After matchday one two seasons ago, Goodison Park was an optimistic place. A 1-0 victory at Tottenham Hotspur made for an excellent start to the campaign for Everton. Carlo Ancelotti, a world-class manager with a track record of winning silverware in several different countries, was in the dugout. James Rodriguez had been signed from Real Madrid. There was a genuine belief that Everton could qualify for European competition.
That feels like much longer than two years ago now. Fast forward to the start of the 2022/23 season and many Evertonians would settle for a 17th-place finish in the Premier league. It would be a mistake to read too much into a slender defeat by Chelsea, who needed a penalty to get past Frank Lampard’s men on Saturday. But as things stand, it is hard to see Everton finishing much higher than lower mid-table.
Last term was almost disastrous for the Toffees. The baffling decision to appoint Rafael Benitez, a Liverpool legend, left Everton in a precarious position when the Spaniard was inevitably sacked in the middle of January. Lampard struggled to make an instant impression after replacing him, and Everton found themselves in the bottom three with six games remaining following a 2-0 defeat in the Merseyside derby.
To Lampard and the team’s credit, Everton rose to the challenge. Three wins and a draw from their final six matches was enough to secure survival. The Goodison crowd played a huge role in that period, generating a raucous, frenzied atmosphere which the players could feed off. But while that was possible in the final weeks of the season with the finish line in sight and a clear target to aim for, Everton cannot rely on it at the beginning of 2022/23.
The Toffees held their own for much of the first half against Chelsea. They were on the back foot and forced to defend for long periods, but they looked reasonably solid and posed a few questions on the counter-attack. A clumsy foul from Abdoulaye Doucoure on Ben Chilwell gifted Chelsea a penalty, though, and from there it was always going to be difficult for Everton to find a way back into the match.
The threat from the home team fizzled out in the second half. With Dominic Calvert-Lewin injured and Salomon Rondon suspended, Everton badly lacked a focal point up top. Anthony Gordon was a willing runner throughout, but he is not the type of forward who excels at holding the ball up. Demarai Gray and Dwight McNeil had minimal impact on the flanks.
There were a few bright spots, most notably the performances of debutants Nathan Patterson and James Tarkowski, while Alex Iwobi provided the guile and creativity in central midfield that Everton lacked last term. But the fact that the Toffees created little of note will concern Lampard, who will not have Calvert-Lewin available again until September.
“We’ve got no No.9 so we had to be constantly mobile,” the Everton boss told the BBC after the game.
“That’s a big ask on the first day of the season. I thought we did it OK today against a team of Chelsea’s level. I thought we created them a lot of problems. I don’t want to criticise the team too much because the mobility was good.
“We want to have a couple more options. We’re all moving in that direction. Dominic’s not going to be out forever. We’ve lost Richarlison. One player is being finalised as we speak. I don’t want to stand here and say it’s done, but we’re very close.”
Everton fans will hope for more than one new signing between now and the end of the window on September 1. Those European aspirations from two years ago have been replaced by an altogether more modest objective in 2022.