Everton optimism has faded but they must compete against Man City
Everton handed Pep Guardiola the heaviest league defeat of his managerial career when Manchester City last visited Goodison Park in January 2017, but much has changed since that emphatic 4-0 win. While City need only two wins to confirm their stroll toward an impressive Premier League title, the optimism encircling the Toffees 14 months ago has mostly faded.
On a day when teenagers Tom Davies and Ademola Lookman scored their first goals for the club, the resounding 4-0 victory arrived amid a nine-game unbeaten run that lifted Everton up the table and proved the catalyst for Europa League qualification in Ronald Koeman's first season.
But this season has derailed the expectations created by that encouraging campaign and subsequent summer spending of over £170 million. Swift exits from all cup competitions and crawling to the 40-point mark in March to finally quash lingering relegation fears was not in the script when this season opened in August. Nonetheless, there was a welcome sense of relief as the recent 2-1 win at Stoke returned successive league wins for the first time since December and meant Everton need not look over their shoulders for the seven remaining matches.
However, this puts Everton in a state of limbo indicative of their lack of consistency and failure to build on last season. Safe from relegation but unlikely to finish high enough to achieve the goal of European qualification set in preseason, Everton appear stuck between turning attention to next season and trying to finish strongly to rebuild some of confidence and belief that has taken a battering this campaign.
With league status all but assured, Everton are instead left wondering what might have been. When Wayne Rooney scored for the second match in succession when these teams played out a 1-1 draw at the Etihad in August, the Everton picture was one of optimism and hope after summer spending whetted the collective appetite of an expectant fan base.
But as Everton work under their third manager of the season, it is clear little has worked out as hoped. As City themselves discovered during the first stages of new ownership, this season should show Everton that simply throwing money at expensive new signings is no guarantee of success.
Money is no substitute for planning and clear thinking, two traits tellingly absent for Everton this season. That is why the Toffees must be decisive when it comes to deciding on who leads the club into next season. Manager Sam Allardyce has made it clear he wants to stay, but he would appear to be running out of time to convince sceptical supporters that he is the manager to take Everton forward.
A growing lack of faith in youth as his tenure progresses highlights the type of unwanted short-term thinking that Allardyce brings to the table, while results and performances against the top teams have seen Everton often embarrassed.
As such, along with an improbable chance to become the only Premier League team this season to avoid defeat against a rampant City side, this match and the upcoming Merseyside derby are the biggest and last opportunities for Allardyce to show there is more to his game than staving off the threat of relegation. Because to this point he has overseen a succession of dismal matches against teams Everton would expect to challenge for European football on a regular basis in the long-term.
A 1-1 draw at Liverpool saw Everton record just 21 percent possession, their lowest total since Opta began recording such statistics, with a fortuitous penalty snatching a point. Other away outings ended with 4-0 and 5-1 defeats at Tottenham and Arsenal respectively, while the outlook at home has been just as painful. Everton ended successive home matches against Chelsea and Manchester United without a single shot on target. This regressive approach against the bigger teams has taken Everton backwards.
With three successive home wins against Leicester, Crystal Palace and Brighton prior to this, and in-form striker Cenk Tosun finding his range in front of goal, a positive approach is the best and only choice against the impending champions, especially with Everton boasting a worse defence than two of the teams currently in the relegation zone.
Everton are liable to lose against City irrespective of their approach due to the vast array of quality within the opposing ranks, but a proactive setup could spring a surprise. Repeat the setup of recent matches against the better teams and defeat seems inevitable, even more so if midfielder Idrissa Gueye does not pass a late fitness test and is unable to shield a defence in need of protection.
The approach in this match and the following Merseyside derby must be about more than desperately hoping for a clean sheet in defence and a slice of luck in attack. Allardyce must show he can set up a team to compete against the best in this division.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.