On April 12, 2014, at Sunderland's Stadium of Light, Everton took a 1-0 road win thanks to a late Wes Brown own goal. The win was the Toffees' seventh in a row and after what had been an awfully sketchy January-February stretch, moved them back to fourth place in the Premier League, two points up on fifth-place Arsenal and only four back of third-place Manchester City.
We remember another 2013-14 collapse more vividly: that of derby rivals Liverpool, who led the league on April 12 but slid (both metaphorically and, in Steven Gerrard's case, literally) just enough for City to charge by and take the title. But when Everton dropped three of four late-April matches -- 3-2 at home to Crystal Palace, 2-0 at Southampton, 3-2 to that Man City side -- it ruined the club's best shot at Champions League play since falling to Villarreal in qualifying back in 2006. They were right there, but settled for fifth place and a decent (but unspectacular) Europa League stint.
Really, 2014 wasn't that long ago -- it was the year "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and Pharrell William's song "Happy" came out, after all -- but with Liverpool's rise, Manchester City's further solidification under Pep Guardiola, and the further financial might imposed by England's richest clubs, it feels like a couple of decades ago for Everton. The Toffees have finished 11th, 11th, seventh, eighth, eighth and 12th in the league since 2014. They've hired veteran managers who had seen success elsewhere (Ronald Koeman, Sam Allardyce), taken a chance on younger, less proven coaches (Marco Silva), and landed around the same spot in the table either way.
Another veteran, Carlo Ancelotti, replaced Silva last winter, and immediate impressions weren't amazing. Everton's form did improve, from a ghastly 0.93 points per match under Silva to 1.48 under Ancelotti, but while the defense improved, the attack -- which seemed like it should be quite solid with fun, young players like Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison -- remained less than the sum of its parts. Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison each scored 13 league goals, but no one else logged more than three.
Then the reinforcements arrived, as Everton enjoyed an active and thus far effective transfer window.
James Rodriguez came over from Real Madrid and set up shop on the right wing; central midfielders Abdoulaye Doucoure (Watford) and Allan (Napoli) came aboard as well. Each of this trio has played a majority of minutes in the first three league matches of the season. The club also added 19-year old left back Niels Nkounkou from Marseille, and while he hasn't appeared in a league match yet, he's been good in three EFL Cup appearances.
Three matches into the 2020-21 Premier League season, Everton have yet to drop a point, having beaten Tottenham Hotspur, West Brom and Crystal Palace by a combined 8-3. Calvert-Lewin is already almost halfway to last year's goals total with five -- he added three more in a League Cup win over West Ham United on Wednesday, too -- and the quartet of Rodriguez and captain Seamus Coleman on the right flank, and Richarlison and Lucas Digne on the left, have created 22 chances and five assists between them.
Everton are also controlling the ball -- 59.1% possession (fourth in the league) with 2.3 passes per possession more than their opponent (third) -- and generating lots of high-quality opportunities: they're averaging 0.16 shots per possession (seventh) at 0.18 xG per shot (third). This is a legitimately fun team to watch, and they have already capitalized on the hot start with a fun, cheesy music video.
And in case you still had any reason to wonder just how ready Everton fans were to have something to celebrate again... behold, wine and tattoos.
An Everton fan gave James Rodriguez a bottle of wine after their win on the weekend and then got a tattoo of him dressed as James Bond holding it 🍷— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) September 24, 2020
(via @awaybusblue1878 & @benhugh32396991) pic.twitter.com/wcFQss7CNX
All this after three matches.
Rodriguez has been worth celebrating thus far
The chart to the right shows, albeit in a small sample, how well the Colombia playmaker has slotted into a new team and a new league. He's keeping pretty good company right there, and as brilliant as Salah has been -- and as good as Kane was at assisting Son Heung-Min's goals against Southampton -- Rodriguez could remain at or near the top of the list if he stays healthy.
The 29-year old -- who doesn't look a day over 22 -- is an aggressive passer by nature, and along with his production near the goal he's been brilliant with the long ball. He's one of only two players in the Premier League (the other: Brighton's 22-year-old Steven Alzate) to have thus far attempted at least 10 passes of at least 32 yards in length and completed at least 85% of them. He's providing a "creating something from nothing" presence that Everton desperately lacked last year.
There's nothing about Rodriguez's early production that seems particularly superhuman or unsustainable, either.
- He's averaging 80.8 touches per 90 minutes, which is actually his second-lowest average of the past six seasons.
- He's completing 85% of his passes and 79% in the attacking third, which are right in line with, or lower than, his career averages.
- He's creating 3.6 chances per 90 after averaging between 3.4 and 4 for four of the past five seasons.
- He's averaging 4.3 ball recoveries per 90, an average lower than all but one of his past seven year-end averages.
Despite spending more time on the wing than he has for much of his career, he's producing very James Rodriguez stats. But he's doing it in a system that suits him quite well, and for a manager in Ancelotti who will give him all the playing time he lacked at Real Madrid.
While Rodriguez has never been a ridiculously active defender, his ability to create danger, without over-committing up-field, has allowed Everton to remain defensively organized. The Toffees are reasonably active overall; their 11.8 passes allowed per defensive action last year ranked eighth in the league, as does their 11.5 this year. But their strength is in their organization. They don't get caught in transition, and they don't give you good shots.
Thus far, 26% of opponents' shots against Everton have come with at least three players between the shooter and the goal; only Crystal Palace and Brighton have allowed a higher percentage, and most possession-heavy teams allow a far lower percentage -- Manchester City is currently at 0%, with Liverpool at 7% and Manchester United at 13%. In all, they're allowing only 0.09 shots per possession (third in the league) at 0.11 xG per shot (fifth).
It's not all great news, of course
It never is, and there are several omens that don't bode as well for the Toffees.
- Despite reasonable Everton pressure, opponents are starting 3.7 more possessions per match in the attacking third than the Toffees. (The margin was minus-0.5 under Ancelotti last year.) For obvious reasons, possessions starting in the attacking third correlate pretty well with higher-quality scoring chances, and this could mean that, over time, Everton's shot-quality advantage will dissipate.
- Two of three wins have come by one goal. It probably goes without saying that they're not going to average three points per close match the rest of the year. Not even Juventus does that.
- Their opponents' save percentage has been only 50% so far -- that's below Kepa Arrizabalaga, and it probably won't last even with Everton creating scoring opportunities of above-average quality.
- They've trailed for only 21 of 270 minutes thus far, and none of that in the second half. On average, last year's most possession-heavy teams didn't handle it well when they fell behind and opponents were able to park the bus. Of the top four teams in possession rate, only Liverpool was in the top five for goal differential while trailing. Can Everton avoid attacking sterility (and prevent counterattacks) when the game states change a bit? We don't know that they can't, but they haven't had to prove it either way just yet.
- We also don't know, obviously, how well Rodriguez will manage to stay on the field. He has battled plenty of injury issues through the years -- knee ligaments, muscle issues, a broken foot -- and hasn't played more than 26 league matches in a season since 2014-15. Again, that doesn't mean he can't play 30+ matches, but it's hard to count on it at this stage.
Unknowns will always outweigh "knowns" when you're only 8% of the way through a league season. But we can say that these three Everton wins have not been fool's gold. Their xG differential of +1.74 is behind only Liverpool's (+1.97) and far ahead of everyone else's (Leicester City is in third place at +1.25).
With four of the league's six richest clubs all slow out of the gates -- Manchester City and Manchester United have each lost one of two matches, and Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea each have a win, loss and draw in their first three -- the Toffees have a chance to stockpile some points and keep themselves in the Champions League race for quite a while. Maybe even until April 12 or later.