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Duncan Alexander: Bye Bye Top-Flight for Everton?

March 11, 2022

EVERTON fans could be forgiven for not fully enjoying Real Madrid’s sensational Champions League comeback against PSG this week, particularly when the camera focused in on Carlo Ancelotti. One of only seven men to win the European Cup/Champions League as both a player and a manager, his time at Everton increasingly seems like a sort of fever dream rather than lived reality. And yet it is true, Carlo Ancelotti was manager of Everton Football Club, and while it wasn’t a resounding success, he had them in the Premier League top four at Christmas last season, a position and a time that now seem a world away.

It’s March 2022 and Everton are facing up to a full-fat relegation battle, something they thought they had left behind in the 1990s. One of the most common errors people make about English football history is stating that neither Arsenal nor Everton have ever been relegated from the country’s top division. Arsenal went down in 1913 and spent two seasons in the second tier, while Everton have gone down twice. In 1930 they were relegated – with Dixie Dean and everything – just two seasons after winning the league title, bounced back at the first attempt and were champions of England in 1931-32. What an era. Then in the early 1950s they went down again and spent three campaigns in the Second Division, returning in 1954 where they remain until this day. And if anyone you speak to refuses to accept any of this information as canon then simply lean forward and quietly say “see what you’re confused about is that Arsenal have the longest current run in the top flight while Everton have played in the most top-flight seasons. And if you want something a bit more useful and a bit more unique then why not go and think about how the football stadium to have the highest crowd on the first ever weekend of league football was Anfield. That’s right, Anfield Road, home of EVERTON FC hahahaha”

That’s enough imagining niche arguments about historic football, let’s return to the present day where Everton are in 17th, one point ahead of Burnley and with a game in hand and with Frank Lampard as their recently-installed manager. That should be enough to see them safe, no? Well, so far Lampard’s only win has come against Leeds United and that is a result that has to be contextualised with the Yorkshire side’s own apparent spiral into the relegation fight. Including Lampard’s troubled end at Chelsea last season, he has now lost nine of his last 13 games as a top-flight coach. He’s never had to deal with the hysterical intensity of a Premier League relegation battle either, but that’s very much the situation he finds himself in.

You can point to the unsuitability of Rafa Benitez as Ancelotti’s replacement at Goodison Park last summer, both on historic and tactical grounds but without the good start to the season Everton made under him they would almost be beyond help already. As September ended, Everton had taken 13 points from a possible 18 as the nation purred about bargain fees for Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend. Those 13 points represent 59% of the club’s total this season, and the less said about how it compares to Liverpool’s points haul in the Champions League group stage this season the better.

To put Everton’s embrace of doom into context, if they do go down this season they’ll be only the second team in English top-flight history to have a record as good as W4 D1 L1 after six games to do so. The other? Nottingham Forest in 1910-11, back in the era when goalkeepers could still handle the ball up to the halfway line. Should Jordan Pickford try and do that in the next two months it would go down as a fairly dramatic mistake and might be added to the total of eight errors leading to goal made by Everton players in 2021-22, more than any other side. Add that to their third-worst total of 10.5 xG conceded from set pieces (behind only Norwich and, inevitably, Leicester) and you can see that the ingredients for a bona-fide, 24-carat, genuine relegation are all there.

Successive home games against Wolves and Newcastle this week are vital, then, but Wolves dealt with Everton’s fellow strugglers Watford with sickening ease on Thursday night, while Newcastle are one of the form teams in the division and are somehow now as near to the Europa League spots as they are the bottom of the Premier League. Everton’s history, while littered with major trophies, also contains some heroic escapes from the drop. Another one is needed in 2022 but does the team have the character to pull it off? This time next week we’ll have a much better idea.

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