In describing Everton's participation in the Europa League, Roberto Martinez referred to the club's forthcoming Continental adventure as "an interesting experiment" – a tacit admission, perhaps, that while he believes the Blues would be hard-pressed to win it, the whole experience will be hugely beneficial in terms of his longer-term aims. While there was nothing experimental about his approach to the visit of Chelsea today, you suspect that this bizarre match will be just as instructive for the Spaniard's more immediate challenges. And there were some harsh lessons learned during a dizzying encounter at Goodison Park.
Everton's world hasn't come down around them in the aftermath of a 6-3 home defeat to the early contenders for the Premier League title, a result that leaves them with just two points from a possible nine so far, but the seismic waves from the manner in which it played out have shattered a few assumptions that were formed during last season's impressive fifth-place finish. Despite fears to the contrary given the charitable defence over which he presided at Wigan, Everton under Martinez in 2013-14 possessed a remarkably resilient back line, one that finished the campaign with the third-best defensive record in the top flight in the face of regular disruptions at centre-half caused by injuries to Phil Jagielka, Sylvain Distin and Antolin Alacaraz.
With such a platform on which to build, one significantly bolstered by the precocious form of John Stones and consolidated in the close season with the permanent acquisition of Gareth Barry in defensive midfield, Martinez's focus this summer has, understandably, been on the other end of the field. So it has come as a jarring shock to see 10 goals – a quarter of the league goals conceded last season – in the "against" column after just three games. What was once an undoubted strength has become, almost overnight, a fundamental weakness, one that now demands immediate attention.
Some supporters, no doubt, still hadn't found their seats at the start of the game by the time the Blues were, astonishingly, 2-0 down. Chelsea had scored with the first attack of the game, Diego Costa defying a typically sensationalist report on Thursday in the-rag-that-shall-not-be-named that he had torn his hamstring in training to fire through Tim Howard's legs with just 34 seconds on the clock. Then, Branislav Ivanovich finished with equal aplomb from an offside position two minutes after that. Much of Martinez's pre-match preparations and supporter expectations for a fixture that Everton had won on four of the last five occasions eviscerated in less than four unbelievable minutes and the proverbial mountain to climb for the home side.
The defending of both goals set the tone for the rest of the afternoon, one characterised by individual errors, slack marking and mystifying lack of pressure on the ball in crucial areas. Phil Jagielka's ill-advised decision to attempt to trap Costa offside instead of remaining goalside as the Spanish international latched into Cesc Fabregas's through-ball backfired spectacularly, leaving Howard exposed in the kind of one-on-one situation in which he so rarely excels. Ramires, meanwhile, had been afforded the freedom of Everton's penalty area for the second goal, giving him time prod the ball forward to Ivanovich who was half a yard offside but was allowed to proceed and double the visitors' advantage.
The Blues could have capitulated entirely in the face of Chelsea's early intensity but it was to their credit that they eventually got things back on something resembling an even keel as the first half progressed, although not before Howard had escaped a possible red card in the eighth minute for clearly handling the ball outside his area. He was fortunate that the referee's assistant had not caught up with play and was deemed to have gathered the ball on the line. It wasn't even close and you wondered if there wasn't some sympathy at play for an Everton side reeling against the ropes from the Londoners' early one-two punch.
Growing into the game more and more, Martinez's side began controlling the play and looked to have halved the deficit after a quarter of an hour when Seamus Coleman won a corner on the right, Romelu Lukaku thumped a header from Kevin Mirallas's resulting set-piece off the crossbar and Distin stabbed the loose ball over the line. The linesman's flag put paid to Goodison's celebrations, though, signalling that the Frenchman was offside.
Steven Naismith flashed a left-foot shot a yard wide from 25 yards a minute later and Mirallas – energetic, inventive and practically indefatigable all afternoon – tested Thibault Courtois with a decent curling effort from just outside the area but his compatriot in the Chelsea goal was well positioned to make the save.
