The Season So Far
This was supposed to be the season when Everton hit their stride and challenged for the top four again. All the ingredients were there, we were told, and they had the right manager in the charismatic and idealistic Roberto Martínez. As it turns out, circumstances could barely have been better for Everton to gatecrash the top four: Manchester United and Chelsea are punching way below their weight, those in their slipstream are equally inconsistent, and the Toffees have hit their stride in a big way in attack – and yet Everton sit in the bottom half, with only six wins from 21 games.
It’s a familiar story of endless draws, points thrown away and a defence flimsier than Abou Diaby’s body. Speaking of Diaby, injuries have also been a constant feature of Everton’s 2015-16, with at least one key player or senior professional missing at all times. Their young squad has therefore been stretched to its limit, but the star players have risen to the challenge – well, as much as Martínez’s system has allowed them to.
Despite the prolific scoring of Romelu Lukaku and the endless creativity of Gerard Deulofeu and Ross Barkley, the defence has remained as porous as ever and there appears to be surprisingly little coherence on the pitch. With Champions League qualification now impossible, valid questions have been asked over Martínez’s philosophy.
The Season Ahead
While Everton are not a sacking club, and chairman Bill Kenwright seems to be too emotionally invested in the managers he appoints to dispense with their services, the fans’ frustration may force Martínez out at or before the end of the season. The Spaniard’s repeated declarations that Everton have the most talented young squad in the Premier League have only served to raise expectations and this has obviously backfired: while the football is obviously better than the dull fare produced under David Moyes, it means nothing while results are so disappointing.
With players like Lukaku, Barkley and John Stones likely to demand moves to bigger clubs after this summer’s European Championships, Everton will arguably never have a better chance of winning a trophy than they do now. Unless Martínez oversees a significant upturn in results and/or wins one of the Cup competitions, the Goodison Park faithful will make their displeasure known more and more as the season comes to an end.
In Martínez’s years in charge Everton have almost always played a pretty generic 4-2-3-1, with very attacking full-backs, hard-working central midfielders and highly technical flair players in the final third combining with and creating for Lukaku.
Martínez’s training is focused on improving players’ decision-making in attacking phases of play and it obviously works. His Wigan team, while hopeless without the ball, was competent and pleasingly fluid going forward, and Everton have inherited these traits. Their short passing combinations, off-the-ball movement and ingenuity mean they are always a threat, but Martínez’s failure to create a coherent defensive strategy undermines this. When out of possession, they are horrendous.
While Everton have in the past been notable for attacking disproportionately from the left flank, Leighton Baines’ long-term injury and Deulofeu’s increased productivity have meant that the focus has switched to the other side this season. Now that Baines is fit again, things should be more balanced. Having such dangerous crossers on both sides and Lukaku in the middle, as well as Barkley creating in the #10 position, means Everton are a very dangerous side.
The statistics confirm what the eye tells us: Everton are extremely good in attack. They have the highest conversion rates in the division – 12.8% of all shots have resulted in goals, or 37.2% of all shots on target – and the obvious talent of their players and the suitability of the structure in which they combine means these abnormally high figures could conceivably be sustained.
It’s worth underscoring their flair and creativity: no Premier League team has completed more dribbles than Everton this season and Barkley and Deulofeu, while frustrating, are both capable of pulling a rabbit out of a hat at any moment. The thought of either or both of them running at Branislav Ivanović or John Terry should be enough to keep Guus Hiddink awake at night.
Additionally, while Tim Howard is currently a figure of fun thought of as one of the Premier League’s worst goalkeepers, the figures suggest that Everton would be considerably worse off without him. He has the seventh highest save percentage in the division, which may not seem that impressive but the figures at the end of the next paragraph will hopefully explain why that’s so remarkable.
From front to back, they’re rubbish without the ball. There appears to be no organised defensive system, which means each player is left to make his own decisions and react instinctively in every situation. At this level, that’s a recipe for disaster.
It all starts with the front four, who all seem to defend differently, when they can be bothered to defend at all. Of this season’s regular attackers, only Arouna Koné has made 1 tackle per game or more. Lukaku (0.3 tackles per game), Barkley (0.7) and Deulofeu (0.6) all seem to prefer to stand and do nothing or to press individually, closing angles and directing opposition passes into "harmless" areas.
The forwards’ disinterest and disorganisation means that the ball progresses forward into wide areas and the middle third very easily and Everton's full-backs and midfield end up being ludicrously overworked. Gareth Barry, James McCarthy, Muhamed Bešić and Seamus Coleman have all averaged more than two tackles per game, while poor Brendan Galloway was obviously targeted by opposition sides for the entire first half of the season and ended up averaging 3.3 tackles per game.
Despite the ease with which the opposition can get past Everton’s front four, the Toffees' defenders and midfielders don’t seem interested in raising their own levels of aggression and concentration beyond committing themselves to tackles. They have made the lowest number of fouls per game in the league, the second lowest number of interceptions, and they make a surprisingly low number of clearances based on the areas their opponents attack from. Put simply, anyone and everyone can play through Everton one player at a time and create good chances.
This inevitably means that they do a lot of last-ditch defending: they block 4.1 shots per game and 3.8 crosses per game, the Premier League’s fifth and second highest figures respectively. Only four teams have allowed more shots from inside their own box than Everton and this is where Tim Howard comes in: as well as his high save percentage, his figure of 3.4 saves per game is the league’s fourth highest figure, with 0.3 saves per game coming from within their six-yard box, the second highest figure in the division. He may be on the decline but he's doing a good job of stopping most of the many good chances Everton's opposition are routinely allowed to create.
[TL;DR #2: Martínez gonna Martínez.]
It’s the middle of January: no-one has a clue.
Two extremely talented but equally disorganised and inconsistent teams playing each other just a few days after their last games? Anything could happen. How does 4-4 sound?