If Everton could translate their ambitions for this season into currency, somebody would peg the exchange at twenty eight million Great Brits, when they splashed the cash to sign the Belgian ‘wonder-boy’, dubbed as the next Didier Drogba. Well the ambition reflects far differently today as the Toffees sit just above the scrap zone, with 31 points from 29 games, after seeing off Newcastle, three goals to nil.
The tension: Everton risk losing their proud record of being present in the English top-flight since 1954 and doubts being cast at the vision of a manager who was awarded a massive 5-year contract, only 10 months ago. The man who drove down to Merseyside from Wigan, replaced a coach who had molded Everton into a well-drilled, defensive unit, making Goodison Park a mighty fortress that stood against the shellacking from the so-called big four of England, quite well. The Spaniard brought about a massive transition in methodology and style, preferring style and flair to defensive solidarity and team ethic. After leading Everton into a top four scramble which culminated in a fifth place finish, Martinez surely gained support from the Grand Old Army and the ill-fated Scot gaffer, David Moyes, was soon relegated to being a golden page in the history books.
Everton have flourished in Europe this season, winning six games and are on the brink of history, if they can overturn a two goal-deficit and make it past Kyiv. The expectations are natural from a team comprised of eight World Cup quality players, besides the talents of James McCarthy, Seamus Coleman and John Stones. Jagielka dismissed Everton’s dismal start to the campaign as a ‘blip’, earlier this season, but the blip seems to have gone too long over the course of the year. While Martinez could point to ‘ the usual disasters’: injuries, referees gone nuts and goal-less draws, the fact remains that Everton have simply been outplayed and outclassed all season long, beyond the occasional potency in attack, courtesy: M/s. Mirallas and Lukaku.
As some would like to rightly point it out, this lapse in performance in England started when Tony Pulis innovated the right way to halt the Everton juggernaut last season, when he ended up pressing their ever-so-productive full-backs, cutting off the arteries to their front and the Toffees ended up missing out on the last Champions League spot.
Martinez, transfers, and the veteran army
To note, Everton did start off pre-season quite strongly, with some smart moves as Christian Atsu was brought to replace the departing, Gerard Delofeu. Samuel Eto’o was brought in from Chelsea on a free-transfer; Gareth Barry made his loan move permanent with a three-year contract, Aaron Lennon was brought in to add some punch down the wings and the midfield was reinforced by the arrival of Muhamed Besic. And here’s where the crumble in the pie ends. Everton have the sixth highest ‘average squad age’ in the Premier League, a factor that is only mildly offset by the presence of some young ‘uns, who have regrettably spent a sizeable time on the bench, in this campaign.
While this fact starkly negates Martinez’s claim at the start of the season, that much of the young players were ready to step up and fight for starting positions in the first-team, it clearly pans out that the manager hasn’t seen through the development of the new lot from the academy. With the likes of Sylvain Distin (37), Phil Jagielka (32), the much sough after Leighton Baines chasing 31 soon, Barry (34), Kone’ (31), Steven Pienaar (32), Antolin Alcaraz (32), Tony Hibbert (33) and Leon Osman (33), forming vital parts of the squad. If I include the departed Eto’o and Howard (35) in there, we have a fully capable playing XI. To a large extent, the presence of the senior brigade could be connected to the fact that Everton had to deal with long-term injuries to James McCarthy, Stones, Ross Barkley and Bryan Oviedo. But more over, Martinez continues to field a starting XI of veterans in the Europa League. Back in December, the squad that featured at the Etihad stadium, consisted of a defensive set-up well into their 30s, along with Gareth Barry, Leon Osman and Samuel Eto’o.
The age factor does cast a shadow of doubt over the Spaniard’s intelligence when it comes to selecting a squad, but the 41-year old is not some one to ignore the prospects at Everton’s Finch Farm academy. The so called ‘Academy of Science’ does have impressive players who will make their debut, hopefully, during the remainder of the Premier League season with Luke Garbutt (21), Tyas Browning (20) and Conor McAlleny (22) most likely to get the nod. Everton’s midfield will be an issue that needs to be looked into over the summer, while the defense needs some shoring up in the center. With the likes of Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman still around, ushering in some young blood under their presence, will provide the fledglings some much needed exposure to veteran talent.
The midfield glitch
If there was a reason that Man City let go of Gareth Barry easily two years ago, it was his age. Yet, last season the midfield pairing of James McCarthy and Barry was influential as they comfortably worked off each other. McCarthy being the iron hustler must be noted for his defensive contribution, breaking down opposition play and affording Barry more opportunities on the ball. With Barry providing the link to go forward, creating vertical passes with much pace towards Lukaku and Mirallas.
Forward to this term and McCarthy’s hamstring issues have rendered a Gareth Barry quite ineffective in the midfield, with the Englishman himself on the wane, due to age. With the fluidity of the passing play breaking down, the pace pairing of Lukaku and Mirallas is rendered ineffective. The vertical shots arrive at the feet of players who are already being marked by the opposition. Even with a break down in the passing machinery, Martinez continues to abide by his passing philosophy, which has evidently been one of the reasons for the team’s progressive decline.
Defensive woes and more
Everton’s most prized asset that they have so successfully held on to remains Leighton Baines. While he may not have been at ease in displacing Ashley Cole in England’s left-back role, Baines was coveted by only the top clubs in England, especially Man United, who eventually ended up spending a load on a Redfoo impersonator. With a massive amount of freedom to bomb forward and drop crosses into the box, in a lone striker formation, Baines and Coleman thrived last season. Yet, this season their attacking overlaps have often ended up under-lapping, with the direct-service-into-the-box-to-Lukaku being rendered ineffective.
With their failure in ‘bombing forward’, the attacking nature of the full-backs opens up a major chink in Everton’s defensive system. The slow transition from offense to defense and the absence of James McCarthy in breaking down attacks, means Everton’s often find themselves scattered around the place. With Martinez continuing to expect a defensive high line (of sorts) from a team that is slow tracking backwards, the tactic ends up being suicidal for Everton. Beyond this, the manager’s reluctance to drop a goalkeeper who has showed signs of decline after a stupendous World Cup display, means Everton’s last man standing, is just as ineffective as the four in front of him.
Martinez may be hailed for his heroics in his first term in charge at Merseyside, but all the good work will come undone, if the lapses in defense and midfield are not made up for over the summer. To avoid a second-season syndrome, Martinez needs to shore up Moyes’s old toys and blood the squad with young talent from Finch Farm and away, if he is to ensure that his attacking philosophy will prevail at Goodison Park beyond his days. If the ‘other team in Merseyside’ does manage to stay afloat this term, it is very likely that Roberto Martinez will get to see the light of day in Goodison Park for at least one more season. This summer calls for changes and not tweaks at Everton in every department and Bill Kenwright will be asked to bankroll some more ‘options’, if Everton are to hold their head high among England’s elite.
Written by Ameya Ghag.
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