Everton came very close to being punished for not making the breakthrough that their improved play had deserved, though, when Jagielka was – unforgivably – robbed of possession in a dangerous area in his own half two minutes before the break and Costa was played in on goal again to try and make it 3-0. This time it was Distin who failed to execute the offside trap but another erroneous offside decision saw the flag go up with the striker level; in any case, he hit the post with his shot.
And just two minutes after that let-off, on the stroke of half time, the Blues scored in a moment of beautiful fluidity. Aiden McGeady, starting in place of the injured Steven Pienaar, threaded an inch-perfect pass down the right channel to meet Coleman's overlapping run and he clipped his centre with similar precision to find Mirallas who powered a header into the far corner on the run to send Everton into the break with their tails up.
More normal service seemed to have been restored and Martinez's men spent the next quarter of the contest trying to respond to this stern examination of their top-four credentials which would surely have been enhanced had they been able to claw back a two-goal deficit against one of the title favourites. Though they remained largely in command of proceedings, they found chances at a premium with Lukaku's wayward shot from Mirallas's inviting cut-back just after the restart their only real opportunity until the final 20-odd minutes of the match.
The Blues remained susceptible to being sliced open by Chelsea, though, which they were eight minutes into the second half when Howard had to divert Costa's shot wide with an out-stretched foot to keep it at 2-1. And the contest looked to have been put beyond them midway through the second half when Eden Hazard brushed past James McCarthy along the byline with embarrassing ease and aimed a low ball for the centre of Howard's six-yard box but Coleman was helpless as his attempt to cut out the cross merely guided it into his own net via the far post. Costa gathered the ball from the net and couldn't resist class-lessly taunting the Irishman in retribution for an earlier spat that had seen the Spaniard booked and that prompted a furious reaction from Howard that could, on another day, have earned him an early bath.
And then all hell broke loose for 10 madcap minutes. Everton immediately moved up a gear and McGeady finished a jinking run by picking out Naismith beautifully with another nicely-weighted pass that split the visitors' defence and the Scot buried his shot into the net with the outside of his foot. 3-2. Game on. Enter Samuel Eto'o for his debut as McGeady made way, not knowing that his good work was about to be undone by more slack marking at the other end.
Once again, the blue shirts stood off as the yellow of Chelsea swarmed around the edge of their area five minutes later – McCarthy and Distin the chief culprits this time – and Ramires was able to roll the ball square to Nemanja Matic who set himself and fired a deflected shot inside the post to restore the two-goal margin.
Again Everton came back, though. Baines swung in a free kick from the left, picked out Eto'o, and he steered an impressively cushioned header past Courtois's despairing grasp and it was game back on at 4-3.
Once more, however, the seas of the Blues' defence parted all too easily at the other end as Barry lost Matic for the umpteenth time and allowed him to exchange a one-two pass with Ramires as blue shirted players chased shadows around the box and the Brazilian found the inside of the far side of the goal with Howard rocking back on his heels to make it 5-3. Frustratingly, Everton were just unable to stabilise themselves long enough to stay in touching distance of Chelsea.
And yet still they came back and almost scored what would have been a stunning fourth goal that might, you felt, have given them sufficient momentum to grab an improbable draw in the closing stages. Another scintillating move down the right ended with Mirallas steaming into the box to meet a cross from Coleman and his first-time shot seemed destined for the back of the net until Courtois finger-tipped it onto the post. It was not to be.
Their fire largely quelled at this point, Everton seemed resigned to their fate going into the last five minutes and Martinez introduced Muhamed Besic for his long-awaited debut with a couple of minutes to get a taste of Premier League action. Unfortunately, his first touch would be a memorable one for all the wrong reasons; an inappropriate piece of exhibitionism in the centre circle saw his backheel send Didier Drogba into space behind the stranded centre-halves and the Ivorian's own backheel took Distin out of the game again to allow Costa to beat Howard with a low shot into the far corner to complete the Blues' misery.
