If the spotlight was on a football problem only at Goodison Park this afternoon it would ignore Wayne Rooney and concentrate on the club he left behind. "We have a team capable of being in top four," said David Moyes yesterday, echoing the thoughts of Sir Alex Ferguson and many others about Everton. And so far? The worst start to a Premier League season since Moyes joined the club in 2002. They remain consistently contrary.
It is a little premature for obituaries but the contrast between pre-season expectations and reality justifies the restlessness around Everton ahead of Manchester United's visit. Already, Moyes's side have lost as many league games as they did in the final 24 matches of last season. They have not opened this badly since 1999?2000, when David Weir was a relative pup in a defence containing Dave Watson and Richard Gough, and, should they lose today, it will be the club's poorest start since the calamitous reign of Mike Walker in 1994?95. United at Goodison has had a restorative effect on Everton before. The alternative, however, may be a hasty revision of this season's ambitions.
Moyes admits: "I want to compete with United this year, that was my goal. It hasn't changed yet but I may have to change that depending on how the results go over the coming weeks and months. We have to show we are a good team. We don't want to be playing catch-up every year and we wanted to be right up there from the start. We have a team capable of being in the top four, undoubtedly. But if you look where we are now, you'd probably say that is unrealistic. If we are going to give ourselves too big a mountain to climb it won't be possible."
Slow starts are nothing new under Moyes, who has lost six of nine opening?day fixtures as Everton manager. The repeat pattern has raised questions over Everton's pre-season programme, which has included high-altitude sessions in Austria, training camps in the United States and, this summer, a brief tour of Australia. The first to ask those questions was Moyes.
"We have looked into everything and we have changed our training programme," he said. "This year we didn't train the players quite as hard as in the past. We went to Australia and took games very early where most teams would build up a fitness base. I tried to alter it as I've been doing this for eight years now. And in truth I thought it worked."
The weaknesses Moyes wanted to address this summer but lacked the finances to do so have come to the fore in defeats at Blackburn and Aston Villa, plus the home draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The lack of an outstanding striker and a player to provide the pace or width that Landon Donovan brought to the right of midfield last season has been exposed, and options are reduced for the United match with Louis Saha and Jack Rodwell injured. An emergency strike-force of two midfielders - Tim Cahill and Marouane Fellaini - is under consideration.
Some of Everton's problems are self-inflicted. The creative hub of Mikel Arteta, Cahill and Steven Pienaar have yet to impose themselves throughout a game while Moyes is still experimenting with his line-up, which has resulted in Rodwell playing on the right against Villa and no settled role so far for the composed John Heitinga. But the performance at Villa Park and in the first half against Wolves did encourage and have prevented frustration developing into despondency.
Arteta said: "We've had time during the international break to look at why we're not getting the points and although the first half against Blackburn wasn't good, we have dominated all the games and the play after that. All the stats are unbelievable, they are up there with the best in the Premier League, but we've conceded three goals from three mistakes and ended up with just one point.
"We are frustrated because we deserve much more, but I'd prefer to not get the points when we're playing well than playing really badly and not even getting close to them. We have to maintain the way we're playing because I honestly believe that, if we do, we'll end up winning most of our games. We just need to put the ball in the net." Speaking of which, it has not helped Everton's impotence in attack that Yakubu Ayegbeni is still out of condition 12 weeks after Nigeria's exit from the World Cup finals and at a time when Jermaine Beckford is finding his feet at the highest level.
Moyes said: "Yakubu is fit, now. He's not injured. He certainly couldn't complete a game at this moment but what Yak has is a goal in him. He could be involved in the squad against United."
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