BY MARK GODFREY
We are a third of the way through the Premier League of 2015/16 already, so it seems as good a time as any to evaluate that greatest of football imponderables – Everton. How have the Toffees done and what can we expect to see from them going into the crucial winter slog?
Up front I’m going to declare that I was one of those people who clamoured for Roberto Martinez’ head last season. Does that make me one of those intolerably excitable kneejerk types? Possibly, but plenty of managers have been given the shove at all levels of professional football – never mind the Premier League – for presiding over the type of dross that was served up by Everton during the 2014/15 campaign.
There are plenty of excuses for this, I suppose; a lack of funding from a board of directors that split public opinion, too much reliance on a relatively small and ageing squad, a gruelling Europa League schedule and associated long distance travel added to the fixture list and, after the ‘success’ of Martinez’ first season in charge when Everton dazzled everyone with the style they showed to finish within a hair’s breadth of a Champions League qualifying place, opponents suddenly raised their game by an extra notch when they faced the Blues. However valid some of these points may be in mitigation though, they still allow Martinez and his players to wriggle off the hook too easily for some utterly abject performances.
Barring some laudable displays in Europe, and there were plenty before falling to a superior Dinamo Kiev in the knockout stages, the team chucked in some absolute shockers, but then, so did the boss himself. An almost religiously fanatical adherence to obviously flawed team selections and tactics blighted progress throughout and saw the team eliminated at the first hurdle of both domestic cup competitions for the first time in the club’s history and, during the middle third of the season, they slipped perilously close to the finger-gnawing desperation of the relegation dog fight. Quite frankly, Everton were THE worst team I saw during those desperate winter months, yet, in reality, Martinez’ job was always safe; only relegation would have jeopardised his position. Bill Kenwright is nothing if not loyal to his manager – just ask David Moyes. Also, dismissing the former Wigan boss would have resulted in a huge loss of face (remember that press conference when Martinez first arrived and the Champions League boast?) for the man who is coming under increasing fire from a sizable section of supporters for not relinquishing control to someone richer and more strategic minded.
Getting swiftly away from the nest of vipers that are those boardroom concerns, for this article and this writer wishes not to get into that here, the one thing I resolved to do at the start of this year was to grant Martinez a clean slate and put last year down to the “difficult second season syndrome”. I’ve supported Everton for a hell of a long time, and acknowledge that I can be just as bipolar as the rest when it comes to expectation; perhaps I should learn to be more forgiving. After all, there are still a lot of very good players on Everton’s books and plenty of promising youth coming through who should, with the right guidance, slowly mature into quality first teamers. Add to that, that with a full summer’s rest behind them, the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley would be refreshed and raring to justify the hype that constantly surrounds them. In typical Everton fashion though, the optimism bubble was promptly pricked at Goodison on the opening day when newly-promoted (and superbly well organised) Watford showed Martinez’ side up to be pedestrian and unimaginative. It seemed like nothing had changed – the unlikely salvation that day came from previous figure of fun, Arouna Kone (one of the revelations of the season to date), which in itself showed the others up for their fluffing of lines.
The 2-2 draw may have been something of an escape, but most Evertonians were prepared to be patient given the absurdly difficult hand dealt by the fabled fixture computer; all of last season’s top eight finishers were scheduled for the first ten games. The end result could have gone one of three ways: 1) By exceeding all expectations and getting one over on Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and Spurs, and sitting slap bang amongst the early pacesetters. 2) A continuation of last season’s dismal form seeing the team languishing with the apparent dead men of Villa Park and the Stadium of Light. 3) The odd win, the odd draw, the odd loss. Fair to middling.
What transpired was the latter; par for the course. Not too bad. Satisfactory. B+.
The vibrant dismantling of the champions Chelsea was neutralised by the woefully flat display against Manchester United on the awfully sad day we lost Howard Kendall. The hard fought point at Tottenham was as valuable as the missed opportunity at Swansea was lamentable. Exhilarating wins at Southampton and West Brom balanced by limp losses to Manchester City and Arsenal. And still no win against Liverpool in the derby. Par for the course, indeed.
So what next? Well, on paper at least, the remainder of the calendar year looks less troublesome. We’ve already witnessed Everton comprehensively dismantle Sunderland and Aston Villa in the Premier League and reach the quarter-finals of the League Cup – a competition that traditionally spits them out in its early exchanges.
Importantly, Martinez has learned one or two sobering lessons about flexibility and adaptability in team selection and approach to games. He does seem willing, when necessary, to abandon his principles and mix it up. Predictability and arrogance were Everton’s – and the manager’s – greatest foes.
Just as key to what has transpired in recent games is that the team’s key men – John Stones, Gerard Deulofeu, Ross Barkley, Romelu Lukaku and the much maligned Gareth Barry – have all started to shine simultaneously, meaning the side has suddenly looked more dynamic and incisive from any area of the pitch, thus posing a plethora of defensive quandaries for any side to fathom. Yet, it is at the back where the weakness still manifests itself; Everton have conceded the first goal in 10 of their 16 league and cup games so far, and if that trend remains unchecked, any hopes of cup success or European qualification will be scuppered.
And while at one end of the pitch the physically brutish Lukaku has suddenly morphed from a timid gentle giant who couldn’t trap a bag of sand to a potent, bruising hitman, the once consistent Tim Howard has become wildly erratic and apparently full of holes, but as long as the elegant and impressive Stones continues in the best form of his young life, solidity and dependability can’t be viewed as the unobtainable dream of Martinez’ possession-driven attacking philosophy.
Everton must aim high in the coming weeks; there is potential for a cup semi-final and then the distinct possibility of the club’s first trip to Wembley since 2009. In the Premier League, they will be hoping to remain unbeaten for as long as their current form can be sustained against potentially inferior opposition.
One thing to mention is that this year – just like in Martinez’ first in charge when they amassed the record number of league points never to have qualified for a top four Champions League spot – Everton have already lucked out. Have we ever seen the top half of the “world’s best league” be so competitive? I would venture not. We have the crazy situation of Leicester City topping the table at the same late stage of the year as we’re hearing the annual overload of Slade and Wizzard on the radio and cut-price Christmas crackers on sale in the shops.
West Ham, Southampton, Stoke and Crystal Palace are all holding their own and looking strong and consistent while all of the usual suspects – except the comically off key Chelsea – are sniffing around the top four as expected.
So, for Everton to propel themselves up the table and into contention, they must make hay while the sun shines in games on the road against the likes of Bournemouth, Newcastle and Norwich and match the new found intensity of Palace and Leicester when both come to steal the points away from Goodison. It was in these games against the ‘also-rans’ where Everton really struggled last season, a trait that contributed greatly to the frustration and disillusionment that many fans, including myself, carried with them into this.
Although the outcome of the next six games won’t make or break the season for Everton, it will provide a useful thermometer to gage exactly how fiery or tepid Roberto Martinez’ managerial skills really are and whether or not it will be just another wasted campaign for an undoubtedly talented crop of players.