The Bosnian's error set the seal on what will hopefully be an important learning experience all the way around. In the fallout of this first defeat of the new season, Jagielka and Distin – and to an extent Howard, as well – have borne the brunt of the criticism that has exploded on social media and online but their individual errors tell only part of the story. Of equal concern is the manner in which McCarthy and Barry, a seemingly telepathic partnership last season that was a vital component of the Blues' rearguard, gifted Chelsea's players as much time as space as they needed in which to carve out chance after chance. Without the protective shield of their industry and tenacity in front of the back four, it doesn't matter which central-defensive pairing Martinez opts to try next, they will continue to be exposed.
Our sudden fallibility at the back has rightly been the centre of attention but buried beneath that awful defensive display were some truly wonderful attacking moments and a never-say-die attitude that continues to be a credit to the manager and his players alike. Everton carved Chelsea open with some lovely football at times, scored three fine goals and might have had a fourth were it not for Courtois's heroics and that bodes extremely well should Martinez find the solution to his new-found problems at the back. Despite Lukaku's middling start to life as a permanent Blue, this Everton team will score goals this season, as Eto'o (who looked sharp), Mirallas and Naismith – three players who emerged from the game with enormous credit – showed, but they can't go on conceding like they did today.
Plenty for Martinez to ponder and work on over the international break, then, ahead of the meeting with struggling West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns. Thankfully, he has a little time but not much margin for error as important games come thick and fast in the second half of September.
You wait for a decent strike-force for years and now we've got one, the defence falls apart. Typical Everton...
As they did a year ago, Everton took on Chelsea at Goodison Park looking for their first victory of the season, but it rapidly turned into the wrong kind of goalfest. There was added intrigue with Romelu Lukaku facing Chelsea for the first time but new signing Samuel Eto'o, released by Chelsea, was kept on the bench alongside Besic, Gibson and Stones. Steven Pienaar was ruled out, though, along with Ross Barkley, Arouna Kone and Bryan Oviedo, who were all recovering from injury, while Christian Atsu (on loan from Chelsea) could not play against his parent club.
It took only 34 seconds for Chelsea to take the lead in their first attack, Fabregas playing in Diego Costa who slotted with ease through Howard's legs to give Everton a massive, massive mountain to climb. Jagielka was claiming offside but it was marginal at best.
Inside 3 mins later and Everton were 2-0 down, Chelsea's next attack again ripping the Blues defence apart with a good ball behind the Everton back line. This time it was Ivanovic a little more marginally offside (along with two other Chelsea players!) but still not enough for the linesman's flag, despite a volley of verbal abuse, Howard was again made to look like anything but the US Secretary of Defense.
Everton reacted to the double setback with some determined but ineffective attacking, only to see Chelsea again switching play at speed, a long ground ball forcing Howard to advance clearly out his area to collect the ball in his hands in front of Costa, but this time the linesman (behind the play) gave Everton a huge benefit of any doubt.
Everton won their first corner on 15 mins, taken by McGeady, Lukaku heading onto the bar, coming off Distin and eventually bundled in but Distin was offside at the time of Lukaku's header. Naismith had a low drive from distance, just a yard wide.
A super run into the box from Coleman typified the good Blues response to a shocking start, his cutback well placed for Naismith to shoot but the Scot's strong effort was blocked away as the possession stats built relentlessly in Everton's favour. However, vigilance for the possibility of a quick Chelsea break was essential.
Barry won a good 50-50 ball but got called for it, much to Everton's annoyance, Fabregas firing the ball over everyone to Howard, as the poor call gave Chelsea some rare possession. Everton pushed back, Coleman forcing a second corner, which curled behind before coming back in. Mirallas powered in a good third corner from the other side but it was headed away.
After Jagielka allowed Hazard to run around him far too easily, Fabregas almost scored, Distin deflecting his shot just just past the other post with Howard stranded as Chelsea threatened to punish the Blues with a third goal. At the other end, Chelsea were defending solidly, and keeping Everton at distance, Mirallas trying to curl one around Courtois but from too far out.
