Andy Robinson on a club seemingly stuck in a crisis of mediocrity.
The above statement from an Everton supporting friend just about sums up the story of the Everton season so far. With a points total of 72 which would normally secure a champions league spot from Roberto Martinez’s first season in charge and with major transfer targets Gareth Barry and Romalu Lukaku on board and already bedded in from their loan spells the previous season it was thought by many that perhaps this could be the season where the blue half of Merseyside could finally push on and reach that elusive fourth champions league spot. Not unsurprisingly the two genuine title contenders Chelsea and Manchester City had turned the title race into a two horse one before the end of autumn. With their rivals for the top four places facing problems such as accommodating new managers like United and Spurs and local rivals Liverpool losing one of the world’s best strikers and his prolific English partner injured then surely Everton were well set to take advantage? Apparently not. The Everton season so far – although certainly a long way from a disaster – has just screamed mediocrity from the rooftops.
One area that Martinez didn’t pay any attention to in the summer was the defence. After years of solidity from the dour approach of Moyes and three current England squad members in a back four plus Tim Howard the outstanding keeper at the World Cup, who President Obama described as his nation’s secretary of state for Defence, then all looked well. It is though perhaps one of the oldest defences since the Milan side of the mid 1990’s. Howard, Distin, Jagielka, Baines are all past thirty as are the potential back ups in Hibbert and Alcaraz. Only Seamus Coleman and England newcomer John Stones possess anything that resembles youth and with Stones injured early on and a loss of form from the usually very impressive Tim Howard before his recent injury Everton’s defence suddenly seemed short of confidence and became a breeding ground for defensive errors and individual mistakes.
The midfield has fared little better. Gareth Barry, so impressive in recent years and vital in the rise of Manchester City to the heights they have reached, has like many of his team mates began to show the tell-tale signs of age and weariness and his partner at the centre of midfield James McCarthy who again was very impressive in his first Everton season has been missing with injury. McCarthy’s absence from the conversations I have had with Everton’s fans is now seemingly taking on all sorts of mystical powers. This former relegation battler with Wigan is now very much the “Saint” of Goodison and I am now convinced he is the love child of Zidane and Vieira as with each missing game his talent grows.
The Everton jury however still hasn’t returned a final verdict on actually how talented Ross Barkley is with a fair number of home fans thinking the boy could be more Rodwell than Gazza and anxious to bite the hand off any club that would offer significant cash for the young England star. As the manager doesn’t seem to know how use him anyway, why do Everton just not gamble and cash in on him?
The issue of Barkley leads nicely into the situation of the way Martinez deploys his forward thinking midfielders and those he chooses for the number 10 role. With Barkley, Naysmith, and Mirallas all perhaps at their best in that position then the formation Martinez often has to use is very much a case of squeezing the odd one out into the role of a wide player or forward or an impact sub.
There are problems too for Everton in the forward line. Lukaku with just six goals in the league and Eto’o never really hit it off on the pitch largely due to a real shortage of width to create the chances. Atsu with an impressive World Cup for Ghana behind him hasn’t had any game time and Everton now resemble a side built around the Martinez concept of neat and tidy but lacking the force and the power of the Moyes years with Cahill and Fellaini and the running and endeavour of both Osman and Pienaar. Although these latter two players still remain at the club they are yet further examples of an Everton side beset by injuries in the first half of the season and are yet another pair in the Goodison over thirties club.
Any decent news coming out of L4? The injury problems that seemed to grip the club in the early part of the season seem to be behind them is one and another would be the impressive form of the Bosnian midfielder Besic – another who had a decent World Cup. As a player who runs around a lot and kicks what’s in front of him he follows a long line of brutes in Everton’s midfield such as Tommy Graveson to Barry Horne and every classy side needs a player like this. Everton remain in Europe and Martinez does seem the style of manager suited to plotting his way around a two legged European tie and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them go far in the Europa League. Other positives that spring easy to the mind are that for once everyone can see and say that they are too good a side to get drawn into a relegation battle and the fans almost to a man have a bit of confidence and goodwill towards Roberto Martinez. As a club they have also gone right through the season without any major controversy. Last night’s fiasco with the Miralles missed penalty was as unfortunate as it was hilarious to the Liverpool supporters. Thing is though, if it had been a weekend game and not the solitary Monday night one it wouldn’t really have registered. Martinez himself lied so beautifully on Sky after the game that it felt like a Conservative telling me the NHS was safe in their hands.
In conclusion then a pretty ropey season all round with lots of questions coming up very quickly for the nice guy manager. As he isn’t obnoxious like most of those in the Premiership and as this Everton side are now in a position where if all goes well they can seriously damage the sides I despise passionately (United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs) but do no more really than give the side I love (City) anything worse than a bruised ego or a bloody nose then it appears you can teach old dogs new tricks and change a habit of a lifetime. I now wish them well.