BY MARK GODFREY
It was at this exact time last year, after their dismal FA Cup quarter-final exit to Wigan Athletic, that Evertonians were left contemplating what could have been as Wembley beckoned, and probably convinced David Moyes that his time at Goodison Park was up.
Then, as now, the club’s long-suffering faithful – desperate for the silverware that has eluded the Toffees for yet another season – have begun the post-mortem into yet another FA Cup opportunity missed.
Barely minutes after the final whistle at the Emirates, Blues’ fans took to social media to express their disappointment at the defeat to Arsenal by the misleading scoreline of 4-1. The vociferous ‘Kenwright out’ brigade, who have campaigned for several years to convince the theatre impresario to sell up to anyone with a bigger wallet then him, have been relatively quiet this season; muzzled to a great extent by the blossoming positivity on the pitch and in the stands at Goodison Park under Roberto Martinez in his first campaign in the hot seat.
While the underlying ownership and financial issues are just as relevant now as they ever were, Bill Kenwright is not the sole reason for Everton’s defeat on Saturday. In truth, this was a game that was there for the taking. Arsenal were there for the taking – especially at half time with the score at 1-1. Conversely, this is probably where the tie was also lost.
Martinez has given the fans very little to complain about this year. His side, with some astute additions, has evolved from the solid base left behind by his predecessor. Under the Spaniard, Everton have changed their modus operandi from that of a solid, difficult to beat, combative group to that of an attractive, possession-obsessed and more tactically-aware outfit. In the main, the changes have worked and have been received with gusto by Evertonians.
Unfortunately, at the Emirates on Saturday, something went awry.
Perhaps, after a heavy month for the players where they’ve played well but suffered narrow defeats at Chelsea and Tottenham, this heavyweight encounter was a bridge too far; the disruption to Everton’s game plans caused by a steady stream of injuries to key players since Christmas. We repeatedly hear of Everton’s lack of depth in their squad, but what the squad is actually bereft of is not depth, but star quality. And we are only talking one or two players capable of winning the game with a moment of magic.
I can already hear you cry “What about Mirallas, Barkley, Lukaku and Deulofeu?” to which I would agree – to a point. But, to succeed in these days of the filthy rich and their mega-squads, you need Suarez, Hazard, Ozil or Aguero.
Or, a damn good game plan. And, this is where Everton missed a trick.
Saturday’s opponents were not the Arsenal of the opening three months of the season when anything seemed possible for them. This was an Arsenal clinging to the FA Cup as their only realistic chance to end their 9 year trophy drought like a shipwrecked mariner clutching onto passing driftwood in choppy seas. Everton, with stronger and more ruthless tactics, could have sent the Gunners’ season to a watery grave.
One shouldn’t forget the way Martinez’s team played at the Emirates in December when the overwhelming majority of observers, including Arsenal fans themselves, agreed that the visitors out thought and outplayed their hosts. On that day, Martinez employed a high defensive line, a quick tempo passing game and, when in the rare instances they were without possession, they hustled and harried the usually serene Arsenal midfield until they were at their wits end. The result was a game played largely in the opposition half against an opponent not used to having such pressure applied on home soil. Back then, the Arsenal were confident enough in themselves to handle it. On current form, can the same have been said had Martinez employed the same set of instructions?
Perversely, Everton were sent out on Saturday with a very different mindset. The back four rarely left the confines of their defensive third while the midfield, so often praised for their ability to harass opponents into mistakes, barely laid a glove on their counterparts in red and white, preferring to stand off them than employ a more usual toe-to-toe approach.
Having edged their way back into the game before half time, Martinez had Arsenal where he wanted them – with Munich on their minds, the elusive Premier League title wandering off into the mid-distance and a feeling of unease beginning to seep from the stands to the playing surface.
In normal circumstances, Roberto would have gone for the throat, but strangely, Everton continued to sit back even further and invite Wenger’s men onto them, unable to counter with anything sustained or threatening. This hesitancy could actually have paid off had Ross Barkley not spurned that golden opportunity to put Everton in the lead and given the Blues something to protect. But faint heart never won fair maiden as they say, and the caution displayed by Martinez throughout the 90 minutes meant that Everton were never going to get another chance as good as young Barkley’s. Arsenal’s self-belief grew, buoyed by that let-off and from then on, there seemed there would be only one winner – however flattering the result was in the end.
Also baffling were Martinez’s uncharacteristically indecisive substitutions; the prime example being the belated introduction of Gerard Deulofeu – who hit the headlines with his goalscoring cameo when the two sides met in December. He was left sitting on the bench (stripped and ready for action) for five minutes while the game was still finely balanced at 2-1 and didn’t appear until the 84th minute when Everton were 3-1 down and all was lost.
In a season of relative highs and optimism, the loss to Arsenal felt like a disappointing return to the days of Moyes’ habitual capitulation when the limelight was shone in Everton’s direction. It is now Martinez’s task not to allow the season, which promised so much around the turn of the year, to peter out tamely, especially with Europa League qualification still up for grabs. His greatest challenge to date lies ahead in the summer when he must play the transfer window loan market (safely assuming Kenwright will still be ensconced penniless in his ivory tower) to build on the development of his first campaign and elevate the Blues into a position where they can finally end the 19 year wait for that open-top bus parade.