With matches compressed into a short amount of time, the Festive season can be a vital part of the Premier League season. Four matches in the space of 12 days, 12 points up for grabs and the chance to build some momentum heading into the second half of the season. Then, of course, there is the flip side...
Even allowing for the fact that three of Everton's four games between 20th December and New Year's Day were away from home, few Evertonians could have imagined that they'd be starting 2015 off wondering where the next point will come from, let alone the next win. A
If you can fathom it, it's a worse points return from 20 games than the 2003/04 season when we finished 17th which underscores the seriousness of a situation that appears to be rapidly running away from Roberto Martinez's control. In need of any kind of boost in confidence from this trip to the KC Stadium – the venue that saw the Blues confirm their best ever Premier League points tally with a routine 2-0 victory back in May – Everton left Humberside with their tails between their legs and an inquest underway among supporters over how things could have got so bad so quickly.
If there's one thing that you can glean from Martinez's first 18 months in charge it's that confidence is a very powerful thing. It almost carried the Toffees into the Champions League last season on a wave of dynamic, scintillating football and outstanding invidivual contributions. Shorn of it almost completely after the last month, Everton look a sorry, disorganised outfit and that was woven into what was ultimately another dire display and result.
The start was purposeful enough. Martinez's decision to change two of the more positive aspects of Sunday's performance at Newcastle by apparently dropping Luke Garbutt from the squad altogether (not, you'd hope, for his comments following that match in which he revealed the ad-hoc nature of the system the manager employed that day) and pushing Leighton Baines back to left back was a little disappointing. But the team he did pick started with the quicker tempo many have been craving in recent weeks and more attacking intent.
Steven Naismith, back in the side after serving a one-match ban, almost played Kevin Mirallas in in the first minute while a surging run by Muhamed Besic, two more changes in place of of Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy, was wasted by procrastination by Arouna Kone outside the penalty area. And when Ross Barkley's cross was met by a scuffed clearance, Mirallas skied his shot disappointingly over.
The warning signs at the other end were also in evidence, though, especially in the third minute when Gareth Barry tripped Abel Hernandez inside the box but benefited from the truly abysmal Kevin Friend's incompetence when he was only penalised with a free kick on the 18-yard line that Nikica Jelavic smashed over.
A couple of minutes later, Hernandez robbed Barkley in midfield and hammered a shot that Joel Robles fisted away for a corner before Besic picked up his almost obligatory yellow card after just 10 minutes for a late tackle on Andrew Robertson that would eventually lead to the Scot's substitution 12 minutes later. Presumably on account of the tightrope he was now walking, Besic would be withdrawn at half time.
Everton continued to demonstrate a measure of desire to get forward, though, and Naismith might have honoured a great run by Seamus Coleman, who was looking more like his marauding himself, by shunting his square pass on to Mirallas in the area but ended up getting the ball caught under his feet. Meanwhile, the Blues frustrating inability to threaten with any of their set-piece opportunities continued as Mirallas wasted a corner he had won, Baines curled an effort tamely into the 'keeper's arms, while a third somehow ended up going backwards as only Everton can do rather than being put into the area.
32 minutes of acceptable if not spectacular work was undone, though, when Coleman afforded Laim Rosenior too much space to launch a cross in from Hull's left and Baines, caught too deep against Ahmed Elmohamady, meekly allowed his opponent to muscle in ahead of him and plant a header past Robles who remained rooted to the spot. It was the kind of early ball that Martinez's Everton just seem to refuse to make these days and one the Tigers made seem so simple.
Not yet bowed, Everton responded and Mirallas almost profited by a good advantage call by the referee when Livermore fouled Baines but he fired off the post before a Coleman cross was deflected behind for another wasted corner than failed to cause the Hull defence any problems.
The killer came two minutes before half time, though. Hernandez was a alive to Jelavic ahead of him and hooked a ball over his shoulder that dropped over the Everton defence, catching Antolin Alcaraz sleeping and Barry trying, woefully, to catch him offside. Barry, having become aware of his error, just gave up on the chase and the Croatian ran onto the pass while Robles remained – inexplicably – stuck on his goalline. When the Spaniard did finally come out to close him down he had the space to comfortably lob it over him into the empty net. 2-0; confidence shot to ribbons; game over. Martinez's preferred back three system plainly wasn't working.
Who knows what was said in the dressing room at the break but Martinez's outward response was to introduce Oviedo for Besic and Lukaku for Mirallas. At the time it seemed an unfathomable decision to take off your best player but the manager suggested after the game that the Belgian forward had been feeling sore during the first half. A Lukaku-Kone partnership is one that holds promise for those who would like to see the former get some help up front from a partner who can take the pressure off him, but the Ivorian was having a largely off day and it was mystifying why he remained on the pitch until the final whistle with Samuel Eto'o sitting on the bench.
