CREDIT Mick McCarthy, because the plain-speaking Wolves boss is nothing if not honest.
His side’s visit to Goodison Park back in August was a sobering experience for Everton supporters dreaming of a potential top four season.
But the approach of Wolves that day was to become all too familiar for David Moyes and his team that had been heaped with praise – but were suddenly stumped by their new regard as Premier League big boys.
After a game that saw Adlene Guedioura’s ferocious challenge on John Heitinga become a talking point, McCarthy said: “We were hopeless in the first-half – abject. It’s my responsibility because I was trying to stop Everton playing and I was fiddling around with the team.”
Since then, various opponents have arrived on Merseyside more concerned with stopping Everton, defending resolutely and grabbing a point.
It has made for grim-viewing at the School of Science and, says Leon Osman, posed a puzzle which the Toffees struggled to solve for too long.
“The way we did finish last season was terrific,” he said.
“We lost two games in 24 and played well. The performances were good and confidence was high.
“Then, with the World Cup, we didn’t have the best preparation as a team. We got people back in bits and bobs and you go into the season, and haven’t seen some players in a long time.
“But the real problem was that with the expectation and buzz that Everton could possibly do something this season, teams started to turn up and sit in and defend.
“They want to defend and try and nick a goal, rather than make a game of it. That’s something the better teams have to contend with week in, week out. Man United get it when teams go to Old Trafford.
“But it was something new to us at the start of the season, teams just not wanting to lose.
“It shows the progression of our team, but we didn’t learn to deal with it quickly enough. We weren’t getting beaten but we were drawing too much. We’ve had 14 draws this season. We just couldn’t quite break 11 men behind the ball down.”
Fortunately for their prospects in the campaign’s run-in, Osman believes the Blues have adapted. And the midfielder who has sparkled lately, scoring a fine goal against Aston Villa last weekend, insists the Blues will be up to the challenge when they take on McCarthy’s men again tomorrow – even if Wolves are determined to scrap it out.
“We’ve always found going away from home easier, when the onus is on the opposition and we can roll with the punches and have a go at them,” he said.
“The onus will be on Wolves, and they’re near the bottom so they need the points as well. They could decide to come out and go for it, or be cagey and not get beaten.”
Now in seventh place and hot on the heels of Liverpool, Osman can’t quite put his finger on what has changed.
“I don’t think we’re doing anything differently,” he said.
“The whole of the season, the way we’ve set up has been right. We’ve felt mentally correct but it just wasn’t happening. We were either playing well but not managing to get our shots of or just struggling in the final third. We had been used to going into games where the opposition tried to win. But teams parking the bus was a puzzle.”
Osman believes that the recent discontent in the blue half of the city at this season’s slump only highlights the high standards under Moyes.
“We’ve had a poor season by our standards, and Bolton have had an unbelievable season – according to everyone, there’s has been great, and we’re above them in the league,” he said.
“It’s all about perceptions. We’re seventh now and pushing up but people say we’ve not had a good season, and that’s because of our standards.”
The 29-year-old was delighted with his elegant opener against Villa, but with a back catalogue of silky finishes in the archives, isn’t sure where it sits in his all time greats.
“The Larissa goal would probably be my favourite,” he said.
“It’s very rare I strike them like that. I hit it sweetly with my right foot after a terrific move from us. I got one against Sunderland here when I beat a few people, too. I did have a DVD of all my goals that I did for my mum. She wanted a record of them all, so I got the I.T. guys to run me up a copy and she’s still got it but I don’t sit in hers and watch!
“I’m enjoying my football at the moment. I’m full of confidence, feel in control, and I know what I’m going to do when I get the ball.
“We know how we’re playing, and everyone out there is giving it 110%.”