Bournemouth before the year is out.
As Allardyce rightly pointed out when taking the job, Everton desperately needed to get back to basics and become harder to beat. One goal conceded in four games and a determined defensive effort at Anfield is a pleasing start.
Tightening up a crumbling defence provides a base from which to improve at the other end of the pitch. Ending a run of 16 away league games without a win on Wednesday would be another positive step for this new regime.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.