ON A night when Southampton’s new Argentinean manager was the one expected to have language problems, it was David Moyes who was left speechless.
Mauricio Pochettino might not yet be fluent, but Everton were certainly not as the Blues registered their most lifeless, abject 45 minute spell of the season.
The only real positive they took from a freezing St Mary’s was the solitary point which kept them within touching distance of fourth-placed Spurs.
On this evidence though, the Blues must address some worrying problems before they can even begin to realistically harbour hopes of the Champions League.
With their formerly prolific target man Nikica Jelavic still struggling for form, and an oddly anonymous midfield display, the need for strengthening in this month’s transfer window remains urgent – with the chances of it actually happening uncertain.
Granted Everton were better in the second half, but in truth they could hardly have been much worse. Kevin Mirallas’ reappearance offered a further element of hope, but the challenge for the much-missed forward now is remaining fit for the rest of the campaign.
Any suggestions that the tumultuous turnaround in the home dug-out prior to this game would adversely affect Southampton were swiftly dismissed as the hosts played less like sulking Nigel Adkins loyalists, and more like men eager to impress their new manager.
Everton were quickly on the back foot. Minutes after the first whistle, Ricky Lambert sent a dangerous looking cross into the penalty area and Phil Jagielka’s sliced clearance was inches from sneaking into the corner of his own goal.
Then the Blues were almost punished for their subdued start moments later when Jason Puncheon latched onto Seamus Coleman’s wayward pass and drilled a low effort at goal which was deflected narrowly wide by Sylvain Distin.
The visitors’ indifferent opening continued though, as Southampton showed more zest and went close once again when Gaston Ramirez unleashed a fearsome strike from 20 yards which led to yet another corner for his side.
Everton probed rather feebly in response but their rear-guard was quickly called back into action when Tim Howard made a magnificent save from Lambert’s 30-yard free kick which seemed destined for the top corner of his goal. The Scouser was on rampant form but fortunately brought the best out of Howard, as the American matched him five minutes later with another good stop after a pacy counter attack from the Saints, which saw the Liverpool-supporting striker glide artfully past Leighton Baines.
The woefulness continued, unabated, with Everton fortunate to somehow still be in the game by the break. In a season of so many highs, it was a first half reminiscent of other off-days such as Reading and West Brom. No wonder January 21 is often labelled the most depressing day of the year.
Thankfully, and presumably after a lively reprimand from Moyes, the Blues looked sharper in the opening stages after the interval with the previously quiet Leon Osman slipping a defence-splitting pass to Coleman whose cross to the far post was met by Marouane Fellaini only for his header to be comfortably saved.
Everton’s woes continued when Coleman injured himself trying to block Luke Shaw’s cross and the full-back had to be replaced by Victor Anichebe, a change which saw Fellaini moved back into central midfield and Phil Neville, celebrating his 36th birthday, revert to right-back.
Anichebe’s introduction coincided with a further improved spell from the Toffees as the Nigerian did well to set-up Jelavic for the type of first-time chance he once disdainfully dispatched. In keeping with the hapless tone of the evening, the Croatian miskicked as he attempted to side-foot it home.
With just one goal in his last 12 Premier League appearances, second season syndrome continues to drain the zest out of the formerly lethal predator, but nonetheless it was still a surprise to see him replaced so early with Kevin Mirallas, a player who had not featured since the start of December.
The Belgian has a habit of making things happen though, and quickly wriggled past his marker to register an effort at goal for his side.
As the clock ticked down optimists among the hardy band of 2,427 travelling supporters may even have sensed an unlikely smash and grab. No such luck.
Although Mirallas remained a threat, Everton relied too heavily on lumping long balls from the back and succeeding only in losing possession.
Four minutes added time was a sadistic necessity. Whatever Malaise affected them on the South coast, Everton need to get it out of their system fast.
When the awfulness of the first half has faded some perspective will help, Moyes’ men remain in fifth place and still have much to play for. But suitably a contest which was best enlivened by a comedic mid-game toilet break for Saints forward Jason Puncheon truly was a stinker.
SOUTHAMPTON (4-5-1): Boruc, Shaw, Yoshida, Schneiderlin, Clyne, Ramirez (S Davis, 71), Cork, Do Prado (Rodriguez, 62), Puncheon (De Ridder, 87) Hooiveld, Lambert (Capt).
Subs not used: Davis, Fox, Richardson, Chaplow.
Bookings: Hooiveld, Schneiderlin
EVERTON (4-4-1-1): Howard, Coleman (Anichebe, 57) Distin, Jagielka, Baines, Neville (Capt), Osman, Naismith, Pienaar, Fellaini, Jelavic (Mirallas, 66).
Subs not used: Mucha, Heitinga, Oviedo, Hitzlsperger, Duffy.
REFEREE: Neil Swarbrick.
NEXT GAME: Bolton v Everton, FA Cup fourth round, Saturday 3pm.