Everton 2 - 2 Watford
The charge to the last 16 of the Europa League aside, 2014-15 was a forgettable campaign that Evertonians were, by and large, all too happy to consign to history. The end of the season and the summer transfer window offered the promise of a partial rebuilding exercise and the injection of some select fresh faces capable of elevating what had become a predictable and pedestrian team last term into a side capable of challenging in the top six this season.
It has, for reasons best left for another day, been an opportunity spurned thus far and if proof of that were needed, this third opening-day 2-2 draw against newly-promoted opposition provided it. Roberto Martinez described his players afterwards as still being "in pre-season mode" but for many in the near-capacity crowd at Goodison Park today, it was as if the summer had never happened.
Not only is the team almost exactly the same – of the two new signings, only Tom Cleverley was fit to play, while the injured Leighton Baines was again deputised competently by Brendan Galloway – but many of the familiar deficiencies that under-pinned a disappointing 11th-place finish last season were still painfully evident against the Hornets: that the Blues lack genuine quailty in the final third in the continuing absence of the likes of Steven Pienaar; that Romelu Lukaku may look the part but he is not well-suited to the "target-man", lone-striker role; that the defence is prone to conceding soft goals; and that we are capable of scoring when we move the ball quickly and apply sustained pressure to the opposition but we don't really "turn up" until we've fallen behind.
Martinez stated once more after the game that the team needs fresh blood and the arrival of those three new additions he has promised but, as yet, there is no sign of them and the fear that has dogged many fans ever since the fixtures were released in June is becoming a reality – that we would fail to beat Watford before facing three daunting matches at Southampton and Spurs and at home to Manchester City before late arrivals would finally be drafted in before the deadline. The 1st of September feels an awfully long way away...
A chief complaint for many Blues last season was that any side that did their homework could work out how to shut down Everton's most potent weapons and frustrate them into a harmless passing game in front of two banks of four. New Watford boss Quique Flores certainly seemed to have done that as his Hornets regularly swarmed around Kevin Mirallas and Ross Barkley to starve them of the time and space in which they revel to make things happen. Any notion that Flores' side would be vulnerable due to the need to bed in all of his club's new signings was quickly dismissed – Watford were well-organised and though they had far less possession, when they had the ball they often used it better than their hosts, particularly in the first half.
They settled quickly and their early energy had required Galloway to time an excellent slide tackle to deny Ikechi Anya early on before Troy Deeney sliced a knockdown wide from a decent position. Those were two warning signs that were followed by the opening goal in the 14th minute. Jurado crossed low from the left, the ball came off Phil Jagielka in the box and dropped invitingly to Miguel Layun in a central position in front of goal to hammer past Tim Howard.
Everton's response was slow in coming but a set-piece carrying rare danger saw Gareth Barry's header touched over the bar by Heurelho Gomes, while the best move from Martinez's side of the first half involving Mirallas and Cleverley on the left ended with the goalkeeper tipping Barkley's shot behind. It was, by and large, ponderous stuff from the Blues, though, with the occasional burst by Barkley or Mirallas coming to nothing as attacks broke down in familiar fashion in the final third. Indeed, Barkley might have done better to release an expectant – and ultimately visibly frustrated – Lukaku when the pair had time to drive towards the opposition defence but he ended up running across the three retreating yellow shirts and into a cul-de-sac.
The presence of all three of Barry, McCarthy and Cleverley, three similar central midfield players long on industry but short on creativity and guile – didn't help. The Barry-McCarthy axis came into its own during Martinez's first season in charge in the freedom it afforded Baines and Coleman to raid as wing-backs down the flanks but with the former out of action, it felt superfluous; while Barry was competent in his holding role before moving back to left back in the second half, you couldn't help feeling that dropping the more youthful Cleverley back and bringing in another attacking body in place of the veteran Barry would have been a better solution.
After an insipid first half that yielded no clear-cut chances for Everton to speak of, things had to – and did – get better once the second period got underway and there was an almost immediate improvement in the delivery into the box from wide areas. Unfortunately, Mirallas was let down by a lack of blue jerseys in the centre when he bent a superb cross behind the Watford defence in the first attack after the break before his cross-cum-shot had Gomes momentarily panicking before batting the ball over his bar for another corner. And had Barkley's teasing cross been a couple of inches lower, Lukaku might have opened his account in the 50th minute. Unfortunately, he just couldn't get sufficiently above it to guide it into the net and he ended up putting it harmlessly wide of the far post.
Still, it was more promising from the Blues until Mirallas was taken out by a horrible tackle from Valon Behrami and looked to have become the latest victim of the Goodison injury curse as he rolled around in agony clutching his ankle. The Belgian was able to get back to his feet and eventually returned to the match before being replaced by Bryan Oviedo when it was clear he wasn't right to continue.
In between, however, Everton had equalised thanks to the timely intervention of Martinez's first substitute, Arouna Kone. The Ivorian had come on for Galloway in the 63rd minute and he was in the right place 13 minutes later to field Coleman's centre and lay it back to Barkley who unloaded a sweetly-struck shot that bulleted into net from 20-odd yards out to level the game.
With the crowd now back in the game and the Blues' tails up, it should have been a moment that signalled the changing of the tide in the contest. Apart from a couple of moments where Howard had to parry away Holebas' long-range effort and John Stones had brilliantly blocked Anya's effort, Watford had become entrenched to a degree in a defensive posture but they immediately started venturing forward again after conceding the goal and were back in front within seven minutes.
Finding himsef in space in front of the Blues' defence, Odion Ighalo twisted the hitherto imperious Stones into knots and prompted him into going to ground prematurely to block his faked shot before dragging the ball onto his right foot and firing low past Howard's left glove. All very "Palace at home" from a year ago and frustration enveloped Goodison once more.
Thankfully, Everton had what was arguably their most incisive moment of the game up their sleeve and it was no coincidence that the two strikers combined to create it because the Blues had looked more dangerous with Kone alongside Lukaku. The former's knockdown fell to the latter and when Kone continued his overlapping run and collected Lukaku's nicely-weighted pass, he found the far corner with a crisp shot across the stranded Gomes.
2-2 and now there were hopes of a late charge for a winner but it never really materialised. Gomes saved comfortably from a Lukaku volley from the left side of the area and Anya dragged a poor shot well wide at the other and the two sides had to be content with a point apiece.
One game doesn't make a season but this one certainly perpetuated a trend firmly established last season, one which clearly illustrated the priorities for the summer. The week to come before the lunchtime date with Southampton at the St Mary's will no doubt find Evertonians eagerly waiting for news or evidence of Martinez's ongoing search for reinforcements and it's clear that some fresh blood is badly needed.
Kone will hopefully have given the manager something to think about in terms of playing a second striker in certain situations but it shouldn't fool anyone into believing we don't need a reliable goalscoring alternative added to the mix. More important still is that hard-to-fill playmaker role and the acquisition of a player capable of unlocking a defence or winning a match on his own.
Fail to find those missing pieces and, on the evidence of today, you feel that Everton are doomed to another season of mediocrity.