EPL: Man Utd 2-0 Everton: Is Top-4 Getting out of Reach for Toffees?

Paul Mullaney@@contepomi90Contributor IIJanuary 23, 2017

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 10:  Jonny Evans of Manchester United shoots at goal under pressure during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford on February 10, 2013 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

It was never going to be the easiest of weekends for Everton, but their defeat on Sunday against Manchester United at Old Trafford following Spurs' 2-1 win over Newcastle at lunchtime on Saturday now means the Toffees trail Tottenham by six points.

Six points off of fourth place, synonymous with qualification for the Champions League, but also two points behind Arsenal, who beat Sunderland 1-0 and who are looking increasingly like the side most likely to challenge Spurs for a place in the top four.

It's not an ideal position to be in, but is it too early to say that a top four finish is starting to look unlikely for David Moyes's side? Is it already starting to look unlikely that they'll be able to last the pace with Arsenal and Spurs, two teams who look as though they're maybe starting to hit their stride?

Possibly, but it's worth looking into it a bit further.

First, it's important not to read too much into today's game.

Yes, Man Utd. got the job done with a minimum of fuss, and Everton fans might be a little disappointed by the fact their team never really looked like they were troubling the champions-in-waiting, but it was never a game they were likely to win.

Despite the fact that United have a huge Champions League tie coming up this week against Real Madrid, they showed Everton the respect they're due, and fielded a side that was largely full-strength in order to get the result. They got the goals relatively early on and did enough from then on to prevent Everton from getting back into the game.

Everton remain in a strong position in the league and it would only take a couple of results to go their way for them to get right back in touch with Spurs once more.

More generally though, when looking at Everton's results and performances, we start to feel that they might have to adjust their expectations just a little bit.

For a start, they draw far too many games. No side has drawn more games than Everton's 12 (Stoke City have drawn the same number, while Norwich and Q.P.R. Are on 11) and their closest competitors for fourth place, Arsenal and Spurs, have only drawn a total of 14 games between the two of them.

Prior to Sunday's game Everton had drawn three out of their last four matches in the Premier League, and while it's important not to lose games, you feel as though these are missed opportunities; points dropped rather than points gained.

Even the 3-3 draw with Aston Villa last weekend, salvaged by a last-minute Marouane Fellaini equaliser after being down 3-1 seems like a disappointing result in the wider context. A home game against a side who've only won twice on their travels the whole season? That's the sort of game a side with Champions League aspirations really has to win.

Then there was the away game down at St. Mary's against Southampton. Instead of taking the game to their opponents, for much of it Everton were on the back foot, and it was only thanks to a number of impressive stops by Tim Howard that they were able to cling on for a point. A decent result, but not necessarily the sort of outcome that's good enough for where they want to be.

So what's the problem?

It's hard to say.

It's not necessarily that they lack quality. Up front Everton have a number of good attacking options including the likes of Jelavic, Mirallas, Anichebe and Naismith, and they get good support from the midfield, especially from Pienaar, Osman and Fellaini. They have the players, but for whatever reason they find it difficult to break teams down, and they're often left wondering what might have been had they been able to find that all-important goal.

It is possible they're becoming too predictable. This is prone to happen as a season goes on, and Man Utd. certainly managed to nullify their threat on Sunday by man-marking Fellaini and restricting the space available to Leighton Baines down Everton's left-hand side. Without the threat that these two  -arguably their two best players - pose, they're not quite the same team, and those around them struggle to make quite the same impact.

In order to finish strongly it could well be that they'll have to make some changes to the way they play so that teams don't find it quite as easy to cancel them out.

But just as Moyes seemed to have made a move to strengthen the squad, you had the whole fiasco that went on towards the end of the January transfer window.

Everton seemed set to sign the highly rated midfielder Leroy Fer from Dutch side FC Twente shortly before the window closed, but a knee injury showed up in the player's X-ray, and Everton were unable to obtain sufficient guarantees that this wouldn't pose a significant problem.

Moyes had targeted the centre of the park as being an area which they needed to improve, and seemed to have a deal wrapped up to sort this out, but the fact it collapsed so late in the day meant he had little time to go out and find a replacement.

As it is, they'll now have to make do for the rest of the season with what they have already, making it harder to change things up and to rotate the squad. While they have good options, they're not necessarily of quite the same calibre as those of their competitors, and when it comes to changing a game, they maybe still lack that player who can unlock a defence with a bit of individual brilliance.

Of course, it's important to bear in mind in all this that in many ways Everton should be happy with where they currently are in the league. Even if it is to be that they finish sixth, it's still higher than many were predicting at the start of the season.

This isn't to say that they should necessarily curb their ambitions or that they won't be able to last the pace, but we should remember that Everton have to make do with far more meagre resources than those teams around them. It's impressive they're doing as well as they are, and even if a fourth-place finish is eventually to prove beyond their reach this takes nothing away from their achievements.

Another case of close, but not quite close enough?

Even with a lot of football still to be played, realistically it's looking more and more likely that this is how it will turn out.


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