Optimism. Frustration. Hope. The Month In Review

August – September 2014: Dropped points against Leicester and Arsenal, defensive chaos against Chelsea and a tough Europa League draw tempered optimism for the new season but there were promising signs of an evening keel at The Hawthorns and against Wolfsburg. A look back at the first four months of 2014-15.

Well, it certainly didnt start the way we had hoped, thats for sure. From the day Romelu Lukaku answered most Blues prayers by signing on the dotted line to complete his record-breaking move from Chelsea, the pillars holding up lofty Evertonian optimism seem to have been knocked out one by one from beneath us as August wore on.

Disjointed defeats in the final two warm-up games against Celta Vigo and SC Paderborn raised concerns over the squads readiness for the 2014-15 campaign and proved to be reliable barometers of what was to follow when the serious business got underway in the middle of last month.

Of course, while Christian Atsus arrival on loan on 13th August helped to re-fill the proverbial glass a little, one more blow was to come before a ball had been kicked in anger when it emerged that Ross Barkley had torn a medial knee ligament in a training-ground collision with Gareth Barry and would miss the start of the season.

As it turned out, the loss of Barkleys invention and precocious talents was felt less keenly than feared; indeed, it was the absence of one of Evertons key strengths last term that would be far more damaging. The third-best defence in the Premier League in 2013-14 should have been a platform from which to add the key missing ingredients at the other end of the field; instead, Roberto Martinez found himself needing to go back to basics over the first international break after seeing his team ship 10 goals in three matches.

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While there was understandable alarm at the number of goals conceded in the early going and the manner in which they were scored, there might also have been a rush to judgement, particularly of Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin, whose record last season was assisted in no small part by the work of others around them.

In that sense, every member of the team beside and in front of them forms progressive lines of defence, barriers which seemed to have been undermined by a general lack of fitness and sharpness following a sub-optimal pre-season programme.

The World Cup might have provided a feast of exciting football and a month-long distraction during an otherwise interminably long close-season but you cant help but feel that Everton would have been better off had the whole thing never happened. For whatever reason, our team appeared to have been affected more than most by the varied timing of various players return to training after Brazil, not least the two Belgians who didnt play in any of the pre-season friendlies and yet both figured on the opening day.

And yet, that lack of preparedness seemed to pervade the entire team at Leicester as Everton allowed the newly-promoted Foxes to twice come back from a goal down to grab a point that seemed unlikely given the typically dominant way in which Martinezs men had gone about their business in the first half. That the Blues werent able to go and score a decisive third and, instead, let Leicester deny them two deserved points was so frustrating because you knew that the Everton from the majority of last season, firing on most let alone all of its cylinders, would have been able to put the match to bed and got the season off to a great start.

Of course, what followed the next Saturday was even more deflating. Everton were on course to repeat what was, arguably, the teams best performance in 2013-14 against Arsenal but, either through negligence or tired legs, they let slip that precious advantage by conceding twice in the last seven minutes. Once more there was a collective failure to drive home a significant advantage by securing a third goal and Martinezs men paid the price with two more dropped points and prompted further inquest into uncharacteristically sloppy defending. Even with Lukaku battling a toe injury and clearly not at full strength, Everton had demonstrated their ability to hurt the Gunners defence at one end one which boasted a World Cup winner in Per Mertesaker and much-vaunted 16m prospect Calum Chambers but they eased off the pedal and invited the pressure that would see them throw away another two points.

If the players fitness had been the focus in the analysis of the first two games, the porous nature of that previously reliable defence had moved centre stage by the time the final whistle had blown on Chelseas visit to Goodison Park at the end of August. Everton leaked six goals in a League match for the first time since that ignominious curtain-raiser against Arsenal in 2009, overshadowing yet more pleasing signs on the attacking front where Naismith made it three shots on target, three goals, Kevin Mirallas opened his account with an excellent header and Samuel Etoo, (another bright ray of optimism when he signed a few days earlier) needed just six minutes to mark his arrival with his first strike in an Everton shirt.

It was chaos at the back that ruined a madcap match from the Everton perspective, with Jose Mourinhos expensively-assembled side able to score at will at times. Martinezs side refused to lie down but every time they got within striking distance of the London club, they would lay the welcome mat down in defence and permit Chelsea to extend their lead again. The centre-halves have borne the brunt of the criticism but the malaise runs deeper than just that area of the team.

Martinezs success in securing Gareth Barry on a permanent contract over the summer kept intact what is, in many ways, the linchpin of his side and the key to how Everton play under the Catalan namely, his partnership with James McCarthy. That protective presence in front of the back four gives the Blues wingback wonders license to bomb forward while also providing a dogged presence operating ahead of the centre halves to compress the space in which the opposition can operate.

If McCarthy surely the runner-up to Coleman as Evertons player of the year was the unsung hero behind a team that shattered its record Premier League points haul and finished fifth in 2013-14, then the Irishman and his partner in Martinezs defensive midfield axis must accept some of the responsibility for the poor start to the new campaign. Fortunately, there was plenty of time to put things right and they have already shown in the wins over West Bromwich Albion and Wolfsburg that they can do so.

Barry was a key figure in what was a largely unspectacular but vital away victory at the Hawthorns, one that yielded a clean sheet and the first three points of the season, while McCarthy's energy in closing down the spaces around his own penalty area suggest that Martinez had identified a weakness in those opening three matches. And both joined the rest of the Blues' rearguard in stifling a dynamic Wolfsburg side and restricting them to one brilliantly-executed Ricardo Rodriguez free kick in the Europa League opener at Goodison Park.

That it was a mere consolation to punctuate a handsome 4-1 Everton win was testament to an excellent defensive display and a performance from Tim Howard that exceeded the one against Belgium in the World Cup that earned him such rave reviews.

Just like a year ago, the Toffees notched their first Premier League win four matches into the season and now, after making such a good start on their return to Continental competition, they prepare to open battle on another front in the Capital One League Cup with hope that the fitness concerns and jitters that characterised the start of the season are behind them. Having deployed a largely settled team thus far, Martinez will be forced to start testing the depth of his squad and it will be very interesting to see how he and his players fare as those commitments mount up.