Everton 0 - 2 Arsenal
For much of the Premier League era Evertonians have usually been able to count on Arsenal to underscore just how far apart these two one-time peers in England’s top flight have become. It looked, briefly, as though under Roberto Martinez the days of routine humblings by Arsene Wenger’s enterprising outfit were gone but today’s 2-0 defeat at the Londoners’ hands came as another bitter reminder of Everton’s inferiority.
In the aftermath of his side’s eighth home defeat this season Martinez described this game as “a one-off”. In terms of an inexplicably abject Everton display he might be right, but there was nothing unique about the result that the Goodison “faithful" — a label getting more and more stretched the longer this forgettable waste of league campaign wears on — had to swallow as they filed out of the Grand Old Lady at the end.
Memories of the cruel 3-2 defeat to West Ham in the last league game at Goodison and the loss to West Brom before that, results also described as flukes by Martinez, were still raw for fans before kick-off who have had their support “rewarded" with a number of painful reverses in recent weeks.
The worsening statistics, trotted out on social media by frustrated supporters become more and more damning of the manager and his team with every game. Everton under Martinez have won just four home matches since beating Manchester United in their their final win at Goodison in 2014-15. Three of those have come against the teams currently occupying the relegation places; the fourth was a potentially catalytic win over a Chelsea side that was in the middle of self destruction.
They’ve lost eight at home — Martinez's predecessor only oversaw that many Premier League losses in his last three years in charge combined. Just 16 points have been won from a total of 48 possible since they kicked off the campaign with an annoying 2-2 draw against Watford. Unless they win all three remaining home games, Everton under the Catalan will set a club record, set in 1888/89 and equalled in 1957-58, for lowest points won on home turf in a season (when adjusted for three points a win).
With every setback in front of his team’s own supporters, Martinez insists that his team is “very close to being a winning team” and yet today, despite the wind from a truly uplifting FA Cup Quarter Final win last weekend in their sails, they proved just how far off their stated goals they are under the current regime.
Arsenal came to Merseyside on the back of successive cup defeats that left them with just a faltering title chase to revive. Having had to travel back from Barcelona in midweek, they should have betrayed some fatigue or flatness in their performance following their travels but they played with a verve, quickness and vigour that Everton, with a week’s rest behind them, simply couldn’t match.
The Blues came off the blocks with high-tempo intent from the first whistle and Seamus Coleman hit the outside of the post from a corner inside the first 90 seconds but they fizzled out almost immediately, leaving the visitors to grasp the game by the scruff of the neck and effectively put it beyond their hosts by half time.
In terms of vision, guile and simple use of the ball, it was men-against-boys stuff for much of the first period and nothing illustrated the gulf in quality and attitude between the two teams more than the opening goal in the seventh minute. Drawing first Muhamed Besic and then Ramiro Funes Mori out of position, Alexis Sanchez played a one-two with Mezut Ozil to open up a yawning gap in front of the Blues’ defence before slipping in Danny Welbeck to round Joel Robles and slot home the opening goal.
It was a very “Arsenal" goal that you had to admire for it’s brilliance in carving Everton’s defence open so effectively; the kind of incisive football to which Martinez no doubt aspires but can’t generate from his own players. Indeed, the contrast couldn’t have been more stark on Everton’s next attack when Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley tried to combine towards the edge of the opposition penalty area but the move broke down when the latter’s pass went straight to a gold jersey.
Martinez’s men were clumsy, pedestrian and wasteful in possession and, as good as the Blues can be going forward when they’re on their game, they couldn’t hope to emulate — or contain — Wenger’s side who were crisp, fast and effective. And they proved it again three minutes before half time when Sanchez nipped in ahead of the mystifyingly lethargic Besic to lay the ball off to Hector Bellerin in his own half and the Spaniard spotted the electric run of Alex Iwombi with a well-placed ball down the channel. Caught too far forward, Funes Mori was always chasing his shadow and the Argentine was still behind him when the 19-year-old debutant fired through Robles’s legs to make it 2-0.
Faced with a mountain to climb at the break, Martinez had to change something and his move was to bring on Stones for Besic in an effort to shore up the back line which was made vulnerable by the fact that Everton were being overrun in midfield. The Bosnian had had the Blues’ only shot on target in the first 45 minutes, an attempted curler from the edge of the box that David Ospina initially spilled but then gathered but he was otherwise utterly dreadful and could consider himself fortunate to have made it to half time.
With precious little output in forward areas where Lukaku was again frustratingly isolated and nothing much to lose given that they were heading for a season-ending defeat, Everton needed more than just that one change at the back. That Martinez waited almost half an hour before making his one attacking substitution, the withdrawal of Barkley for Gerard Deulofeu, beggared belief.
In between, the Blues were insipid going forward. The defensive midfield partnership of James McCarthy and Tom Cleverley was functional but redundant in light of the scoreline, the former barracked for continually going backwards with the ball rather than looking forwards; the latter industrious but not a patch on the invention and guile in Arsenal’s ranks.
No surprise, then, that Everton’s best chance of the second half came from another corner which Jagielka put inches over the bar when he might have done better with a clear header at goal. Lukaku’s one and only effort would come a couple of minutes from the end of the regulation 90 but he couldn’t get more power on Funes Mori’s cross to steer it away from the ‘keeper.
At other end, where Arsenal hadn’t really needed to get out of second gear in the second period, Olivier Giroud’s hunger to alleviate his personal goal drought saw him put the ball in the net, only to have it chalked off for a foul and then slice an injury-time shot into the side-netting.
Ordinarily, as comprehensive as it was, a home defeat to a team of Arsenal’s calibre would not be so depressing. What is worrying, however, is what the result and, more importantly, the underlying performance says about Everton under Roberto Martinez. This is supposed to be the time of the season where the team reaches peak effectiveness but they were glacial in thought and deed and they looked bereft of ideas and — incredibly — fitness. (While their opponents were still pressing the ball fiendishly with a couple of minutes to go, Everton, in contrast to last weekend in the cup, looked ponderous and unfit — none more so than Besic — for the entire 90 minutes.)
Most concerning was the simple lack of fight and heart displayed by a team that had it in abundance last weekend and it will raise inevitable questions over the unity in the camp under the manager. Martinez blamed it on fear but this season suggests the problems run much deeper.
That should be as alarming to the hierarchy as it is to a growing section of the fanbase who can see no way forward under the current setup. Unfortunately for Bill Kenwright, who enthusiastically lauded Martinez in front of the cameras after the win over Chelsea that took Everton to Wembley, his manager’s ever-expanding record of under-achievement is pushing the faith of Blues fans to breaking point and it should be nudging the Chairman – or more likely his new majority shareholder – towards making a painful but necessary decision regardless of what happens in the cup.