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CARLO ANCELOTTI admitted his Everton side were far from their best following their draw with Southampton in an eerily empty Goodison Park.
The Italian bemoaned a poor first-half display, but changes made at half-time meant that by the end of the game he was able to conclude that a draw was just about deserved.
The air-raid siren and playback of the Z Cars theme, reverberating around the empty stands prior to kick-off, seems pointless without fans present.
For Everton supporters watching from home, the continuation of these pre-match rituals might bring some comfortable familiarity to their viewing experience, but the football on show was anything but comfortable, though it may well be familiar.
The enforced three-month break had the potential to be good for Everton, especially once a return to training in their bubble allowed them to further settle into the ways of Ancelotti.
As it turned out, it appears that Everton need more of a reset than a restart. Luckily they have the right man to oversee it.
There were poor performances throughout the team during the first period, but Ancelotti’s changes at half time gave some cause for optimism even if some of the performances didn’t.
The centre of midfield was by far the weakest area, and the midfield duo of Andre Gomes and Tom Davies were third to every ball, allowing Southampton to breeze between the lines.
Despite being part of Everton’s sluggish centre, Gomes was nevertheless unfortunate to concede a penalty following a coming together with James Ward-Prowse.
The Premier League subsequently admitted that it was the wrong decision for the VAR to award the penalty, but Everton’s immediate reprieve came in the form of Ward-Prowse’s spot-kick which rattled off the bar, deflecting high into the Gwladys Street end.
Southampton eventually took the lead in fortunate fashion as a mis-hit shot from Stuart Armstrong rolled into the path of Danny Ings and the striker was easily able to wrong-foot Jordan Pickford before netting his 19th of the season.
Despite Everton’s poor start, they still went in level at half-time thanks to moments of individual brilliance from Lucas Digne and Richarlison, the perfect long pass from the former leading to the superb control and finish from the latter.
The pair play at a level that might attract interest from sides already participating in the European competitions Everton long to be involved in but now seem unlikely to qualify for this season.
Ancelotti’s side need to prove that these players are the norm and the stagnant performances elsewhere are the elements that will be removed.
“The performance was not good in the first half, but much better second when we were more in control,” said Ancelotti.
“The key point of the first half was that we allowed too much space between the lines and Southampton had good control of possession.
“In the second half we changed the shape a little bit, and we were more in control in the middle of the pitch.
“It was a fantastic goal, a fantastic finish, but we were lucky, as after the first half we didn’t deserve to be level.”
The deserted stadiums, lacking the buzz provided by fans, leave the players’ shouts exposed to the few media gathered to record events and the club staff trying to influence them.
Mason Holgate has been the loudest in the Everton team, organising the defensive line and barking at those in front of him. With the 23-year-old out through injury, who would step up?
“Good lad, good lad, go on,” shouted Jordan Pickford from the back as Tom Davies pressed in midfield.
“MINA!” came a regular call from the back as Everton’s towering Colombian centre-back let everyone know that various high balls were his to win.
He was joined by Michael Keane and Seamus Coleman in the organising of the back-line and general shouts of encouragement, but there was no obvious vocal leader in the middle in Holgate’s absence.
It was one of many indications that Everton need to reinforce the core of their team, building around the talented trimmings highlighted by the goal.
The midfield, using current personnel, looks weak as a two and was much stronger once impressive youngster Anthony Gordon was able to drift inside off the wing to form a central three.
There are some quality players in this team, but there is a need for more to support and complement them, turning that sluggish midfield into a stronger more spirited one, and a challenge for European qualification into something more substantial, rather than one that has now petered out following what is increasingly looking like a false restart.
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