Frank Lampard’s initial experience with toffees has been so overwhelmingly negative that he would be forgiven for thinking that he’d stumbled into a guided tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory rather than the dugout at Goodison Park.
You see, Oompa Loompa doopity dorm, one win in five is relegation form, and Everton are in serious danger of sinking like Augustus Gloop in a cocoa river.
Look beyond the confines of Lampard’s fledgling tenure and the rot is even more alarming. Since beating Arsenal on 6 December, the Blues have taken just four points in the Premier League - and three of those came against fellow basket case, Leeds United.
The situation, diplomatically speaking, is dire. Other four letter words are equally as applicable. And the latest blow to Everton’s fragile top flight status came in the form of a 5-0 pasting at the hands of Antonio Conte’s temperamental ketchup apostates, Tottenham Hotspur, on Monday evening. Talk about Jekyll and Heinz, eh? No, but joking aside, Lampard’s men are in big, big trouble.
On the face of it, it’s not immediately obvious as to what’s going wrong on Merseyside. The squad Lampard has inherited is expensively assembled with plenty of international pedigree. That being said, so is a life-sized Lego model of the Vengaboys - doesn’t mean it isn’t still a bit useless.
From front to back, Everton find themselves in the kind of slump that usually proves terminal, and exceptions have been few and far between.
Demarai Gray, to his credit, has staked his claim as a legitimate bargain on a fairly regular basis, while boyhood Toffee Anthony Gordon has shown plenty of promise and a suitable amount of passion in the face of abject regression.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Abdoulaye Doucoure have been okay when available, but have both missed significant spells through injury absences, and that, damningly, is about it.
Regardless of the calibre of reputations in that Goodison Park dressing room, the reality of the situation is that there are too many key talents failing to perform.
Take rave connoisseur wind-up merchant Jordan Pickford, for instance. Often unfairly maligned in the opinion of this humble keyboard-masher, the England number one is, at the moment, making a habit out of shipping goals that he should, by rights, be preventing. Against Spurs on Monday, he conceded five goals from an xG of just 2.32. Over the course of the campaign as whole, he’s let in 6.14 goals more than he reasonably should have, according to relevant number crunchers, at least.
And while his chequered form is threatening to scuttle Lampard’s lifeboat, it could also spell mayday for his World Cup hopes. Gareth Southgate has shown admirable loyalty to Pickford during his time with the national team, but the Three Lions boss wouldn’t be human if he wasn’t at least toying with the idea of bringing in Aaron Ramsdale.
The Arsenal star has emerged as a kind of Bugs Bunny to Pickford’s Elmer Fudd this season, rendering his compatriot’s antics sluggish and cumbrous by comparison, and doing it all with an endearing air of boy prince clownery.
Outfield, things get even worse. There are games of Chinese whispers at Slayer concerts that exhibit more cohesion than Everton’s defensive line, and Michael Keane in particular seems to have taken to lining his boots with lead insoles. The centre-back is enduring a calamitous spell of late, and while his early withdrawal against Spurs was attributed to the lingering effects of a recent illness, both he and Lampard will have felt a certain amount of relief at his timely departure.
At full-back, Seamus Coleman comes unstuck far too often for a player increasingly looking as if he is destined for the glue factory, while offloading Lucas Digne only to replace him with an out-of-position Jonjoe Kenny feels a bit like wilfully buying Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge instead of Bonestorm. Would you like to sign a suitable replacement for one of your best players after deciding to sell him to a divisional rival? You have selected ‘No’.
A deadline day midfield splurge looked as if it could at least shift some of the malaise that had infected the Toffees’ engine room in the latter days of Rafa Benitez’s doomed reign of mediocrity, but neither Donny van de Beek or Dele Alli have yet to have the desired impact.
The Dutchman has a pass completion rate of 85.7%, the highest in Everton’s squad, but has averaged just 0.4 meaningful key passes per 90 minutes thus far. There have been signs of early promise - plenty of fluttering about with the occasional aesthetic curio - but Van de Beek is playing like a butterfly when Lampard really needs a vampire bat.
As for Dele, he looks lost. At this stage, it’s almost tragically absurd to think about the player that he was just a few short years ago, the poster boy for an ever-burgeoning generation of budding English talent, shouldering the weight of expectation for both club and country. Quite what has gone awry is a matter of some mystification, but with each passing misstep, it feels less and less likely that we’ll ever be treated to the twinkling Alli of old again - and that, prospectively, is a huge shame.
Elsewhere, Richarlison - another hamstrung by circumstance beyond his control at times this term - has seen his usual mercurial pomp reduced to a cartoonish dust cloud, while Salomon Rondon is a walking billboard for the cons of footballing nepotism. Presumably he has taken to circling advertisements with a little red biro in the jobs section of the local newspaper, just so he can flag them up to Rafa on their nightly post-Emmerdale catch-up. Even if he hasn’t, he can’t be long for the exit door.
And that’s pretty much where Everton find themselves right now - an ungainly blob of shot nerves and baffling recruitment, stumbling around in the dark as the batteries in their torch flicker and die. Rarely are nadirs so endemic, and even in some of the club’s most worrisome recent lulls, never has their predicament felt so precarious.
Perhaps if Lampard had been given more time in January to bung some duct tape over the most obvious holes in his shoddy contingent, things might have been marginally better.
But then again, maybe they wouldn’t.
Because ultimately, for all of his former glories and all of his pally media sheen, there has been nothing yet to suggest that Lampard is the right man to drag Everton to safety. The Toffees needed a catalyst in January, a firefighter, if you will, and instead they opted for a big name with a paper thin CV and a knack for coming across well in interviews.
That’s not to say that Lampard is inevitably ill-fated, or that his players aren’t playing for him, but time is ebbing away at a canter, and if the unthinkable happens and Everton do drop out of the Premier League, it will be the decision to appoint him at a juncture of looming crisis that people question far more than the unsound displays of his squad.
That may seem harsh, but unfortunately, it’s true.
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