Manchester United 1 - 0 Everton
In December 2013, a 1-0 win at Old Trafford was perhaps the crowning achievement of Roberto Martinezâ€™s first season in charge at Everton. Like the performance at Arsenal that followed it, it was an expression of the swashbuckling Sin Miedo attitude that the Catalan had quickly instilled at Goodison Park; so much the better that it was against David Moyes, the man charged by many fans of holding the Bluesâ€™ ambitions in check for so long, that he wiped away a 21-year winless run on Manchester Unitedâ€™s turf and seemingly ushered in a new, upwardly mobile era at Everton.
Fast forward 29 months and another 1-0 result has condemned Everton to a league double of defeats to Louis van Gaalâ€™s uninspiring outfit on the back of a performance gallingly lacking in direction, spirit or purpose. Itâ€™s the fourth game the Toffees have lost in five Premier League games now, their stirring FA Cup win over Chelsea jarringly at odds with the failures against West Bromwich Albion, West Ham, Arsenal and now United.
Where once this Everton team under Martinez was dynamic, exciting and fearless, today they looked lifeless, unimaginative and, once theyâ€™d fallen behind, seemingly resigned to their fate. Only Phil Jagielka seemed to carry the requisite desire to drag his team-mates out of their torpor and, on another day, he might have salvaged a paper-over-the-cracks equaliser. Like his restored central defensive partner, John Stones, he was perhaps the only outfield player in blue to emerge with any credit.
The game itself was a fairly lacklustre affair from start to finish, one that Everton started well enough, even if the final execution wasnâ€™t there. Gerard Deulofeu, also recalled to the starting XI, carried the chief threat for the Blues down the right flank, bursting past Marcos Rojo on two or three occasions and taking the otherwise impressive Daley Blind to the cleaners on another as skipped inside before eventually over-running the ball in a promising position.
A brilliant steal by Tom Cleverley saw him get the ball quickly to Romelu Lukaku but the Belgianâ€™s attempted back-heel to the on-rushing Aaron Lennon was telegraphed and easily cut out by Blind.
They were brief flashes in an otherwise flaccid display, though, one let down by the near-constant preoccupation with trying to get the ball up to Lukaku as quickly but haphazardly as possible. It was being pinged forward with annoying frequency but the big striker barely won an aerial duel all afternoon and when the ball did find him, he was too often an isolated island of frustration and sulking body language in the ocean of Unitedâ€™s own half.
The home side werenâ€™t much better but they passed with more precision and almost had the first effort on target in the 17th minute when Anthony Martial wriggled away from the attentions of Jagielka and Stones and unleashed a shot that whistled inches past the far post.
The Frenchman almost got on the end of the most incisive passing interchange of the first 45 minutes shortly before the interval but was shut down by a terrific block tackle by Stones that ensured matters were goalless at half time.
A first-half policy of containment followed by a gradual increase in pressure in the second half has often been Martinezâ€™s modus operandi away from home and that appeared to have been the strategy this time around. Everton began the second period on the front foot and were enjoying their best spell of possession before they shot themselves in the foot with poor defending nine minutes in at the other end.
Leighton Baines, still suffering on the whole from the lack of any discernible partnership down the Bluesâ€™ left flank, found Lukaku brilliantly with a pass through a massive hole in Unitedâ€™s defence but the strikerâ€™s turn and shot in front of goal was foiled by Blindâ€™s leg and it deflected behind for a corner.
Three minutes later, a rare set-piece routine saw Baines fire corner to Cleverley on the edge of the penalty area but his effort was blocked. In the main, however, Everton lacked guile and any semblance of conviction, their performance summed up succinctly by a moment in the 53rd minute when a Joel Robles clearance squirmed through into space in front of Unitedâ€™s area but Lukaku and Deulofeu left it for each other and in the end it was scooped up by Blind.
A minute later, it was 1-0. Substitute Tim Fosu-Mensah crossed hard and low behind the visitorsâ€™ defence, Coleman, encapsulating that lack of conviction infecting the team, failed to react to the danger posed behind him by Martial and the Frenchman capitalised on his error by striking home off the goalkeeper.
Evertonâ€™s response was almost immediate but Jagielka could only watch as his header from a corner thumped off the crossbar. Later, the defender would see another dangerous effort off a set-piece foiled by an all-too-familiar reaction save by David De Gea but that was as close as Martinezâ€™s dispirited side came to getting anything out of the game.
The tiring Deulofeu was replaced in the 62nd minute by Kevin Mirallas but it did little to alter the pattern of the game. Indeed, there didnâ€™t appear to be much pattern or organisation to Everton at all by this stage. Ross Barkley and Cleverley appeared to be rotating between deeper-lying and more advanced roles but the latter spent almost all of his time with his back to goal, laying off harmless lateral passes. On one of the few occasions he managed to break free into space, he had to wait so long for reinforcements that never arrived that he was, predictably, dispossessed.
Lennon had been given license to roam behind Lukaku but while his pressing was typically energetic, he offered very little going forward. And with neither fullback really contributing much from an offensive standpoint, it really wasnâ€™t surprising that Everton didnâ€™t manage a shot on target until the 83rd minute.
After one of the most telling low centres into the six-yard box had just eluded Lukaku, Barkley was eventually hooked with three minutes of the regulation 90 to go in favour of Oumar Niasse but it was a desperate toss of the dice and the Senegal internationalâ€™s brief cameo did little to dispel the notion that he is nowhere near ready for regular action in the Premier League.
Andre Marrinerâ€™s final whistle that called time on another disappointing afternoon confirmed the latest setback for Martinezâ€™s increasingly doomed efforts to revive a second successive season of chronic under-achievement. The result, only the second league defeat on the road of the campaign, damaged an away record that has become an increasingly incongruous and misleading indicator of Evertonâ€™s form in 2015-16.
In the immediate aftermath of a loss that leaves his side marooned in the bottom half of the table and level on points with promoted Bournemouth (albeit with a game in handâ€¦ at Anfield!), Martinez appeared to flounder for answers, falling back on his well-worn refrain that â€œweâ€™ve got to get better.â€ Sadly, the Bluesâ€™ momentum is going in the other direction and the defences for a manager seemingly unable to stem the tide are rapidly falling away.
Phrases like â€œlost the dressing roomâ€ are bandied about fairly freely these days but the depressing lack of desire or pain exhibited by Martinezâ€™s charges should be deeply disturbing to Evertonians. It reveals a lack of buy-in and a dangerous shortage of faith in his methods and should call into serious question the Catalanâ€™s continued tenure of the Goodison hotseat.
In that sense, the FA Cup has become a significant distraction â€” seemingly for the players as much as supporters. In the broader picture, however, on the basis of continued under-performance in the all-important Premier League, the margin by which he will fall short of even challenging the top four this term, and his paling record in contrast to his predecessor, Martinezâ€™s position at Everton is surely and quickly becoming untenable.