Team have become soft touch of Premier League
5 January ~ Evertonians watching Real Sociedad battling to victory over Barcelona last night could be forgiven a wry smile. After all, the sight of a David Moyes side defending for dear life – and keeping a clean sheet – was a reminder of just what their team are now missing. That it came against a Barcelona team whose football, in the first half at least, had defining features quite familiar to Goodison regulars – possession without any penetration, poor set-piece play and a vulnerability to counterattacks – only enhanced the irony.
These are troubling times at Goodison Park and Roberto Martínez, celebrated by the Gwladys Street during his successful first campaign, is suddenly facing serious questions about his future. Everton go into their FA Cup third-round tie against West Ham at Goodison tomorrow night on a run of seven defeats in their last nine matches in all competitions. They have the Premier League’s second-worst defence and hopes of a top-four push have vanished – they are only four points better off than third-bottom Crystal Palace.
The Liverpool Echo last week found parallels between Everton’s desperate form over Christmas (played four, lost four) and the grim midwinter of 1996-97 which brought the unravelling of Joe Royle’s hitherto successful reign – six league defeats in a row from Boxing Day onwards, together with a home FA Cup loss to Bradford. It concluded that Martínez’s team were overplaying and not putting in the necessary graft, capturing the widespread feeling that Everton have gone from being one of the division’s toughest opponents to its softest touch.
Southampton, Stoke, Newcastle and Hull were all on bad runs before facing Everton yet all came away with three points. Newcastle did so with the help of two assists from Everton players, highlighting the fact no team in the top flight have conceded more goals from their own mistakes. Similarly, no team have tossed away as many points (15) through a failure to hold on to a lead and there are other damning stats. Opta’s mid-term report showed Everton with the fewest fouls and second-fewest tackles. All of the above brings to mind Neville Southall’s summing-up of Everton during Mike Walker’s brief management reign in 1994: “We'd pass the ball 50 times without it leaving our half, give the ball away and our opponents would score.”
Some have suggested this season’s dip is reminiscent of Moyes’s early seasons – one good followed by one bad – but the Scot had inherited a team fighting relegation. Martínez, by contrast, took over a side which had not been outside the Premier League’s top eight since 2006. Indeed not since 2005-06 had Everton lost four consecutive league games and the difference from last season – when the Blues earned their highest points total since 1987 – is startling.
The big worry is that last term was a one-off as a squad who retained the good habits instilled by Moyes took on board a more adventurous approach. Now the old defensive discipline has gone altogether and Everton look increasingly like Martínez’s Wigan. The search for reasons brings up various factors. There are signs that age is catching up with Tim Howard (35), Sylvain Distin (37) and Gareth Barry (34 next month). Add the fact the influential James McCarthy has been struggling with a hamstring problem and the defensive base is diminished. Full-backs Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines have not reached the heights of previous campaigns yet they are not alone – Everton began the season looking undercooked and have stumbled along from there.
Ultimately Martínez is failing to get the best out of a talented squad. Romelu Lukaku offers one notable example. The manager spent a club-record £28 million on Lukaku in the summer but, as one former Everton striker noted in the press room at the Stoke game on Boxing Day, is simply not playing to his strengths – the Belgian is not a hold-up player but rather needs balls to run on to. Ross Barkley, meanwhile, has struggled repeatedly in a wide-left role.
As for his attempts to halt the slide, Martínez’s tinkering has had no positive effect, summed up by the switch to a back three of Phil Jagielka alongside the out-of-sorts Barry and hapless Antolín Alcaraz for the New Year’s Day loss at Hull. So to tomorrow’s Cup tie against West Ham. Martínez desperately needs a win when you bear in mind that Everton’s next league fixture is at home to Manchester City. There has been a muted atmosphere at Goodison for much of the season – a response to the team’s slow, pedestrian football – and the reporter beside me during the nervy win over QPR three weeks ago was surprised by the moans and groans.
Two defeats at Goodison this week would compound the negative mood and raise the pressure on Martínez ahead of games against West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace before the end of the month. Martínez said the other day that “the second half of the season is an opportunity to get back our swagger” yet he would do well to forget about swagger for now and simply get his team scrapping. Simon Hart