And The Wheels Came Off... Part 1 – The Month In Review
Having struggled to really get going in 2014-15, Everton's season is threatening to derail completely after a return of just four points from the last seven Premier League games. It's too early to panic but there is plenty of room for concern.
31 December 2014
On the back of what was an unbelievable first season under new management, 2014-15 was a season that held so much promise for Everton and its supporters when it kicked off in August... even if there were a few misgivings about the extent of the summer's transfer business, the haphazard schedule of those players returning from the World Cup, and the rather unsatisfactory pre-season programme.
With the uncertainty over the futures of Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry removed following the acquisition of both players on permanent deals and the introduction of some depth to the squad in the forms of Muhamed Besic, Samuel Eto'o and Christian Atsu, there was genuine cause of optimism that the Blues could just about cope with the demands of Europe and do well in both the Continental and domestic arenas.
As we have since seen, with us going into 2015 sitting closer to the bottom three than the Champions League place we're desperate to achieve, only one of those turned out to be true. And so dramatic has been the fall-off in the team's form since the club's passage to the knockout phase of the Europa League last month that Everton's future in that competition must be in serious jeopardy as well.
Since seemingly getting their Premier League campaign back on track with a hard-earned win over West Ham and then thrillingly beating Wolfsburg on their own turf in November, Roberto Martinez's side have won just once in eight matches in all competitions. Even allowing for the experimental nature of the side in the dead rubber against Krasnodar, just one win in that time-frame (representing just four points from 21 in the League) is abysmal by any measure.
Injuries have played their part in continually disrupting the team's attempts to reestablish their momentum; indeed, it wasn't until the Boxing Day fixture against Stoke City that Martinez was able to name what many would have argued was his strongest XI. Romelu Lukaku's early struggles with a toe complaint and medium-term injuries to Ross Barkley, Kevin Mirallas, James McCarthy, Seamus Coleman and John Stones have deprived the manager of what is essentially the spine of the team.
And yet, as the performances have increasingly demonstrated, there is far more to Everton's current malaise than the absence of personnel, no matter how key. The tempo has gone out of the Blues' play almost completely; gone is the rapier-like counter-attacking, impressive wing play and maurauding fullbacks, replaced by a staid, pedestrian approach that is easy to counteract.
A catalog of individual errors leading to goals rivalled in Europe's major leagues only by Seria A's bottom club, Parma, rapidly ebbing confidence and erratic team selection on Martinez's part have all combined to critically undermine the Blues' League campaign, to the point where concerns over a relegation battle – however unlikely given the talent in the ranks – is now at the forefront of most fans' minds rather than hopes of repeat qualification for Europe.
Whether it is a lingering lack of core fitness that goes back to an inadequate pre-season, a lack of confidence and self-belief, the failure of Martinez's system, opposition teams sussing out and nulliyfing the Blues' possession-based approach or a combination of all of those factors, Everton have experienced an alarming collapse in form in recent weeks, one that started at White Hart Lane at the end of November.
It was the first of three matches in which the Blues would take the lead – threatening on each occasion to have finally got their groove back – but go on to surrender that advantage in mystifying fashion. Mirallas' stunning strike should have been the springboard to a vital away win but once Tottenham had cancelled that goal out and then taken the lead themselves at the end of the first half, Everton's spirit evaporated along with the tempo and guile that had been hallmarks of their scintillating play for much of last season.
Similar profligacy of a precious advantage would be repeated at Goodison Park against Hull City the following week when Martinez's team couldn't muster a response to Sone Aluko's equaliser and were booed off the field by a section of the home crowd at the end of a frustrating 1-1 draw. And the lack of any real consistent pluck and fight at the Etihad Stadium against a strangely subdued Manchester City three days after would further underscore the difference between the Everton of 2013-14 and the floundering version of 2014-15.
Again, what appeared to be the turning point for a team that just needed to win lucky or ugly arrived with the visit of Queens Park Rangers in the middle of this month. Two deflections and an own goal may have given the Blues a nudge in the right direction but there is no question that they deserved to beat Harry Redknapp's side. The problem was that rather than use it as a platform to build on, they went to Southampton, a team whose own season seemed to be falling apart after five straight defeats, and turned in arguably their worst display so far, one that rivalled the turgid Capital One Cup defeat to Swansea in September that had practically no redeeming features.
Bafflingly, Martinez refused to use any of his substitutes, a disconcerting decision whichever way you slice it – either he couldn't fathom the ineptitude of the performance being carried out by his starting line-up or he left those eleven players to stew in their own juice. Neglect or vindictiveness, neither option bodes well for squad harmony or a turnaround in the team's fortunes.
Little surprise then that Everton struggled to overcome Stoke on Boxing Day and were beaten at home for the third time this season despite having over 60% of the possession and, for the first half at least, their strongest line-up of the campaign thus far on the pitch. Martinez's choice to focus on a potential red card for Jonathan Walter's cynical foul on Leighton Baines and the loss to injury of Phil Jagielka and Tim Howard largely missed the point – the attacking punch and enterprise that served them so well last season had well and truly been snuffed out by a combination of Mark Hughes's gameplan and a crippling lack of confidence in the Blues' side.
And so to Newcastle where, again, the first stepping stones towards redemption appeared when a much-changed team took an early lead through Arouna Kone's first goal in Royal Blue... and a lovely slice of 2013-14 vintage Everton it was as the ball was worked wide with pace and movement, Coleman crossed beautifully and the Ivorian side-footed home first time on the half volley.
The advantage was squandered, though, by a persistent failure by Martinez's charges to press the ball as Newcastle came searching for an equaliser. When it came 11 minutes before the break and was followed by a second goal for the home side early in the second half, the writing was very much on the wall for an Everton team playing with confidence as fragile as glass. The spirit, drive and self-confidence that made the Blues such an effective second-half team last year has largely disappeared so that even when Mirallas set up a potenatial grandstand finish with a brilliantly-taken goal 10 minutes from the end, there was no sustained assault of the Magpies' goal, just wasted possession and an apparent unwillingness or fear of putting the ball into the box.
It's under those gathering storm clouds that Everton enter 2015. While the team may be suffering a crisis of confidence, it's premature to suggest that crisis has set in completely at Goodison Park. All teams go through poor patches of form; the difference here appears to be the slow burn of the Blues' decline from the shwashbuckling outfit that romped to a club record Premier League points hall, all the while epitomising the new manager's Sin Miedo ethos.
Yes, the recent drop off in performances and results that is threatening to send the Toffees into freefall has been steep but something has been amiss all season long. What could initially be blamed on a disrupted pre-season and a succession of injuries now appears rooted deeper. The question is: can the manager find the flexibility in his ethos to engineer the solution before the campaign becomes a write-off altogether and the thus-far superb European adventure is scuppered?