By Chris Harris
After finishing fifth last season, you might have thought Everton would be best placed to challenge the 'Big Four' this term. You'd have been wrong.
David Moyes' side have made a stuttering start to the campaign, picking up just eight points from seven games and losing three of their four games at home. Goodison Park used to be a fortress for the Toffees but Blackburn, Portsmouth and - most agonising of all - Liverpool have all humbled Everton on their own patch.
There is a silver lining to this particular cloud - Everton are unbeaten away from home in the Premier League and will fancy their chances at Emirates Stadium after a draw and a narrow defeat in their previous two visits. However, they have much to do to challenge for a European place.
We asked Dave Prentice, Chief Sports Writer for the Liverpool Echo, to explain why Everton have strugged of late. Read on to find out which player they miss, where mistakes have been made, how they will deal with the loss of Tim Cahill and why Everton should be positive on Saturday.
THE STORY SO FAR
"I wouldn’t go as far as to say they are in decline but I would say they have been undone by a very, very difficult summer. And I think difficult is being kind there as well. The players that David Moyes wanted to bring in were basically out of reach for the first half of the summer and the funds weren’t made available until late in the summer by which time the players that he had earlier earmarked had either gone elsewhere or were unavailable. He didn’t want to compromise his principles by bringing in players of lesser quality so he waited and waited and waited and in the end the players that arrived came in a bit of a scramble right on the transfer deadline. As a result it has taken time to try and assimilate them into the squad and the balance of the team has been pretty dodgy in the last few games and that has been a big problem.
"It has been a nightmarish start at Goodison. I think that opening day [against Blackburn] they weren’t equipped to start a Premier League season. The line-up that day was barely recognisable to the team that outsiders would have seen last term. They literally had 11 senior players start the match and that included Jack Rodwell who is a promising kid but a kid nonetheless and he had to make his debut. The bench was simply untried youngsters that haven’t made any Premier League appearances. It wasn’t a great surprise that Blackburn took their chances with that because they are a team that traditionally Everton have struggled against at Goodison. There was no great surprise when that one went wrong.
"Against Portsmouth it was a sloppy performance and things didn’t go particularly well. Bizarrely we caught Liverpool on a very good day and there are no real complaints about that result. But it has been a bad start, not just at home, even away the performances haven’t been that great. The best results have been at West Brom and Stoke. Plenty of character was shown in those games but they have not clicked yet and they will have to start doing it quickly."
"They brought in Marouane Fellaini from Standard Liege who as we saw against Liverpool [in the Champions League] has looked very, very impressive. He was brought in, many people thought, as a like-for-like replacement for Lee Carsley. He is not really that type of player, he’s a lot more offensive-minded than Carsley and he likes to get forward. They are still trying to juggle things in the midfield to get that balance absolutely right."
"It is worth pointing out that they have missed Carsley badly. I was a big fan of his and he was very much an unsung hero over the last few seasons. A really disciplined midfielder and he did that dirty job of breaking things up just in front of the back-four and he did it really well. He is going to be a really tough act to replace unfortunately. A replacement for Carsley could arrive in the January transfer window. They brought in Segundo Castillo from Red Star Belgrade on loan and he has done OK for a couple of games but then went missing in the last few matches. He could possibly sit in there."
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
"The offensive side of things has been quite impressive and they have been creating chances and regularly taking them. They have scored quite a few goals but the big problem has been keeping them out. They haven’t got that balance right at all. They have been shipping chances galore and to be honest I fear for them a little bit at Arsenal because Arsenal create chances without even trying. If they carry on as they have been in recent weeks then Tim Howard could be in for a very busy afternoon.
"The biggest problem really has been individual error. You can’t just say it has been one person, I can think of half a dozen players who have made basic individual errors this season, totally out of character. Joleon Lescott had a little dip in form, Joseph Yobo made a mistake that cost a goal, Tim Howard made a very rare mistake, in the last game against Newcastle Yakubu gave away possession on the half-way line, Steven Pienaar switched off for the second goal. So you can’t really be dropping them all after one mistake I think they just need a collective improvement in concentration. The Emirates is a place where you need to be completely switched on for 90 minutes and they have had a fortnight's break now so hopefully we will see an improvement on that side of things."
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
"Having said that, in the last game against Newcastle there was an improvement. The result might not suggest so but they did play quite decent that day, they just got undone by a lack of concentration on the stroke of half time. They went in at half time and the whole team talk and attitude is different. They came out in the second half and got caught cold and then all the hard work from the previous 40 minutes has been undone. There were signs in that game that things were a little bit better so they will go to Arsenal a little bit more reluctant to attack than they have been but hopefully get a similar result to the one they got a couple of years ago."
"Tim Cahill is suspended so I think we might see five across midfield but there are the personnel in the squad to go for a straight 4-4-2. Louis Saha arrived on loan and has looked bright in the couple of games he has played so far, so we could play him alongside Yakubu up top and really have a go at Arsenal. Some people would suggest that is the way to go, obviously Hull City did that and took Arsenal by surprise, catching them cold. I think that is the way the Everton fans would like to see us certainly. I don’t think they would mind a negative result so much if they saw Everton going down there and having a go, being positive and adventurous and trying to win the match. That would be more accepted than going down there, putting 11 men behind the ball and getting beaten by a late goal. So hopefully the answer lies in playing a slightly more offensive formation and going to Arsenal and trying to cause another upset."
THE EMIRATES EFFECT
"The couple of times we have been down at the Emirates, we’ve done well. The 1-1 draw was thoroughly deserved, I know Arsène Wenger had a few gripes afterwards about Everton’s overly defensive approach but I didn’t think it was the case. They played the traditional 4-5-1 which does get the best out of Cahill. It was a bit smash-and-grab maybe but it was a point they probably deserved and they were very unfortunate last season. They got to about seven or eight minutes to within another draw and were just undone by a lack of concentration at a set-piece. It is a ground where they have decent memories and there will be a huge travelling army of support down there as always. And hopefully they can be rewarded with another positive result."