It was around this time a couple of years ago I walked away from Goodison Park shocked in the wake of an Everton loss: a 1-0 defeat to Sunderland on Boxing Day 2013.
The Black Cats, to their credit, nicked an early goal, capitalised on a Tim Howard red card and defended for their lives against Roberto Martinez’s rampant 10 men. It was the only time in the calendar year the Toffees lost in the Premier League on home soil and although the team performed admirably, it was an alien feeling walking out of the stadium with no points accrued.
Since that game, losses at Goodison have never been quite so surprising. Under David Moyes and during the early days of Martinez’s reign, Everton didn’t really do losing at home. Teams would usually have to play wonderfully to smuggle a point out of Goodison; they’d need an accompanying share of luck to supplement the display to take all three.
So it’s concerning that Leicester City, who deserve effusive praise for their campaign, walked away from the Old Lady with victory on Saturday without so much as a scratch to show for their efforts.
They defended with care, were energetic in midfield and assured in capitalising on three rudimentary—and increasingly routine—defensive errors at the back from Everton. They were competent in all aspects of their play, but it was not the kind of showing which has previously been needed to take three points from Goodison.
The famous old ground has long been branded as a typical “tough place to go” by those in football spheres. A tight pitch, suffocating atmosphere and, in the main, very awkward and very hardened opposition. Yet as the weeks tick by, it seems as though taking anything from Goodison isn’t quite so difficult anymore.
Everton looked soft on Saturday as the Foxes snaffled a 3-2 win. In terms of general play, the hosts probably had the edge and had the result swung either way, there would have been little in terms of vehement complaints from either camp.
Yet, while I felt emboldened by the performance against Crystal Palace at Goodison even though the result wasn’t perfect, this game against Leicester was a little different.
The Foxes seemed aware that if they carried out the basics well, a positive result would follow. In weeks gone by they have committed players forward in numbers on the break, with Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy let off the leash. But against Everton they were compact and committed, seemingly safe in the knowledge the Toffees would eventually hand them opportunities.
And so it transpired. Ramiro Funes Mori was rash for the first, Howard was erratic for second and Everton failed to clear their lines all too familiarly for the third. On all three instances, the visitors were razor sharp in their reactions and clinical in taking chances.
The pattern of play may have cast an illusion Everton were in control of this one and the statistics, showing the hosts boasted 67 per cent of possession, will add clout to that assessment. But Leicester seemed happy to just do enough, luring this team and the fans into what was a misplaced sense of security.
Martinez’s men were suckers for it and worryingly, it’s becoming a trend. Everton have won just three games on home soil from their nine so far this season; last campaign it was a meagre seven from 19. For a side that has ambitions of pushing for the Europa League, never mind the Champions League, that’s plain underachievement.
Some killer instinct would definitely help matters. Players who, like some of the visitors did on Saturday, are happy to rile their opponents, give away cheap free-kicks when needed, put in tackles and get in the referee’s face. They’re traits which may not fall in line with the football utopia which Martinez is trying to create at Everton, but they’re necessary.
All successful sides have at least one unashamedly nasty bastard within their ranks; a player who your own fans adore but the rest of the football stratosphere despises. This Toffees team, for all their flamboyance and thrilling forward play, are lacking even one of those characters.
It’s a dearth of tenacity which has been completely scarce in Everton’s defensive play. Which player in the starting XI from the weekend’s game will making a crunching tackle? Which member of the squad would put his body on the line for the cause? Which players set the tempo by pressing opponents high up the pitch? It’s tough to find candidates.
There seems a total disinterest in all aspects of defending currently, as if it’s merely an afterthought for these players and manager. Goals are extremely easy to come by at Goodison, with a whopping 15 being conceded on home soil this season; only West Bromwich have been more accommodating to their visitors in the division this term.
They aren’t aesthetic traits, but for fans that have been brought up on players like Dixie Dean, Brian Labone, Peter Reid, Dave Watson, Duncan Ferguson and Tim Cahill, snideness and grittiness can turn Goodison into a cauldron. It’s a quality which has turned this famous old venue into an almost unplayable arena for opposition teams at times.
Of course, all these qualities are important on the road too, but solid home form is the fundamental bedrock of a strong season. It’s something which must be rediscovered.
At the moment, the stadium is in a malaise and streetwise visiting teams like Leicester are well aware of that fact. Everton are far too nice at this juncture and if this team is to progress as we all hope it does, Martinez and his players must show some backbone when they next stride out to Z-cars.