When Everton were top of the Premier League at the start of October, manager Carlo Ancelotti said the bubble would burst eventually.
But after his team suffered a fourth defeat in five games, the Italian might wonder why that drop-off in performances seems to be having such a lasting effect.
The 1-0 loss to Marcelo Bielsa’s thrilling Leeds on Saturday underlined many of Everton’s defensive frailties, and gave a glimpse of an opponent with a clear identity.
Both problems are ones Ancelotti has diagnosed at Everton, but is yet to fix.
The Italian can point to injuries to key players – full-backs Lucas Digne and Seamus Coleman among them – and a recent suspension to forward Richarlison, during which Everton lost three successive games.
Unlike Bielsa, who has been at Leeds for almost two and a half years, the Everton manager has not yet been at Goodison Park for 12 months, having been appointed on 21 December last year.
Yet, while there have been clear successes – including top scorer Dominic Calvert-Lewin, playmaker James Rodriguez and midfielder Allan – his team have been wracked by inconsistencies which are threatening to spoil the return of fans to Goodison early next month.
Having watched on television as the Toffees started the season by going five league games unbeaten, supporters must hope Everton’s best form is not behind them.
Despite his team’s shortcomings, Ancelotti insists that they are on the right track. They have slipped to sixth in the table, but most fans would probably accept that after 10 games.
“I think we are heading in the right direction,” he said. “It’s true we were not able to repeat the start of the season.
“We lost some players but that doesn’t mean we are not in the right direction. What we are doing at this moment is not enough and every one of us has to put in a little bit more in terms of character, personality, spirit and sacrifice to come back to add more consistency to the results.”
Everton did not perform badly against Leeds, yet the way the visitors play as a cohesive unit shows there is still much work to be done on the training pitch, which Ancelotti often uses as a “judge” for who he selects for his team.
Has Calvert-Lewin’s success in front of goal and the way Rodriguez can slice through a defence with his clever passing masked some of the problems the team is still struggling with?
Without Richarlison, Everton lack pace in midfield to support their frontman, and several teams have worked out that there is an easy route to goal behind Rodriguez on the right of Everton’s midfield.
Jordan Pickford has had a mixed season in goal – though he played well against Leeds, making two remarkable first-half saves to deny Patrick Bamford and Raphinha.
But his uncertainty seems to unsettle the defence in front of him at times. Yerry Mina has been indifferent, Ben Godfrey is still settling into a new team after his £25m transfer from Norwich last month and Mason Holgate, while impressive, is still learning his trade at the age of 24.
The injuries to Coleman and Digne have led to Ancelotti experimenting with a back three, but with midfielders Alex Iwobi and Tom Davies filling in as wing-backs there are likely to be further adjustments made in the coming weeks.
And despite positive starts for Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure, Everton might be one midfielder short to supply the front trio of Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin and Rodriguez. After a solid start to the season, Andre Gomes appears to have fallen out of favour.
Ancelotti admits it is a “difficult period” for his team. They face a trip to Burnley next Saturday, where they will hope they can bounce back against a team with only one win this season.
Everton will then welcome the return of 2,000 fans to Goodison Park when they host Ancelotti’s former club Chelsea, who are flying high under Frank Lampard.
Coincidentally, the last match Toffees supporters watched in person was a 4-0 thumping at Stamford Bridge in March.
Ancelotti will hope he can show the watching faithful that, at the very least, Everton have improved on that display.
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