“I couldn’t have turned Everton down. I just couldn’t,” said Sam Allardyce ahead of his 1000th match in management. Many Toffees probably spent most of the match against West Brom wishing Big Sam had tried a little harder to resist the temptation.
After the new manager bounce saw Allardyce’s side go eight without defeat following his arrival, Everton have been brought back down to earth with a brutal reminder of their flaws and where they stand in the Premier League pecking order.
The honeymoon period is most certainly over for Big Sam. His team were booed off after a wretched first half against the struggling Baggies, while the ire of Goodison Park was aimed squarely at the manager midway through the second half.
So you can well imagine how smug Allardyce must have been feeling when his three substitutes combined with his latest signing to pull Everton level with 20 minutes remaining. Oumar Niasse, the replacement that provoked such disapproval from the Gwladys Street when he was sent on for new striker Cenk Tosun, made an immediate impact when he volleyed into the roof of Ben Foster’s net after Theo Walcott had nodded back Wayne Rooney’s ball to the back post.
Despite that little victory, the wretchedness of Everton’s performance to that point will not be lost on Allardyce. Nor will the fact that it was no one-off.
Since the last meeting with West Brom on Boxing Day, Everton have lost four on the bounce, with Man Utd, Liverpool and Tottenham offering a reality check for any Toffees who may have hoped the defeat at Bournemouth in the final game of 2017 was a festive blip.
Though it was a struggling Albion side in opposition visiting the Toffees, Allardyce opted to be cautious in his selection, despite giving Goodison bows to Walcott and Tosun. Rooney was benched alongside Idrissa Gueye, with Morgan Schneiderlin and James McCarthy trusted to drive the hosts forward from the base of midfield. Walcott would offer width from the right, but no such quality ever looked likely to come from Nikola Vlasic and Cuco Martina – two right footers playing on the left.
The plan appeared to involve McCarthy playing closest to Gylfi Sigurdsson but it rarely worked that way. Perhaps still wary following the humbling at the hands of Tottenham at Wembley last week, Schneiderlin and McCarthy’s passing was cautious and illustrated the home side’s lack of confidence.
Of course, everyone’s thoughts after this game were for McCarthy after he suffered a double leg break in chasing back to deny Solomon Rondon a shot on goal. The West Brom striker’s dismayed reaction illustrated the seriousness of McCarthy’s plight, and Allardyce will surely have to do without the midfielder for a long time.
If Schneiderlin is Big Sam’s preferred midfield anchor, then he desperately needs beside him a partner who can dovetail his positional sense and defensive discipline with some dynamism and an eye for a penetrative pass. Gueye gives that mobility, but against the sides they are expected to beat, it must be one or the other to keep the Goodison grumbles to a minimum. The fans cannot be blamed for expressing their frustration when all they had to cheer in the first half was a run of 251 minutes without a shot on target coming to an end courtesy of an effort from right-back Jonjoe Kenny.
Allardyce, though, will point to a much more open game after McCarthy was carried off and replaced by Rooney. Everton looked more positive with a greater attacking threat, but they also appeared vulnerable to the counter-attack. Everton will feel they could have taken all three points after their equaliser, but so too could West Brom, who hit the bar in added time.
A thousand games tell us that Allardyce will always opt for safety over adventure, and the new boss has already been made to regret loosening the shackles on his players. After the defeat at Spurs, he told The Times this week: “We started so well and I’m disappointed in myself really because I felt we were ready to start doing a little bit more in possession, to start making a better impression with the ball, and on reflection I’m not sure they were quite ready for that.”
Walcott also showed immediately after the match that he is perhaps not quite yet on Big Sam’s wavelength. Reflecting upon what he described as a positive debut, the winger said Everton’s attacking improvement came about because the Toffees got higher up the pitch. But their immediate upturn after Allardyce’s arrival was down to the boss taking his back four further back, with Ashley Williams, Michael Keane and Phil Jagielka all far more comfortable defending from deep.
It is a balance that Allardyce won’t find this month, on the pitch or in the transfer market. He could look for another left-back who can offer more natural cover for Leighton Baines and the manager will hope Tosun settles rather more quickly than he suggested prior to last weekend. But there are no quick fixes to Everton’s flaws.
In the short to medium term, the Goodison Park faithful will perhaps have to accept a more pragmatic approach than they have been used to in recent seasons, and while Allardyce will suggest the subsequent failures led them to him, the manager will also have to compromise and find ways to inject more positivity and confidence throughout his team.