Everton have a very talented squad, a well versed manager, and all the tools they need to break into the FAWSL elite. What they lack is a mental edge, and it showed in their fifth-place finish this year.
The team started the season strong, with four wins out of the gate. Their fifth match was against Brighton and ended in a 2-2 draw. It was a match that they should have won based on their performance, and their chances.
Still, they were unbeaten going into their next match: away at Chelsea.
At that point in the season, Chelsea was going into the match with the exact same results as Everton, four wins, and one draw. Yet, as soon as the first whistle was blown, the hosts were all over Everton on the pitch, and the dominant and defiant Everton that had played the first five matches of the season were nowhere to be found.
Chelsea scored within the first 20 minutes, and the score remained 1-0 at halftime. Everton had a few chances to equalize but failed to capitalize. The story of the second half was similar; Chelsea were not necessarily defending well, but their opponents had little composure in front of the goal. Eventually, three late goals gave Chelsea the 4-0 win.
“I thought our performance was really good,” said Everton manager Willie Kirk. “Nobody can convince me that’s a 4-0 performance. It’s a bump in the road but a very sore one.”
Things after that Chelsea match did not improve, with only one win in their next seven matches. For such a strong start at the beginning of the season, Everton ended up finishing the 22 match season with only nine wins. After their seventh loss of the season, a 2-1 defeat against Arsenal, Blues midfielder, Izzy Christiansen, spoke about the team’s mental state throughout the season. The defeat came after a 94th minute penalty from Arsenal’s Kim Little.
“We just have to overcome that fear that we have against these bigger teams sometimes, it is that boundary between being good and being great,” said Christiansen, who ended the season as Everton’s top scorer with seven goals in all competitions. “We showed a lot of grit and bite today that we haven’t necessarily shown in previous games against top-three teams. I am proud of the team for that and we were really unlucky to concede the penalty, but it is a learning curve for us.”
The problem was that there were no clear signs of an easy solution. The tactics by Kirk seemed appropriate, and the players were playing well as a team for the most part. Instead, the loss of points almost always came down to lapses’ in concentration for Everton: unnecessarily penalties conceded, poor defensive decision making, and an inability to score in crucial moments despite creating big chances for themselves.
After the Arsenal match, Everton had a chance to rectify their mistake by playing another top team in Manchester United for their last game of the season.
United, despite being in poor forms themselves, won the match 2-0, with Ella Toone scoring an early volley in the 8th minute, and Kirsty Hanson scoring a late one in the 89th minute.
Jill Scott, who is one of Everton’s most experienced players and is on loan from Manchester City discussed her team’s frame of mind during the match.
“We’re disappointed with the result. We probably didn’t start the game at our best. If you go 1-0 down, you give yourself a bit of a mountain to climb,” she said. “We just got a little bit desperate at the end, the game became too open and we were always chasing that win.”
Kirk also talked about making a push for a Champions League spot next season after the match.
“There’s an evident gap between us and the top four. We need to make changes. We need to change our working practices. We need to continue to work at the culture. There’s got to be a little bit more of a killer instinct,” he said. “As a team, I feel we’re on a cliff edge and it’s about the ones who are brave enough to jump and have a bit of faith. When you jump, there’s going to be a nice landing. Those who don’t jump, they can’t be here because we need to find a way of jumping into something positive. It’s about taking those ones with us who are brave enough and making sure we are competing for Champions League spots next season.”
“As a team, I feel we’re on a cliff edge and it’s about the ones who are brave enough to jump and have a bit of faith. When you jump, there’s going to be a nice landing."@WillieKirk 👊— Everton Women (@EvertonWomen) May 10, 2021
“As a team, I feel we’re on a cliff edge and it’s about the ones who are brave enough to jump and have a bit of faith. When you jump, there’s going to be a nice landing."@WillieKirk 👊
There is no overnight solution for combating the problem that Everton have. But if the club wants to break into the FAWSL elite, the players and the coaching staff need to work together to instill a tougher mentality against the teams above them in the table. You can’t join the elite until you believe you belong there, and Everton has reasons to believe they do.