In the wake of Howard Kendall's passing last weekend, many of the tributes and so much of our collective reminiscence has centred around the magnificent team he built. Much has changed in the game since the 1980s, of course, but Kendall clearly understood the importance of balance to a side and the merits of a solid spine, starting with the vital position of goalkeeper.
Ex-players from that era like Andy Gray have remarked that Everton knew that if they scored, they were invariably going to win; because if an opposition team managed to battle their way past Peter Reid and Paul Bracewell, they then had to negotiate Derek Mountfield, Dave Watson and Kevin Ratcliffe... and if they made it that far, they had Neville Southall to beat and he was the best in the world.
A top-class 'keeper can be the difference between a good side and a great one; a nearly team and title-winning one. It's a notion that wasn't lost on Arsene Wenger and it's not surprsing that his only major piece of transfer business of the past summer was to bring in what many observers felt was the final piece in his jigsaw in the form of Petr Cech. Everton may no longer be in Arsenal's league since their brief flirtation with the top four in Roberto Martinez's first season in charge but a feeling has been growing that their attempts to get back there are being undermined, at least partially, by Tim Howard and a lack of a commanding presence in goal.
A worthy acquisition eight years ago as an experienced 29-year-old from Manchester United, the American has enjoyed a solid career as Everton's first-choice stopper ever since, reaching his personal peak at the World Cup last year where he gained international renown for his feats in goal for the United States. Unfortunately, his heroics in Brazil were followed by what was, arguably, his worst season at Goodison, to the point where Martinez initiated last January his search for a long-term replacement for a 'keeper perhaps finally betraying his age and Everton fans were baying for Joel Robles to be given his opportunity to prove himself a more reliable presence in goal.
The Spanish keeper grabbed that chance while Howard was injured last December and surprised everyone with a string of excellent displays, only to be dropped again as soon as Howard was fit again. Improved performances from the manager's No.1 over the remainder of the 2014-15 campaign and the early part of this one put the chuntering of disgruntled fans in the background but Howard's position is back under scrutiny following successive defeats and an escalating number of goals being scored from within his primary area of responsibility – the six-yard box.
Two of them came within two minutes of this latest defeat at the hands of Arsenal in North London. The Blues appeared to have weathered the Gunners' early storm and found a foothold in what was a largely disappointing half from their point of view. They had even fashioned the best chance of the contest thus far when Aaron Lennon, deployed by Martinez on the left flank of a surprising dual-winger formation, had jinked inside and forced Cech into spilling the ball into the path of John Stones but the defender snatched at the chance and he sliced wide. However, just as they were against Manchester United last weekend, Everton were punished for allowing the opposition too much space when Mezut Ozil flighted a teasing ball in from the Arsenal right and Oliver Giroud glanced past the static Howard.
1-0 became 2-0 in short order; Santi Cazorla took charge of a dubiously-awarded free kick on the opposite flank and whipped it onto the head of Laurent Koscielny with Howard punching at thin air and the ball flying into the net. Slow motion replays and photographic stills circulating mercilessly on social media afterwards would not be kind to the goalkeeper and his worrying lack of command of his area but it should be noted that he was equally let down by his defence. Whether Stones was operating in some sort of zonal marking system or was simply guilty of switching off is unclear but, while he was initially in charge of both goalscorers, he wasn't near either one when they inflicted the back-to-back blows that were ultimately fatal to Everton on the day.
It wasn't like Martinez's defence hadn't been served clear enough warning, either – Gabriel (twice) and Giroud had both had earlier chances from free headers from corners that were unable to steer on target.
If Evertonians all too familiar with crushing defeat in this fixture over the years were fearing that the floodgates were set to open in the same manner in which the heavens above the Emirates had, a ray of sunlight emerged a minute before the break when Ross Barkley halved the deficit. Gerard Deulofeu sprinted away from his own box on the counter and swept a terrific cross-field ball to Barkley who advanced and then cracked a heavily deflected shot past Cech.
It presented Everton with a route back into the game which they almost took after Howard had twice come off his line to deny Alexis Sanchez early in the second half and then beat away a shot from Giroud after the Frenchman's neat chest-down and shot from the angle. In between, Phil Jagielka had been forced to leave the game with suspected knee damage but was replaced by the highlt effective Ramiro Funes Mori.
For a team that was 2-0 to the good, Arsenal were quite cavalier at times, leaving the back door open on a few more occasions on which Everton theatened to capitalise but just weren't able to. Deulofeu led the charge on one of them down the right flank but his centre arrived slightly behind where Barkley would have wanted it and he was surrounded after taking his first touch to gather it in.
A few minutes later, the same pair combined when the Spaniard danced inside from the flank but the England international's shot was tame and Cech saved comfortably, but it was Galloway who had a great chance to equalise with 15 minutes to go. The Blues had just survived a scare at the other end when Giroud's curling shot cannoned off the face of Howard's crossbar but McCarthy's teasing ball to the back post picked the young defender out brilliantly but, with a defender just ahead of him, he might have taken his eye off the ball for a fraction of a second and could only put a stooping header wide.
Barry turned provider six minutes later with an equally impressive cross that Lukaku rose to meet but his header bounced agonisingly off the top of the crossbar. Kevin Mirallas, who made a belated entrance for the disappointing Lennon would have a late shot comfortably saved and Wenger's own late change, Matthiu Flamini, twice went very close to restoring the home side's two-goal advantage, but a gilt-edged chance fell to Deulofeu with four minutes left. Lukaku's cross fell to him in front of goal but he opted for placement rather than the kind of power with which he salvaged a point in this fixture two seasons ago and the Czech 'keeper was able to save well.
It would be the last chance for Everton who had tried manfully to get back on level terms and looked capable of doing so. They were let down, however, by some atrocious use of the ball at times and their frustrating and continuing inability to put together two halves of consistent football together in the same game.
If the result carried a depressing air of inevitability about it, there was at least enough evidence of a decent Everton side in there if Martinez can find the right balance in terms of formation and personnel and get back to the swaggering, passing outfit that characterised so much of his first season as manager. Barry's suspension following his dismissal for two yellow cards this afternoon will allow the manager to experiement with an alternative central midfield pairing in the upcoming cup tie against Norwich, a welcome development for supporters who feel that the veteran's partnership with McCarthy has become too restrictive as neither player offers enough going forward. Indeed, for a team that played with two wingers in this game, there was precious little service into or action inside the penalty area. The hope, too, is that Mirallas is given another chance to shine and press his claims for a return to the starting line-up and that Robles makes the most of his anticipated selection to start adding to the pressure building around Howard. The American is far from the only problem but it's clear there is a need for more confidence and a dominant presence between the sticks.
The fixture list begins to ease now following a tough 10-game stretch that has yielded just 13 points from a possible 30. Things are unlikely to be much easier, though, particuarly if some of the supposedly weaker sides dig in defensively or start targeting the Blues' obvious soft centre when it comes to balls into the heart of the box. Plenty to play for but also plenty to prove, both on the field and in the dugout.