The next attack summed up Everton's problem, recycling the ball repeatedly across and back, too many players with their backs to goal and unable to push the ball in, without getting it anywhere near the Chelsea 6-yard box until possession finally broke down. Something special was needed to open up a very disciplined Chelsea defence that seemed to revel in the challenge to "Break us down, why don't you?"
Jagielka was too easily dispossessed and Costa was played in again, this time clearly onside but called offside by the linesman as his shot beat Howard and hit the post. A nice move just before the break finally produced the desired result, a textbook header for Mirallas off a great Coleman cross put Everton right back in the game.
No changes at the break and Everton came forward well, Lukaku playing in Naismith, but just behind him, the ball coming back from Mirallas to the big Belgian striker who wellied it high over the Chelsea bar. Everton were pressing with determination, and Baines won a corner off a lively-looking cross but it was taken short and no-one was close enough to the second ball, as Samuel Eto'o started his warm-up on the sidelines.
Mirallas won a free-kick that was powered in superbly but Distin was rather uncharitably called offside. Everton again allowed Costa in on goal, but this time a massive stretch by Howard saved an embarrassing third goal as the action and tempo of the game increased to fever pitch, Costa again beating the offside trap to fire low as Howard saved.
Diego Costa got into it somewhat with Coleman and saw yellow after upsetting a number of Blue-shirted players, and the two carried on, Coleman needling the Premier League newcomer something rotten. The Everton crowd were really enjoying it despite the scoreline, as many joined in to heckle the visitors long and loud, Everton winning the little tussles on points.
A free-kick powered in again by Baines won another corner in front of the frothing Gwladys Street as Eto'o was readied to come on, and another corner conceded by Chelsea but again not put to good enough use by the Blues. Martinez gave the starting team a few more minutes as they had responded well to his half-time 'inspirational talk', Lukaku almost turning a defender but getting called offside.
Everton kept pounding away at Chelsea but Mirallas wasted a great free-kick opportunity, putting the ball into the Chelsea wall. Once again, Lukaku's first touch let him down horribly when he had a chance to break through the middle. Hazard was then allowed to waltz down the byeline and slot in off Coleman for an own-gaol that bobbled in off the far post. Something again involving Costa (retributive words to Coleman?) got Howard riled enough to earn a card in the aftermath, and a few minutes later, Naismith scored for the third match running, McGeady advancing through the middle and setting it up perfectly for Naismith to put the Blues back within a goal of Murinho's rampant Yellows.>
Finally, 70 mins gone and Samuel Eto'o made his first appearance in the aftermath of the goal celebrations... on for the goal supplier, McGeady, but had Martinez left it too late?
Chelsea grabbed a fourth as a shot deflected off Jagielka and in off the post. Then Eto'o scored a fantastic header off Baines's excellent free-kick. Astounding stuff! Chelsea calmly played around a bit until Ramiers ran past a static McCarthy to fire home Chelsea's 5th in an incredible spell.
Into the final 10 minutes and Everton were stunned by Chelsea's resilience as they kept coming back. A fantastic move, started by Lukaku, saw Coleman play in Mirallas and a clever flick going inside the far post until Courtois made an incredible save.
An overly zealous tackle on Ramires by Naismith summed up Everton's determination to get back into contention with time running out as Drogba came on. Martinez finally brought on Besic for the final minute (Why?) but his ridiculous first-touch backheel flick gave the ball away straight to Costa who waltzed through to make it 6-3 for Chelsea. Bewildering madness.
School of Science? Or the new Wigan?!? Some criminally horrendous defending by Everton the only consistent theme developing after such good season stats last time.
It speaks to the rapidity with which he has solidified Everton as genuine top-four threat that is was only a year ago that the jury was still very much out on Roberto Martinez's fledgeling tenure in the Goodison Park "hotseat".
The first three matches in the 2013-14 campaign had yielded just two goals and three points against teams that would all finish in the bottom four come May as the players adapted to the new possession-based playing style mandated by the Spaniard.
