Toffees playing catch-up already
The back pages make for miserable reading on Merseyside right now. Similarly embarrassed in this week's Carling Cup, such small consolation as Liverpool can derive comes from the fact that they are three points and three places above Everton.
The pre-season predictions that David Moyes' side, once again, could be the outsiders to break into the top four now appear wildly incorrect, even though they had the heavyweight backing of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. Now the issue is underachievement, not overachievement.
Having lost only two of their last 24 league games last season, they have been defeated in three of their first five in the current campaign. The presumption, which is a backhanded compliment, is that Moyes will turn it around: he always has. While other managers seem to lose the dressing room, the Scot appears to have a firmer grasp and a grounding in recoveries. Slow starts are nothing new: in the 2005-06 season, his side took three points from their first eight games and last year, they were just outside the relegation zone in the second half of November.
Adversity can seem to galvanise Everton. Sometimes when they prosper it is as underdogs, and there is already evidence of that; it was astonishing when they snatched two injury-time goals in the dramatic comeback to frustrate Manchester United. That is much their finest result to date.
Expectations, however, have been a burden. The mental strain of comparative poverty may play a part; in 2010, as in 2009 and 2008, Moyes has broken even in the transfer market. The quest to achieve more on slender resources places demands, especially when it is apparent that money would make a difference.
There are two obvious vacancies within the squad, both of which partly explain the early-season malaise, on the right wing and in attack. Landon Donovan's brief stint on Merseyside added another dimension to the side, a naturally right-footed and high-class operator on what tends to be Everton's lesser flank. Whereas Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines form an excellent alliance on the left, this is an imbalanced side.
The long-serving locals Leon Osman and Tony Hibbert are less penetrative on the opposite side. Both Jack Rodwell and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov have been deployed on the right, attempts to shoehorn gifted players into the team, but neither is a natural. It is telling, too, that the Russian continues to flatter to deceive. Other technical talents such as Mikel Arteta and Pienaar have fared better in their second seasons in England after adjusting to the physical demands and the hope was that the gifted Russian would do the same.
More telling is the shortage of strikers who are both fit and firing. Louis Saha, unsurprisingly, is injured and already Everton's achievement in conjuring 26 league starts and a further seven appearances as substitute last season looks a one-off. Yakubu is yet to recapture top form since rupturing his Achilles tendon 22 months ago and cameo appearances against Manchester United and Newcastle have provided hints of menace, but his season began under the cloud of repeated interest from West Ham.
Struggling most of all is Jermaine Beckford, who is discovering the gulf between League One and the Premier League is vast. So prolific at Leeds, he has given the impression of rawness at Goodison Park, with his awareness and link-up play sometimes betraying his roots in non-league. Displaying a modest streak that wasn't always apparent at Elland Road, he rejected the chance to wear Everton's iconic No. 9 shirt in favour of the less renowned No. 16. Sadly, it seems an apt choice. Thus far, he is no inheritor to the tradition of Dixie Dean, Joe Royle, Bob Latchford and co.
It is tempting to wonder if Beckford would be an Evertonian but for his availability on a free transfer. As it is, he seems less an inspired signing than an understandable attempt at a cheap fix.
Moyes has stressed the mantra of collective responsibility, but the fact remains that his strikers are yet to muster a league goal thus far. Everton were among the many Premier League clubs to have scouted Loic Remy, recognition of the need for more cutting edge in attack.
Without it, there is a reliance on their potential match-winners to perform. Thus far, it is something only Tim Cahill and, to a lesser extent, Pienaar have done while Bilyaletdinov and Marouane Fellaini have been especially unthreatening. Defensive dependability has enabled them to grind out results in the past, but a rare Tim Howard error resulted in the crucial goal at Blackburn while Sylvain Distin was substandard against Manchester United.
Without a swift improvement in their fortunes, Everton will be condemned to spending the second half of another season in a futile game of catch-up. Last season the turning point was the home defeat to Liverpool. This year's desperation derby will be played next month. As it stands, it could be a chance to compare their troubles.