Everton supporters are a pretty realistic bunch.
If you’d offered the Toffees faithful a sixth place finish at the start of the season, the majority would have considered that a pretty decent return. It is sixth place where Everton currently reside in the Premier League standings, and barring a late overhaul by their Merseyside rivals, they look set to finish in that position.
So with three games to go, why are the majority of Evertonians in such a huff about things? Granted, the annual no-show at Anfield looms large, but all in all, a sixth place finish would be OK for Everton. Wouldn’t it?
Well, maybe not.
If we take stock of Everton’s cumulative showing over the course of the campaign, there is an overwhelming sense of “what could have been." After all, at one point Everton were right in the mix for a Champions League spot and well on course for an FA Cup final appearance.
But, as is seemingly part and parcel with them, Everton have come up just short in their pursuit. Lets address some of the reasons for this.
Before the season began, securing European football would have been the target for Everton. A sixth place finish in years gone by would have secured their participation in next year's Europa League. This season, due to the heroics of Swansea and Wigan, that isn’t the case. Only fifth place would be sufficient.
David Moyes has maintained this is the target for his Everton side. Unfortunately, they are left reliant on a dramatic collapse from either Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea. Oh, and Everton would also have to take maximum points from their final three games.
With trips to Anfield and Stamford Bridge still to come—venues at which Moyes has never steered Everton to victory—securing that goal looks about as likely as a Tony Hibbert winner on Sunday.
The players and manager have only themselves to blame for these apparent shortcomings. As I have already alluded to, the Champions League looked a realistic ambition at one point. Maybe even a trophy too.
One of the most prominent detrimental factors stems from the unenviable trait of letting points slip late on. As if this wasn’t frustrating enough, it’s compounded further when you consider the measure of control Everton have had on the vast majority of these games.
You think back to contests against Fulham, in which they conceded an injury time equalizer after completely dominating proceedings, and against Norwich, in which the Canaries scored two extraordinarily soft goals in the last five minutes, turning the game on its head.
These late lapses have certainly blemished Everton’s campaign. From where has this defensive generosity stemmed?
There are some who feel this is a reflection on the Toffees squad. Everton have actually used the least amount of players (along with West Brom) this season according to Opta.
23 - Everton and West Brom have used the joint-fewest players in this season's Premier League. Sparse. @Slug_23 #AskOpta4/29/2013, 10:08:31 AM
Maybe this is why the team’s sharpness dwindles around the climax of some of these games. This was especially evident after Christmas, as the Toffees failed to cope in the aftermath of a jam-packed festive schedule.
In more recent encounters, games at Arsenal and Sunderland have also seen the side struggle to maintain a high tempo over the course of the 90 minutes. Marouane Fellaini actually made a direct reference to the team being tired following the Sunderland game.
The absence of any major signing in January and the consequential lack of fresh legs has certainly not aided the cause either. Especially when we consider that players like Phil Neville, John Heitinga and Nikica Jelavic—all key figures last season—have had campaigns to forget.
It is easy to blame fatigue and finances for a lot of Everton’s misgivings. But under David Moyes, Everton have always worked with a tight-knit squad in which numbers have subsequently been at a premium. Despite this, in years gone by, Everton have developed a remarkable patent for finishing strongly.
With this in mind, perhaps the source of Everton’s frustrations this season are a lot more clear. Perhaps, quite simply, it is a case of a team that fails to perform when it really matters. There is certainly some evidence to back up this notion.
No more so than in this current campaign. The abhorrent showing in the FA Cup quarterfinal is undoubtedly the most obvious example. But even in recent weeks, the Toffees have shown a real lack of ruthlessness when the pressure is on.
The aforementioned performance at the Stadium of Light, on the back of two respectable draws at Tottenham and Arsenal, was toothless and lackluster. The European dream was ultimately put to bed on the back of that performance. Everton appear to be a team crippled by fear and doubt when it comes to the big occasion.
The man who many feel is responsible for the absence of a winning mentality is David Moyes. “Bottler” is a strong term but certainly one that has been banded about when talk turns to the Everton manager.
The continued non-committal stance on a new contract also remains a source of frustration for many Evertonians. That situation in itself has been cited as another distracting factor for the team, especially as it has rumbled on towards the back end of the campaign.
Looking forward, there are clearly lessons to be learned ahead of next season. Whilst it is possible to blame any of the cited reasons for a frustrating 2012-13, the reality is that they all represent contributing factors.
We can only really assess Everton’s future when David Moyes’s contract situation is resolved. Until then, Evertonians will be left reflecting on a season of “ifs," “buts” and “maybes” and looking forward to probably the most defining summer break in the club’s recent history.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter @MattJFootball