BY MARK GODFREY
A cursory glance at the embryonic Barclays Premier League table sees Everton – last season’s fifth place Champions League place contenders – wallowing in the basement area after a less than stellar beginning to the 2014/15 campaign. Just like last year, when the Blues opened up with three consecutive draws, Roberto Martinez and his side have failed to register a victory in their first three fixtures before the first international break.
Unlike the beginning to his first season in charge at Goodison Park, the Spaniard’s philosophy of passing opponents to death – which made for a couple of fairly sterile encounters against Cardiff City and West Bromwich Albion – has been replaced by a more cavalier, attacking approach which was more indicative of the style of play we saw as the year progressed and had many observers labelling Everton as one of the best teams to watch in the division.
The biggest drawback of this, of course, is that when you succumb to the gung-ho philosophy you almost always sacrifice a solid, thrifty defence; something that Martinez rightly and patiently built upon 12 months ago.
This season has looked very different to this point – something that was very apparent even in the disappointing pre-season prep games. I wouldn’t be the first Evertonian to comment on the squad’s very visible lack of fitness which, if we’re honest, certainly spilled over into the first two league games when the team blatantly wilted in the latter stages at the King Power Stadium against Leicester City and at home to Arsenal where six seemingly hard-earned points were surrendered in exchange for a barely satisfying two.
This fitness issue should not really be concerning, provided it is only a temporary one. It is also not surprising given the disruption to the season’s preparations due to the World Cup – Everton providing a decent number of tournament participants who all returned in different physical conditions and at a variety of schedules depending on the length of their stay in Brazil and their subsequent, much-needed rest periods. Everton certainly aren’t the first team to suffer from a World Cup hangover and won’t be the last.
And what about the transfer business? Most applauded Martinez for his late, late transfer business last August when he loaned Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku (two of this year’s permament acquisitions) and this time around he has tried to avoid the crazy stampede of transfer deadline day to also add defensive midfielder Mohammed Besic, winger Christian Atsu on loan from Chelsea and the astute free addition of an ageing, but still capable, Samuel Eto’o up front. Thankfully, in my eyes at least and probably in those of the majority of Everton fans, the club dodged a bullet by not signing Tom Cleverley from Manchester United, who really would be joining us to purely ‘make up the numbers’ and would not add anything of value to a relatively well-balanced squad. I think most still believe that another top-class central defender should have been the priority this summer even before some of the defensive frailties were exposed in the first three games, but if that player was not available for the right price, Martinez simply cannot magic one out of thin air. But certainly, as Phil Jagielka (32) and Sylvain Distin (36) continue to battle with the ravages of time, someone who will be the rock to partner the more flamboyant John Stones in the coming years at the heart of Everton’s back four must be identified and recruited as a matter of urgency.
Looking back at the games, Leicester City’s graft probably just about deserved a point, but the Toffees played the more attractive and incisive football without supplying the final knockout blow before wilting after about an hour of play.
The home game with Arsenal was a real kick in the teeth, as for 45 minutes, Martinez got his tactics spot on and his players carried them out to great effect; nullifying the Gunners’ threats to aimless, harmless possession whilst expertly picking them off on the counter-attack and getting a two goal cushion by half time. The second half was a very different story, however. Everton fell into the old David Moyes trap of sitting too far back against a team not blessed with ample pace up front and allowing them to creep further up the pitch and play with the ball in and around the Everton area. Once the first goal came, the equaliser was inevitable.
The madness of the Chelsea game was just that; madness.
Two down at home to likely title challengers inside the opening five minutes is an insurmountable hurdle for any side to traverse, let alone one that was as hell bent on self-annihilation as Everton were on Saturday evening. Appalling individual errors by the usually reliable Jagielka (and others) and a collective wishy-washy, stand-offish defensive game let Jose Mourinho’s men capitalise at almost every opportunity and at will. What was so galling, and perversely so promising at the same time, was that, for all the inability to see off Chelsea’s attacks, Everton could have actually got something from the game; such was their dominance of possession and territory throughout large spells of the 90 minutes. Such a game – in my view at least – and the way in which both teams (I include Chelsea in this as they were also uncharacteristically slack at the back) took to the field that day is not indicative of how things will go after the internationals and can probably be dismissed as a one-off aberration.
Just as last season’s first break gave Martinez a couple of weeks to assess where he needed to implement changes to make his side more of a penetrative force, it must be hoped that this year will see him rein in his attacking instincts to a certain degree to achieve a better balance. And although a great number of his squad will be absent from Finch Farm on international duty for 10 days, when they return – injuries permitting – fitness levels should be restored to 100% rather than at the 80-90% level they’ve seemingly been running at so far. It’s a long hard season of domestic and European football ahead for the Blues, a little undercooking up to this point won’t have been fatal, burn out come March very well could be.
One or two of the players must also turn around a disappointing start to help the team climb the table – which no doubt they will. Lukaku is patently not fit and is carrying an injury. It’s not harsh to say that Everton overpaid for the big Belgian striker and like so many of his size and type, he can look ungainly, lazy, languid and clumsy when not operating at the peak of his capability, but once he does hit that mark he will be devastating given the right ammunition. We just have to be patient.
Barry and McCarthy’s partnership as the impenetrable shield in front of the centre-backs has yet to perform as well as last year in my opinion. The Irishman in particular has looked edgy on several occasions. He had a very promising first campaign for the Blues (although I believe many went overboard about exactly how good) and while I am a big fan of his going back to when I saw him play for Hamilton Academical and more impressively at Wigan, I think the pressure is on for him to step up another level this year.
Despite the Chelsea debacle, the central defensive partnership will come good again – Jagielka and Distin are capable of some real ricks, but as a pairing, there aren’t many better or more consistent in the Premier League.
Amongst the early season disappointments there has been one particular highlight that must be praised. That, of course, has been the form of new Goodison hero Steven Naismith. Virtually laughed out of the club after his first season following his move from the disaster of Rangers’ demise, the Scottish forward has been nothing but inspirational – on and off the pitch. So much so that once fit, England’s bright young hope Ross Barkley will have to fight tooth and nail to get his place in the starting XI back.
As I trudged out of Goodison Park on Saturday night – still shell shocked at the carnage I’d just witnessed – I overheard someone say that we were just a point worse off than at the same stage last year. I prefer to look at it that we are five points in arrears when comparing fixtures like-for-like against last season. I’m sure that Roberto Martinez won’t be losing too much sleep over this deficit and he will be working on ways to alter the team’s performances sufficiently to start piling up the points and creeping towards the top of the table, just as he did 12 months ago. As the old cliché goes; it’s a marathon not a sprint.