That, of course, will be the line as Everton head into the international break hovering above the relegation places. Does the line have any value beyond maintaining morale? It does, but not much.
My big concern at the start of the season was the defence and, ironically given the rate at which goals are being shipped, there is some encouragement there, as my primary anxiety is proving unfounded. The squad does appear to have enough defenders of Premier League quality.
Tony Hibbert, far from being finished, has shown that he can come in and still do a job – a limited job, but a job all the same. Tyias Browning, in a couple of cameos, looks to have all the tools required to succeed as a Premier League defender, including, already, a presence on the field. Muhamed Besic may be no James McCarthy (yet), but he has got stuck in as a defensive midfielder and looks a good buy at £4m. Throw in the long awaited return of Bryan Oviedo and the surely irrefutable claim of John Stones to play centre-back whenever available and the roster looks much stronger than I anticipated in August.
What I did not foresee – who did? – is the decline of the first choice defensive unit which, quite suddenly, looks well worth our place in the table. Tim Howard is surely reacting to his World Cup heroics and needs to get back to his consistent form of last season immediately. He has had wobbly spells before, but this might be the worst. His decision to keep the ball in play when Steven Pienaar was sitting on the grass, having done the substitution signal, led directly to the goal that cost a point at Old Trafford. Roll in Sylvain Distin’s sluggish start and Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines looking short of concentration having gone through a long season straight to a World Cup and on to pre-season training with barely a break, and, well, conceding 12 more goals than Southampton is no recipe for a slot in the upper reaches of the table.
But that’s not the whole story – there are more of the famous positives we can grasp with some justification. The goals keep coming (more too, had David De Gea not made a trio of outstanding saves). Steven Naismith, aside from one sitter vs West Brom that didn’t matter, is finishing brilliantly and chances are being created and taken in (almost) every match. Not long ago, losing 2-1 at Old Trafford with Manchester United hanging on desperately in the last 15 minutes, would have been seen as a decent performance and not the gloomy failure it feels now.
That said, Romelu Lukaku disappointed again, not getting much change out of Paddy McNair (who looks a better player than England internationals, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling). As his confidence has waned a little (maybe due to the expectations that come with the big fee), the Belgian’s faults have been highlighted. The first touch remains a problem and needs a lot of work on the training ground – but when will there be time for that? He looks a beat or two off full throttle too. Is he heavier than last season? Is he tired after continual football since his return from injury in February? Is he – as he must be really, despite the eye-catching £28M transfer and all those appearances as a teenager- a young player from whom one must expect form to fluctuate? Lukaku (like Balotelli) has not been bad, but he’s not been good either and when results go against you, the big names get big scrutiny.
It was always going to be a tough start to the season with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United in the first seven matches so, in the ever more febrile atmosphere of English football (I heard a Liverpool fan call for Brendan Rodgers to be sacked yesterday) persepective is needed. But if you had asked me if I’d have taken seven goals from those four matches before the Leicester City opener, I’d have bitten your hand off – of course, I would not have expected just two points to come from those goals.
Five winnable matches await before a tricky trip to White Hart Lane (though Tottenham are hardly more consistent than Everton). That run of fixtures will answer at least three questions. Is it right to take the positives away from these early season performances or are we being fooled? Are the four stalwarts of last season’s rock solid defence (Howard, Distin, Jagielka and Baines) really as unreliable as they seem? And, crucially, do fans really mean it when they say that they “just want to see some decent football” as they so often did under David Moyes? Then, as now, I like to see goals, free-flowing play and pass-and-move in transition from defence to attack, but I’d take five 1-0s with five ogs right now. Points are the hard currency of Premier League football and Everton’s credit is running low.