On the back of some dramatic transfer deadline-day business two weeks earlier, Everton went into their first meeting of the season with Chelsea still searching for their first victory and it is under similar circumstances for the Blues that Jose Mourinho's side come to town this weekend.
The timing of this fixture may be slightly different, particularly with regard to the transfer deadline and the strength of the squad, but the Blues come into this game in similar need of a victory over Chelsea to ignite their season after successive draws.
This time, the bulk of the manager's transfer business is already done but, as was the case last year, Martinez's preparations for the Londoners' visit are hampered by injuries to key players. Steven Pienaar, an absentee from this match last year due to injury, is ruled out with a groin problem, Ross Barkley remains sidelined with a knee injury, and Romelu Lukaku is a doubt with a toe injury.
Lukaku is expected to play, though, just as he did for 75 minutes last week against Arsenal, at least until he could continue no longer. He is in line to face his old team, Chelsea, for the first time since leaving Stamford Bridge last month to become Everton's record signing – he was ineligible to face them during his loan spell with the Blues last season but was unveiled to Blues supporters on the field at Goodison prior to the match against his parent club.
Lukaku's impact on Everton's season would begin the following week at Upton Park but it was a Steven Naismith header, a crucial defensive intervention by debutant Gareth Barry and a resolute performance across the team that earned a vital 1-0 victory over Chelsea that day last September and Martinez will be hoping for a similarly transformative result this time around.
As if Lukaku's reunion with Chelsea weren't intriguing enough, Saturday's match might also see new Everton signing Samuel Eto'o make his debut against his former club and he, too, might feel like he has a point to prove to Mourinho. The Cameroon star made his Premier League debut at Goodison in this fixture last year and, were it not for that brilliant block by Barry, would have opened his account with a goal that might have changed the eventual result.
Though Eto'o is very keen to be involved this weekend, Martinez has cautioned that he may not be ready to play until after the international break. The 33 year-old's last competitive match was in his country's narrow defeat to Mexico at the World Cup before he succumbed to a knee injury but he may be fit enough for a late cameo off the substitute's bench. If so, he would fill the vacancy on the bench created by Christian Atsu who cannot play against his full-time employers.
Pienaar's injury means Martinez will have to make at least one change to the team that started against Arsenal last weekend. Leon Osman came on to replace the South African after just nine minutes of that game and he is the most likely choice to make his first start of the season, although Aiden McGeady and Darron Gibson (unlikely given his lack of match fitness) are other alternative options, as is a cental trio of Barry, James McCarthy and Muhamed Besic in a 4-3-3 formation.
Chelsea, for their part, could be without their own big-money summer signing in the form of Diego Costa. Though a headline-grabbing red-top assertion that he would be out for three months has largely been discredited, fears that the Spanish international will have to be rested because of a hamstring strain until after the international break don't appear to be mind games or diversion tactics from Mourinho. (The striker had hamstring issues at the end of last season and limped out of the Champions League final after a mere 10 minutes as a result.)
That would leave the Chelsea boss, who has seen his side beat both newly-promoted Burnley and Leicester fairly comfortably, with Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres as options up front but Martinez will be focusing on his own charges and, hopefully impressing on them both the need to keep things tight at the back but also to drive home an advantage at the other end when they have it.
Two draws that felt like defeats against Leicester City and Arsenal have seen four vital points frittered away already and increased the sense of urgency around the need to chalk up that first victory. A repeat of last season and another three points against Chelsea would certainly be a great time to get it.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2014-15 Reports Index|
|McGeady (Eto'o 70')|
|Lukaku (Besic 89')|
|Subs not used|
|Fabregas (Drogba 89')|
|Hazard (Filipe Luis 83')|
|Willian (Mikel 75')|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|Man City||0-1||Stoke City|
|Aston Villa||2-1||Hull City|
|11||West Ham United||3|
|18||West Bromwich Albion||2|