Yet on the first day of 2018, Sam Allardyce, the club’s freshly installed manager, sent his team out not to stand toe-to-toe with Manchester United, but simply to stand firm: to absorb pressure and cling on.
“Our attacking powers are limited,” Allardyce explained afterward. “I knew that before I arrived. If we can keep a clean sheet, then we know that one goal can get us a win. Our ratio of chances created is very limited.”
He is right, of course: Most Everton fans would accept that his team does not have the offensive firepower to match Manchester United. His employers certainly would — that is why Everton is preparing to spend $33 million on the Turkish striker Cenk Tosun. Allardyce’s attacking options are limited, a situation exacerbated by a grueling schedule of four games in ten days over the festive period. He was simply playing the hand he had been dealt.
In this instance, it was not enough. Though Everton crackled sporadically into life after Anthony Martial gave United the lead, it did not muster a shot on target for the second home game in a row. The resistance lasted only until Jesse Lingard artfully sealed a 2-0 victory for the visitors in the 81st minute.
But what is most significant about Allardyce’s approach is that it is not a one-off, a measure he is employing for his specific circumstances. It is a very clear trend. Newcastle United provided perhaps the most obvious case study against Manchester City — the Premier League’s runaway leader — on Wednesday.
From the kickoff, Newcastle midfielder Jonjo Shelvey took a shot from inside his own half that was easily fielded by City’s goalkeeper. As the ball was in the air, Shelvey’s teammates retreated a few feet, and then prepared for an evening in the trenches.
As Gary Neville, commentating that night, said, Newcastle “did not want to get involved” with trying to assert itself against Manager Pep Guardiola’s team. Instead, Newcastle Manager Rafael Benítez opted for what could be described at best as containment, and at worst as appeasement.
As with Everton, a kind eye might suggest it nearly worked — Newcastle gave up just one goal and was in the game until the end, unlike many of City’s victims this season. A less generous interpretation would point out that Guardiola’s team missed a raft of chances, and easily could have been ahead by 2 or 3 at half time.
More extreme still was Stoke City’s approach at Chelsea on Saturday. Mark Hughes, Stoke’s manager, sent out a drastically weakened team at Stamford Bridge with the aim of saving his best side for Monday’s meeting with Newcastle, a direct rival in the battle to avoid relegation. (The ploy failed twice: Stoke was beaten 5-0 by Chelsea, and then went and lost to Newcastle anyway.)
This is not to single out Hughes, Allardyce and Benitez: This has been the defining characteristic of this Premier League season. When the vast majority of the division’s lesser lights face one of its more illustrious members, they first cede possession, then initiative, and finally agency.
Occasionally, even the elite succumb to the temptation, as United and José Mourinho did when confronted with Guardiola and City last month.
It would be misleading to suggest any of this is new. A joke used to make the rounds at Anfield, when Liverpool was England’s pre-eminent team. “For those of you watching in black and white,” it went, “Liverpool is the team with the ball.” The set-up dates it to the days when television was not yet in color. It has always been this way: The best teams monopolize possession, which means their opponents have always focused on damage limitation.
And sometimes, like Stoke did, they have decided that the gap is simply too wide to bridge, and have left their fate in the hands of fortune. In 2009, when Manchester United was the league’s dominant force, Mick McCarthy, then the manager of Wolves, made 10 changes to his team for a game at Old Trafford. His decision forced the Premier League to alter its rules regarding the fielding of weakened teams.
The difference lies in both the scale and the ramifications of the problem. The Premier League has long sold itself as the most competitive league in the world, as a division where might does not make right, in which teams never know when they are beaten, where the emphasis is always on attacking.
That notion is central to the marketing that has made it such a fearsome, global success. The fans, of course, also play a crucial role, providing the sense of occasion that accompanies every game: the full stands, the echoing songs, the electric atmosphere.
Both, though, are threatened by the strain of thought made manifest by Stoke, Newcastle and Everton: The idea that all anyone outside the league’s Big Six —the Manchester clubs, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool — can hope to do when confronting them is endure.
In part, simplistic as it sounds, that is because there are six of them. When Manchester United — or the great Arsenal or Chelsea sides of earlier this century — “had opponents beaten in the tunnel,” as Hughes, a former United player, once said, only one or two teams inspired such fear. Now, with six, there are weekends when the majority of Premier League games follow the same pattern. That jeopardizes the uncertainty that has become the league’s calling card.
Just as important, it serves to muffle the fans. “It is hard for the crowd to engage,” Neville said of Newcastle’s supporters during the game against City. Goodison Park was quieter than usual, too, for much of United’s visit. Watching what amounts to a training exercise — one attack against one defense — offers precious little reason to cheer.
It is an issue that is often framed in moral terms, as though those managers who veer towards caution are in some way abrogating their sporting duty. The alternative, when faced with teams with vastly superior players and resources, remains unclear.
Besides, much more pressing is the more practical side of it. There may come a time when we feel we have all seen this game before, and will see it again. At that point, some may ask the question: Where is the thrill in watching?