Still, after more defensive disarray had almost let Hull in for a comical third, Barkley produced the Blues' best moment of the match with mesmerising footwork that ended with Alan McGregor denying him with a point-blank save. That had come a couple of minutes after a good run by the same player had prompted a foul in a dangerous area outside the box but Lukaku steered the resulting direct free kick wide of the goal.
Jelavic then dipped another free kick of his own over Robles bar after Alcaraz had been booked for tripping his man before Naismith's side-foot shot from Coleman's cross hit Alex Bruce in the chest on its way to goal. Meanwhile, the tally of wasted Everton corners continued to climb – they'd win eight in all and fail to make any of them count – a Jelavic shot was blocked at close quarters and Hernandez almost rubbed salt into the wounds but prodded it just wide having eased past the depressingly sluggish Barry.
In between, Alcaraz was shown a second yellow card for merely getting in his opponent's way – another horrendous decision by Mr Friend – and apart from a late Barkley free kick that ballooned over, that was pretty much that. Everton, who have taken only two points from losing positions all season, were comfortably beaten and shut out from scoring for the third time in four games.
The fall from last season's grace has been quite spectacular; it's hard even to imagine that this team topped one of the toughest groups in the Europa League and went into the round of 32 draw as a seeded team just six weeks ago. They have lost nine games in the League now and with the exception of the Stoke match, it hasn't been an issue of fine margins, bad luck or poor refereeing lately – although there has been plenty of that, too. The team is leaking goals and shedding confidence at an alarming rate and it's going to take more than a few tweaks to resolve it.
Frankly, we're a mess and the time has come for some cold, hard truths, starting with Barry who is a pale imitation of the defensive linchpin he was last season when McCarthy's running masked his advancing years and glaring lack of pace. Since being rushed back from an ankle injury too soon last month, he has been shockingly bad and needs to be dropped for his reaction today alone when he realized he had completely screwed up the offside trap for Hull's second goal and simply stopped running. It's not the first time he's done it this season, either.
Next is Alcaraz who may have been harshly sent off today but he was mostly terrible and lacks the physicality and temperament for the fight that's ahead. He's a luxury we can ill afford at the moment and the sooner John Stones returns to partner Jagielka again, the better we will be. In addition to a goalkeeper to replace the horrendous Robles, a commanding centre half should be Martinez's top priority in the transfer window. He has said in the past couple of weeks that he is content with his squad but if there is money there, he will surely be under tremendous pressure to use it.
After that, a midfield general capable of running things and linking up play more effectively than we have been doing woudl be a welcome addition. Jagielka is a leader by example of performance, not one to take a team by the scruff of the neck and drag it to its feet. Strong leadership is sadly lacking in Martinez's team and it's hard to survive the rigours of the Premier League without it.
Finally, signing the potent wide role that Christian Atsu was presumably supposed to fill should also be high on the manager's to-do list. Since Steven Pienaar's career was derailed by a succession of injuries and Gerard Deulofeu left, we've struggled badly for consistent width and that has made us very easy to contain. It's high time Martinez found a settled team with pace and directness... like the one we were last season.
While a home FA Cup Third Round tie against lower division opposition would pose a dangerous banana skin to a demoralised side like Everton, it would also represent a nice, reduced-risk distraction to help the Blues regain some of their mojo. As it is, we face a strong and direct West Ham team that were unfortunate not to come away from Goodison with a draw in November. If Martinez's side are to rediscover any spine, that is the match to do it in and if they can win it, it would stand them in good stead for the visit of the Champions, Manchester City, the following weekend. Lose it... well, things just get messier and more worrying.
Injuries are compounding an increasingly poor situation for Everton where losing seems to becoming a habit. Lukaku is on the bench again as Arouna Kone is selected for the game at Hull, with Phil Jagielka back as captain and Steven Naismith returning after suspension while John Stones, and James McCarthy are still out, together with Tim Howard, Leon Osman, Tony Hibbert, Darron Gibson and Steven Pienaar.
Everton kicked off moving the ball forward with pace but only for a goal-kick. Besic did brilliantly down the Everton right and Kone seemed to have all the time in the world to punish them but chose the wrong option and a fantastic chance was gone. At the other end, Hull wanted a penalty when Barry bundled into Abel Hernández just inside the Everton 18-yard line but Kevin Friend was surprisingly adamant. Jelavic wellied the free-kick high over the bar.
