The Season Just Gone
After finishing fifth and bloodying several noses in 2013-14, Roberto Martínez’s men were widely tipped to go one further last season, but it didn’t quite turn out like that. There are countless theories as to what went wrong: according to some, injuries to key players were the key factor; others blame Martínez’s complete inability to organise a defence. Whatever really happened, Everton certainly played way below themselves for almost all of 2014-15.
It could be argued that they lacked consistency, but for at least half of the season they were consistently bad, starting with one win in their opening seven Premier League games and enduring another run of one win in twelve in the winter. A late season flourish reminded everyone of the high level of ability and the exciting potential of the Toffees’ young squad, but by and large they gave Everton fans very little to remember.
The Season Ahead
With one excellent campaign and another dismal one under his belt, the jury is out on Martínez on Merseyside. Everton chairman Bill Kenwright has repeatedly declared his support for the Catalan, but the fans seem less enamoured – the first half of the first game of the season, at home to Watford, ended with boos from all four corners of Goodison Park.
Frankly, Martínez badly needs the young players he has placed so much faith in – former Chelsea player Romelu Lukaku, future Chelsea player John Stones and future Manchester United panic buy Ross Barkley – to deliver for him. So far, they have played well against Southampton and in spurts against Manchester City, while looking pretty awful against Watford and Tottenham.
Such fluctuations in performance are to be expected from youngsters still wet behind the ears, but there are plenty of experienced heads who should be guiding them through games – Gareth Barry, Phil Jagielka and Tim Howard have played every minute so far, and yet their steadying influence is felt all too rarely. The next four or five games could arguably shape Everton’s season: a good set of results and performances now should set the standard and propel them up the table. Yet more inconsistency and flakiness and they will predictably stay mired in mid-table again.
For a manager renowned and respected as a famously and vocally progressive tactician, Martínez has, in this writer’s opinion, usually looked more like a footballing version of Don Quixote than the future Guardiola he is touted as. His attacking ideals have almost always come at the notable expense of defensive solidity and for someone who apparently pores over hours and hours of video footage every day, his team selections make very little sense.
For example, his commitment to dominating possession and keeping the ball on the floor seems not to match up with his single-minded use of Lukaku as a lone striker. Lukaku is, lest we forget, a man whose first touch makes Wayne Rooney’s look like Dimitar Berbatov’s. It’s been hard not to look at Everton’s this season and wonder how they’ve ended up with a team in which each player seems to work best in different styles and systems.
The gameplan is becoming worryingly Wengeresque: dominate the ball in midfield, push the full-backs forward, walk the ball into the net. They countered brilliantly against Southampton away from home, but were punished equally effectively by Manchester City at Goodison Park when they decided to fight fire with fire. Unlike Man City, however, Chelsea look susceptible to being overpowered and overrun, so maybe it will work on Saturday. That said, any manager playing a Wengeresque style against José Mourinho is likely to suffer.
With such stylistic incoherence holding Everton back, it’s hard to look at them and find many things to be positive about. The fact is that their strongest card remains individual talent, and they do have several players capable of producing a rabbit from the hat.
Barkley has been full of confidence since smashing home a screamer against Watford and in this mood he’d be a threat to any team. Despite his relatively low level of technical ability, Lukaku remains a very talented and dangerous striker, powerful enough to steamroller through John Terry and Gary Cahill and also savvy enough to find space to score in the penalty box. Arouna Koné and Kevin Mirallas, likely to start on the flanks, are quick and intelligent attackers who could put the Chelsea full-backs under real pressure, with Séamus Coleman always likely to fly forward in support on the right.
In short, Everton have the players to nick a goal on the break after somehow weathering a Chelsea storm.
The impression that Everton have been a complete tactical clusterfruitcake this season is backed up by the numbers. In just about every measurable metric, the Toffees are underperforming. In attack, only Sunderland and Newcastle have taken fewer shots. At the other end of the pitch, only the North East clubs and Crystal Palace have allowed more shots on their goal. In the middle, only four teams have made fewer tackles and only Norwich have made fewer interceptions. This is a side that is routinely struggling to build coherent attacks and generate shots on goal, while failing to prevent the opposition doing so – in other words, it’s a Martínez side.
Injuries have disrupted the side, with arguably their best player – Leighton Baines – a long-term absentee and both of his replacements at left-back, Bryan Oviedo and Brendan Galloway, struggling with one knock or another. On the other flank, Coleman’s singular commitment to attack cost them dear against Manchester City, with the winner coming after he was caught ahead of the ball – Eden Hazard could find great joy attacking the space he vacates when the ball turns over.
With a lengthy injury list still growing, Everton’s team more or less picks itself – the eleven fit guys will start and thankfully for Martínez, they form a line-up more coherent and balanced than any other he’s picked this season.
Thibaut Courtois is apparently out for a period of months, Asmir Begović will play in goal. There’s an outside chance that Branislav Ivanović will be dropped after an alarming run of poor form, but it would be a surprise if Mourinho made that change in a game like this.
Predicting matches between supremely talented teams that haven’t come anywhere near reaching their potential so far this season could is a fool’s errand (2-2).