BY MARK GODFREY
Everton’s disappointing goalless draw at home to West Bromwich Albion demonstrated very clearly that new manager, Roberto Martinez, has much work still to do to shake the players free of their David Moyes-era hangover. Just as last season’s improvement by the Toffees’ was blunted by their inability to turn dominant performances into victories, it seems already that the same problem is creeping into the reign of the Spaniard.
Martinez has set about changing the style of Everton’s performances, using ostensibly the same group of players the now-Manchester United manager left behind, and in both games to date in this campaign it has been evident that the Blues are trying retain possession, be less direct and be more patient. Against Norwich City on the opening day this new tactic worked to great effect. Everton were greedy with the ball playing some attractive, fast-flowing football yet they somehow failed to put the game at Carrow Road to bed, allowing the home side to take an undeserved point.
Yesterday, in Martinez’ first Premier League game at Goodison Park against West Brom, more evidence of last year’s foibles were clear. Everton have great difficulty breaking down sides whose sole intention is to play for a draw, and boy, did West Brom excel at that. Their formation and tactics were obvious from the first minute. If a team was ever formed in its manager’s own image then the Baggies’ dour performance was chiselled directly from their leader’s outlook. Ben Foster was trying to run the clock down as early as the fifth minute, so it’s still unclear how he injured himself when he never broke into anything more than a leisurely, languid lope around his penalty area. But enough about West Brom. Granted, they did defend superbly, whilst showing zero ambition to win the three points but it’s their lack of any fire power that would be ringing alarm bells for me if I supported them.
It is up to Everton to have the quality and guile to break down opposition intent on stifling their attacking moves, and yesterday, like so often over the last 12 months, they failed to produce. There was a lot of huffing and puffing from the likes of Seamus Coleman and Steven Pienaar. Teenage sensation, Ross Barkley, showed some nice touches and more indication that he could be about to blossom into the player that has been so hyped up around Merseyside for the last two or three years. Under Martinez, Barkley is likely to get the opportunity to grow and shine in the first team, where the previous manager’s tendency to strangle youth development would never have allowed it.
Countless words and column inches have been devoted to Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines in recent weeks as Moyes and Manchester United continue to attempt their shameless efforts to destabilise Everton’s star men. Baines showed no signs of the media intensity effecting his play yesterday as he went about his usual probing, darting and scurrying down Everton’s left flank. It was much less clear whether Fellaini’s head was in the right place for the game with West Brom. Martinez has already moved him back into a deeper, more defensive role during pre-season and the two league fixtures to date, negating the often devastating effects he had last season when playing just behind the central striker. At times during the West Brom game he was strolling, but that, so often, is the Fellaini way. However, if he is to truly convince anyone he is worthy of a £20million+ move to Old Trafford, it is games like this that he should be taking by the scruff of the neck and winning them on his own, and bar a late foray into the Baggies’ box where his low shot hit the post, he was largely a passenger. Bad day at the office or are his thoughts already drifting 35 miles east along the M62?
It can’t be said that Everton don’t possess creative and incisive weapons (N.B. Senor Martinez this does not include Steven Naismith) but they are still lacking a ruthlessness and it must be hoped that while changing to the new manager’s way of playing is to be welcomed, Everton do not slip into the nasty habit of passing for the sake of passing as was seen for large chunks of the West Brom match.
The current squad does possess the ability to push for the Premier League’s top six again this year but absolutely must keep the playing roster intact. The addition of another top quality attacking midfielder is a priority whether or not they resist United’s overtures for their giant Belgian. The ever-willing Leon Osman’s legs seem to be slowing up while the influential but unsung, Darron Gibson, picks up far too many knocks to be relied upon to play more than 25 games a season.
Martinez also needs to find and stick with his preferred frontman. So far, off the back of a good pre-season, Nikica Jelavic has got the nod for the starting berth, but he is still to convince anyone he is back to anything like the form he was in when he first arrived. Thankfully, there is competition for that slot with new arrival, Arouna Kone who looked lively when he came on as a substitute against West Brom, and last season’s big improver, Victor Anichebe waiting in the wings.
So, while Everton supporters may be willing to pass this year off as one of transition, one thing still must be addressed; whether you pound the ball directly at your opponents penalty area or try to pass them into submission, you must still have the killer instinct in the dog-eat-dog world of the Premier League.