By David de Winter – Sports Editor
A club record points tally in the Premier League; European qualification; victories against Chelsea and Arsenal and an unprecedented home and away double over Manchester United. 2013/14 was something of an annus mirabilis for Everton FC. So why have they not reproduced that form in the current campaign?
On paper nothing much has changed. The squad is largely the same from last season. Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry have signed permanent deals and Samuel Eto’o was shrewdly brought in to add experience up front and act as a mentor to Lukaku, until he left 6 months later to join Sampdoria.
However the best laid plans don’t necessarily work. One solitary league victory in 2015 and 6 all season tells its own story. The defence has been unusually leaky and going forward they have not been the free-flowing attacking force they were last season. Although Lukaku has scored 15 goals this term, only 7 of them have been in the league and currently he is failing to justify his £28 million transfer fee. For that sort of outlay Everton would have expected more.
Yet it is the defence that has the most worry aspect of Everton’s season. It is perhaps strange to say this of a 20 year-old novice but they have missed John Stones in the centre of defence. His pace covers for Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin, both of whom are not the spring chickens they once were. Without Stones to help them out, Jagielka and Distin have been ruthlessly exposed at times (Chelsea scoring 6 at Goodison Park in August springs to mind).
Fresh from one of the great World Cup performances against Belgium in the summer, Everton would have been hoping that goalkeeper Tim Howard could continue his fine form. Not so. Howard has not been at his commanding best and has been prone to costly errors such as against Leicester City last month. The ill-timed release of his autobiography and the subsequent public spat with fellow USA goalkeeper Brad Friedel can’t have helped matters.
However, for me it is the full-backs who have been the biggest factor in Everton’s slump. Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman were an irresistible attacking force last season providing regular assists alongside a goalscoring threat. It has been a different story this present campaign. Baines has suffered from injury and possibly a World Cup hangover whilst Coleman has not been bombing forward with his usual verve. Moreover opposing teams seem to have identified their threat and are pressing Baines and Coleman back in their own half and are marking them more closely.
Another mitigating factor could be the UEFA Europa League in which Everton have been performing admirably. Whilst it has served as something of a welcome distraction from the Premier League, the travelling and the extra fixture demands on a squad which isn’t the biggest has clearly affected their league form.
Everton seem to play with a carefree attacking mentality in the Europa League which is at odds with their unconvincing and tepid domestic displays. There seems to be a real lack of conviction in their football. Ross Barkley’s displays have typified this. Last season he was playing with fearlessness and the exuberance of youth, driving the team forward from midfield, not afraid to take defenders on or to attempt the spectacular. This campaign however, whether it be due to the World Cup or the knee injury he suffered on the eve of the season, his displays have lacked purpose and belief. He seems to be playing within himself; disciplined and happy to play the obvious pass to a teammate. This may be the start of a natural maturing process as a footballer but he is losing his effectiveness, exemplified by his reluctance to take games by the scruff of the neck.
Everton will not be relegated but to be languishing on the fringes of a relegation battle at this stage of the season is unacceptable, especially for a club with a net £36.5 million transfer spend. The players must take some culpability for underperforming but manager Roberto Martinez is not entirely blameless. His insistence in sticking with his footballing philosophy is to be admired but when the team is going through a bad run there needs to be a certain amount of tactical flexibility and pragmatism. Brendan Rodgers has achieved it this season at Liverpool, reverting to a 3-4-3 (or variant of) formation from his original 4-3-3. As manager of Wigan Athletic Martinez was also guilty of sticking stubbornly to a free-flowing and open footballing style in times where his team required defensive stability and the ability to win games ‘ugly’.
Ultimately football is a results business; victories are a manger’s currency and at the moment Martinez’s stock is about as attractive as a loan from a Greek bank. Everton need to find their mojo again and if it doesn’t happen soon, their manager may well find his currency is not wanted at Goodison Park.