And The Wheels Came Off... Part 2 – Back to Basics
How do you restore waning confidence to a team that thrives on it to succeed? Return to the fundamentals by establishing a settled line-up and formation and try to get some points on the board. Easier said than done but that should be Roberto Martinez's immediate task as 2015 dawns.
31 December 2014
The superb win in Wolfsburg that guaranteed the Toffees would go into the draw for the round of 32 as seeded group winners felt like the the ideal way to sign off from Europe until February and focus on establishing momentum in the Premier League after an iffy first third of the campaign. With key players due to return from injury and the need for squad rotation easing, it seemed as those particular stars were aligning.
Of course, the reality was quite different (see Part 1). Instead of vaulting themselves back into the race for the top four on the the back of a favourable run of fixtures, Everton find themselves 16 points worse off after 19 matches than they were at the same stage last season. The question now becomes can Roberto Martinez reverse the slide and how does he go about doing so seeing as everthing he has tried over the last couple of weeks has ended in defeat.
Not surprisingly in this age of desire for quick results and instant satisfaction, there are already some calling for Martinez's head and as highly premature as those calls are, you can have some sympathy for that view, particularly when you see the impact that more pragmatic managers like Louis van Gaal and Ronald Koeman have been having in trying circumstances at their respective clubs (although in the former's case, it's easier to deal with an Everton-scale injury crisis when you've thrown around tens of millions of pounds to rebuild your squad). It's hard not to feel like throwing your hands up at another false dawn and wishing for a quick fix, especially when your yearning for some tough, honest and self-analytical talking from your team's manager is going unsatisfied.
Roberto's propensity to focus on the positives in his post-match assessments could be the public facade to a harder, more ruthless line being taken behind the scenes but, coupled with the continual bleating about refereeing injustice, it's beginning to grate more and more the longer the current run of poor results goes on. Yes, we have been the victims of some appallingly blinkered and inconsistent refereeing this season but there is much more to our sub-standard results of late than poor officiating.
It's worth remembering that David Moyes suffered a terrible second season at Goodison and appeared to have lost the dressing room completely by the time Everton were humiliated at the City of Manchester Stadium on the last day of the 2003/04 season. The next season the Blues finished fourth, and that after losing their best player and great Blue hope to Manchester United that summer.
Circumstances are very different now, of course. Moyes was on a long mission of rebuilding a tattered team with an inferior squad to the one we're blessed with now. There was scope and hope for better times down the road once the new man had had time to draft in his type of players and mold them into his preferred style of play. Now, the stakes and expectations are much bigger. Having successfully implemented his own ethos so quickly last season and overseen Everton's most successful Premier League season in terms of points gained, Martinez is somewhat a victim of his own initial success. His latitude is consequently a lot tighter – a key element of the club's revenue rests on league placement and live television coverage and the feet of the team's best players will start to get itchy if success and the Champions League remain at arm's length. Kevin Mirallas has already hinted as much and he's unlikely to be the only one.
So, as we head into 2015, more than anything Evertonians are looking for a reaction and clear evidence that Martinez knows how to get his team performing again. Thus far it's been lacking. Rather than build trust in the boss' methods, the last three games have sown doubts in many supporters' minds about his dogmatic persistence with an approach and system that is causing problems in defence and is failing his record signing at the other end of the field. Some of those problems were already evident last season but, like the disappointing January 2014 transfer window, the failure to sufficiently strengthen in the summer to meet Martinez's own stated squad quota and occasional naivete that resulted, for example, in the drubbing at Anfield, they were masked by what was an exceptional first season under the Catalan.
As Martinez himself has stated, Everton need to get back to basics, starting with re-establishing the team's reputation for being hard to beat. If there was one thing that Moyes's team got right it was defensive resilience and while that trait carried over to last season, it has evaporated in 2014-15. Again, injuries have played a significant role but when the manager correctly asserts that it takes 11 players to defend, you have to wonder why his have stopped pressing the ball as effectively as they used to. The lack of pressure when Newcastle had the ball at St James' Park last Sunday was painfully evident and was the root cause of Alan Pardew's men first establishing a foothold in the game after Arouna Kone's opener and then going on to win the match.
Martinez also needs to find a more settled starting XI before the European campaign resumes in February. The chopping and changing of personnel to accommodate the Europa League fixtures has exacerbated the changes enforced by injuries and deprived the Blues of any continuity and rhythm. Then he quickly needs to establish a more permanent formation, one that minimises his tendency to play the likes of Ross Barkley, Steven Naismith and Samuel Eto'o out of position and plays not only to their strengths but, more importantly to those of Romelu Lukaku.
Everton as an attacking unit are just not getting the ball to the box often enough or quickly enough with the direct result that they're not creating enough chances. It comes as a result of a frustrating lack of tempo throughout the team which is in stark contrast to their best moments from last season. Gerard Deulofeu could be infuriating at times last season but he was at least willing to run at opposition defences and was difficult to defend against. That direct approach and single-mindedness is sorely missed at the moment but can be easily remedied by the likes of Mirallas and Coleman.
That last point speaks to perhaps Martinez's biggest obstacle as he tries to turn things around – namely, confidence. Everton have precious little of it at the moment and it shows in their performances and is translating to poor results. The edgy atmosphere at Goodison Park for home games doesn't help, a counter-productive result of supporters expecting the side to be entertaining and to win on their own turf based on the thrills they were served up last season under the Blues' new-found, expansive style.
Confidence is a precious commodity that comes from winning. Start putting points on the board and the performances will follow but as the pressure mounts the longer the run of disappointing displays and poor results continues, the Blues are stuck in a vicious circle. That is why returning to the fundamentals and simplifying the approach should be the first step; the last thing we need is to still be stuck in this cycle of dispondancy when the Europa League resumes. As our best hope of achieving Champions League football this season, we need to be back in the groove when the time comes. That way redemption lies...