Roberto Martinez’s first season at Everton was just short of a dream. The Evertonians had an incredible run in the league, but faded slightly to finish a very respectable 5th ahead of Tottenham and Manchester United. They conceded 39 goals in 38 games (3rd in the league behind City and Chelsea) and played, perhaps along with Southampton, some of the most aesthetically pleasing football in the Premier League.
It’s 22 games into the 2014-15 season, and Everton sit a giant 17 points off the coveted fourth Champions League qualifying place, and just four points off the relegation places. They have the worst recent form in the league.
With much the same side as last year, plus a year’s experience for young players like Barkley, Lukaku and Stones to draw on – how have Everton lost their mojo?
Injuries and World Cup hangover
Everton have had a nightmare with injuries this season. James McCarthy is being sorely missed in the centre of midfield, and Joel has had to replace the injured Tim Howard in goal for much of the season. Meanwhile, Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin are a shadow of the partnership they showed last year. However, Distin is 37 and perhaps this season was one stretch too far in terms of a starting XI position – you tend to only have one swan song and it looks like that was it last season.
Jagielka, like English teammate Leighton Baines, had a very average World Cup and appears to have carried that hangover into the Premier League season, though the injury woes and poor form of his partner can’t be helping the England international. John Stones has a massive future ahead of him but is still young and prone to making mistakes, and he too has been hampered by injury. This has paved the way for ex-Wigan man Antolin Alcaraz to spent plenty of time at centre-half, but he’s really Everton’s fourth choice central defender; and has had injury troubles of his own.
The entire defensive unit has been missing at various points this term, and the ever-presence of Howard, Baines, Jagielka, Distin and Coleman that was crucial in 2013-14 has rarely been afforded to Martinez this time around. Injuries to Steven Pienaar and Leon Osman further up the pitch haven’t helped either.
Meanwhile, Brazil 2014 has probably taken toll on Everton’s star players too, and a summer without an off-season often means close to 24 months of football without a proper break. But the Toffees aren’t the only side with international players; the difference is that Everton does not possess the depth of top class players and ability to rotate that some EPL clubs do.
Kevin Mirallas – who allegedly wants a move away from Goodison – and his fellow Belgian international, Romelu Lukaku, look tired from their impressive showing at the World Cup. Though Mirallas has been brilliant in the recent matches against City and West Ham, his insistence on taking the penalty from regular taker Leighton Baines in last Monday night’s stalemate against West Brom might reveal a problem with his mental state. He was substituted at half-time in that match, apparently due to injury, but it’s bad news for Everton regardless of the reasoning.
Gareth Barry dominated almost every fixture he played in last season and was unlucky to miss out on England’s World Cup squad. He’s struggled this season, looking a shadow of the player that excelled in his new surroundings last season, picking up plenty of yellow cards and rarely offering the same protection to Everton’s back four (or two central defenders when Coleman and Baines get forward) as we saw in 2013-14. A senior figure at the club – and this year signed up to a permanent deal – there’s no doubt he has underwhelmed in one of the system’s most crucial roles.
Mo Besic was signed in the summer but he too featured at the World Cup, is relatively inexperienced, and has more freedom across the pitch than the Englishman so there is no ready-made solution in the squad. If Barry can rediscover his form – because he’ll most certainly remain in the XI – Everton might do too.
After conceding a miserly 39 goals in 38 games last season, Everton have conceded 34 in 22 this time around. I’ve mentioned plenty about their defence in the aforementioned, and the lack of depth needs to be addressed. Perhaps most importantly they need to buy another right-sided defender and quality central defender before 2015-16 kicks in. Tony Hibbert should not be playing first team football.
Romelu Lukaku arrived on loan from Chelsea in 2013-14 and played like a man with no pressure at all, slotting 15 times in 31 games and helping Everton to a club-record 72 points tally. Everton paid £28m for the Belgian in the summer in a permanent move, and Rom looks like a man under pressure. He’s still getting into some great positions but with 6 goals in 21, the big man is not putting enough past the keeper and it’s costing Everton dearly. Still, at just 21 years of age, it’s hardly panic stations in terms of him being a flop, but there’s no denying it’s a disappointing return for the main man up top who was terrorising defences this time last year.
Has Martinez underestimated the toll it might take on his players with a Thursday to Sunday turnaround? Perhaps. Everton still have a very thin squad compared to other teams competing on the continent, and can’t rotate quite like the big sides. They’ve made the round of 32 though as their form in Europe has more or less mirrored their domestic performances, and maybe it’s a chance to have a deep run into the competition. Let’s not forget Newcastle’s nightmare season after reaching the Europa League quarter-finals though, finishing 16th and just avoiding relegation. It’s not too far-fetched to predict the same for the Toffees if the fixtures continue to pile up with midweek trips to Ukraine and Turkey.
Maybe, just maybe. Jamie Carragher said that Everton were becoming too predictable and struggling to play with intensity and the right tempo, but those two latter points are different to the former. Everton played similarly for most of last season and teams failed to stop them, but Martinez’s players are letting him down, and badly. Lukaku and Barkley have struggled to fire, Steven Naismith’s good early form has deserted him and Barry isn’t distributing nearly as well as last season. Osman and Pienaar have been absent for large portions of the year (like Aiden McGeady tends to be for large parts of individual fixtures) and Everton look short on creativity. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is down to Martinez – his players just haven’t been up to scratch.
There were some calls for Everton to play a more direct style (even from Lukaku himself), but you can’t prepare a team for shit football unless you’re Tony Pulis. That’s not to say playing direct is the wrong way to do it (ask Sam Allardyce), but it’s up to the players to continue having faith in the system that served them well last season.
In saying that, if Everton’s defence keeps changing every week, then Martinez might need to adopt a more prudent approach and play to the team’s current strengths to ensure Everton don’t get embroiled in a relegation scrap. With the lack of personnel he has, he might need to re-shape those round holes into square ones to suit who is available, capable, and in form.
Finish mid-table, win the Europa League. That’s got to be Martinez’s goal.