Abel Hernández then easily dispossessed Barkley and took a quick shot goal, Robles parrying it away. But the Blues looked lacking in confidence all over the place as they struggled to get a grip on the game. A poor Barkley cross fell to Mirallas who skied his shot. Hull won an early corner off Jagielka, Elmohamady firing wide across goal.
Besic was in far too late with a ridiculous sliding tackle: yellow card, as Everton put themselves under pressure, but a terrific run by Coleman had the Everton fans screaming yet this time Naismith in acres of space had time to shoot but got the ball tangled in his feet, and the chance was gone. Naismith wanted a penalty for a nothing brush from Ramirez. Myler then went straight through Naismith from behind, yellow card.
Mirallas got down the right but stalled rather than crossing the ball in when he had the chance. Robertson came off very early for Hull, Rosenior replacing him. Everton had some good forward possession without going anywhere, with midfielders hesitant to play forward balls to front players getting themselves into offside positions. Barkley went on a good long run through the middle but went down a little too easily for Kevin Friend under slight pressure from Elmohamady as he crossed the 18-yard line.
Hernandez got a sight of goal but failed to beat Roles at the near post. Rosenior crossed in and Elmohamadhy had an easy job brushing Baines aside as he headed just inside the post to put Hull ahead very very cheaply. Hull got a free-kick and worked another chance but Hernandez could only make glancing contact with the header. Baines floated his corner to the Dee in a variant of his normal delivery but it was defended away and Hull attacked again with crowd well behind them.
Livermore took out Baines as he made a good pass to Mirallas who was called offside as he shot against the post, the Hull player getting a yellow, Coleman tried to force his way through and won a corner that was delivered strangely to no-one in particular and Hull were soon on attack, a shot form Hernandez in lots of space being blocked away.
A bizarre up and under toattlly caught out the Everton defence and Jelavic was off to the races, but stuttered a little before he lofted the chip over Robles and into the Everton net for a quite farcical second goal to the hosts.
Naismith won a free-kick just before the break but McGregor was not tested by Baines's strike and Kone got carded for a silly foul as a demoralized Everton side went in 2-0 down at the break with a huge mountain to climb.
Changes were made at the break, Lukaku on for Mirallas, with Oviedo getting a rare chance in place of Besic. Barkley got into the Hull area but completely missed his shot, however, retained the ball to fire in a low cross. At the other end, Everton were under pressure again, and Hull came very close to scoring a third on two occasions as the Blues looked seriously ragged. But Barkley was fouled and Lukaku curled the set piece well wide.
Rosenior pulled his hamstring and collapsed on the sideline, Hull fans screaming for the game to stop as Everton rightly played on, Barkley producing some magic to dig out a shot that was perhaps too close to McGregor. Barkley did make a good steal but his pass did not reach Kone and it was Lukaku who shot tamely at McGregor. Everton tried to apply pressure at a corner but nothing came of it. Barkley was trying to be too clever with his deft touches in midfield, only ceding possession, as the ball just was not running for the Blues.
Barry got his now customary yellow card for the stupidest of pointless challenges and the Everton goal was under pressure again, a shot going through to Robles off the skiddy turf as Hull had a good spell, Alcaraz also getting booked rather harshly as Hernandez stepped across his path. From the resulting free kick, Jelavic curled it just over the corner of the Everton goal. At the other end Coleman crossed in low for Naismith to shoot on goal but it hit a defender in the chest. More pressure from Everton saw a better corner from Baines but still short of Lukaku at the far post. Hernandez looked to break from the Everton corner, but Livermore lost his footing.
McGuire cynically held back Coleman and Everton looked to attack but Kone was lost for ideas and the move collapsed pathetically. Coleman was soing his best to make things happen down the right channel, but the link-ups simply weren't coming off. A strange incident followed, Barry seemingly fouling Henandez and Friend initially playing on until Hernandez stopped, then bizarrely giving Hull the free-kick (perhaps he was playing advantage) as Barry somehow avoided a second yellow card.
Another really nervy moment saw Jelavic come perilously close to scoring again with the Everton defence at sixes and sevens as the game entered the final 10 minutes without the Blues having a serious attempt on the Hull goal. At the other end, Jagielka did very well to turn a brilliant Hull free-kick delivery behind for a corner.
As Everton pushed forward, there were nervous spaces at the back that needed some rearguard action from Alcaraz to close down. Baines did pick out a great ball for Lukaku but the Big Man could only head over from close range as he feared he would be called offside.
Alcaraz was then run into by a Hull player and as he turned away, seemed to dismiss friend's call for a free-kick, and was bizarrely shown a second yellow card, then red. Very odd. Hull then showed how to do quick counterattacking play, a tremendous pass playing in Hernandez who's first time efforr fell thankfully wide with the goal gaping and Robles well beaten.
This was hardly Everton maintaining the style and 'philosophy' of the manager — they looked even less toothless and impotent than in the last three miserable defeats, if that were even possible. Surly Martinez will come under even greater pressure than before this 'pivotal' game that sadly changed nothing for him and his abysmally poor charges.
Hull City: McGregor, Elmohamady, Chester, Bruce, Davies, Robertson (23' Rosenior (56' McGuire [Y:88'])), Meyler [Y:20'], Livermore [Y:39'], Ramirez (46' Brady), Hernandez, Jelavic.Subs not Used:Sagbo, Harper, Ince, Aluko.
Everton: Robles; Coleman, Jagielka, Alcaraz [Y:67'; YR:86'], Baines; Barry [Y:65'], Besic [Y:35'] (46' Oviedo); Naismith, Mirallas (46' Lukaku), Barkley; Kone [Y:45'].
Subs not Used: Griffiths, Distin, Eto'o, McGeady, Atsu.
Kick off: 3pm
Referee: Kevin Friend
Everton begin 2015 with a second successive away fixture as they look to end their longest losing sequence thus far under Roberto Martinez's management. The Blues begin the new year just five points above their hosts, Hull, and the relegation zone they're hovering above on goal difference; the increasingly distant promised land of the Champions League is 12 points away.
Before thoughts of getting back into the chase for Europe can be entertained, one that Martinez insists is still alive despite this side's poor form, the immediate focus is finding a win which, should they manage it at the KC Stadium, would be only Everton's sixth of the campaign and their third on the road.
The Catalan has Steven Naismith available again for selection after the Scot served a one-match suspension on Sunday and John Stones spoke to evertontv on Wednesday expressing his hopes of being fit enough to play after taking a knock to his recently-healed ankle.
While Phil Jagielka and Tim Howard had to be withdrawn at half time with injuries of their own, Stones managed to finish the Boxing Day clash with Stoke but joined both players on the sidelines for the defeat at Newcastle. Howard is ruled out until the end of January at the earliest with a torn calf muscle but with just an apparently twisted ankle, the skipper should be back in action a lot sooner, possibly for this trip to Hull.
That would provide a significant boost to the manager who saw his stand-in centre-half partnership breached three times at St James' Park. A restoration of what has become the undisupted first-choice pairing in Jagielka and Stones would go a long way to restoring some confidence at the back as Everton seek some solidity having accumulated the worst defensive record in the top flight bar QPR.
What remains to be seen is how convinced Martinez was by the other he wasn't forced to make for the Newcastle game, most significant of which was moving Leighton Baines forward from his usual spot at fullback and drafting in Luke Garbutt. Both players emerged with more credit than most from an otherwise sorry performance and it would not be surprising to see the manager try the experiment again.
Kevin Mirallas' goalscoring appearance off the bench will almost certainly earn him a recall to the side at the expense of Aiden McGeady after presumably being rested on Sunday but Romelu Lukaku's return is not a foregone conclusion. Arouna Kone's first start in well over year yielded his first goal and he will surely have shown enough to have earned another opportunity to impress.
In midfield, much depends on whether James McCarthy is deemed fit enough to play given his recurrent hamstring problems and, if he is, whether Martinez was sufficiently concerned by Gareth Barry's ponderous and error-strewn display at St James' Park to be moved to take him out of the line-up. Muhamed Besic is waiting in the wings should there be an opening having not featured since the defeat at Southampton 11 days ago.
There is no question that Everton need three points and they need them quickly, preferably against Steve Bruce's relegation-threatened side who will be missing Mohamed Diame and Michael Dawson but could welcome back James Chester after suspension. As the Tigers showed in the reverse fixture a month ago, they are well-organised and can be very difficult to break down and the Blues can expect more of the same high pressing aimed at stifling their forward progress and forcing mistakes as they try to play out from the back.
Once again, this will be an examination of Everton's character and an opportunity for Martinez to follow through on his pledge to eradicate the individual errors that have plagued his team this season. With confidence as fragile as ever, that is going to be tough to do but there could be no better New Year tonic than an away win.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2014-15 Reports Index|
|Everton fans' reports|
|HULL CITY (4-4-2)|
|Robertson (Rosenior 26'
(McGuire 56' ))
|Ramirez (Brady 45')|
|Subs not used|
|Mirallas (Lukaku 45')|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|Aston Villa||0-0||Crystal Palace|
|Stoke City||1-1||Man United|
|West Ham||1-1||West Brom|
|7||West Ham United||32|
|16||Queens Park Rangers||19|
|17||West Bromwich Albion||18|