Pains of Having Fun

Everton’s net this season. Scoring has never been easier.

There’s a problem at Goodison Park. The club that used to finish top 6 of the Premier League two and three seasons ago has fallen behind. The team keeps hovering at the top of the bottom half of the table. But, what’s worse, their managed insists that they did not decline at all. To put quote on quote: their results aren’t sub-par because “they have never won anything yet anyways”. And that’s not the only retort; there’s also a counterattacking one: “whenever the players do something right, they’re expected to win the World Cup, but whenever they do something wrong, they get criticized as if this was the end of the world”. Yes: those are two of the quotes from Roberto Martínez, Everton’s boss; the fifth longest-serving manager in the Premier League at the moment with 2 years and 210 days in charge to his name.

Well, here’s the dose of the reality: for the last seventeen months, they’ve been doing pretty bad considering their clubs’ stature, it’s ambitions and the talent Everton had through the team. They were and are doing pretty bad despite the fact that Toffees are never really expected to realistically fight for the top five or put regular dents on someone else’s title dreams. In fact, Martínez’s team are just the side that’s supposed to be “a threat to anyone in England” team. The absolute most that’s expected from them is to be constantly dangerous on the pitch and perhaps, from time to time, qualify for the Europa League, to bring some extra quid and spotlight to the club. And they’re not a such team at the moment; in fact, they weren’t such team for the entire duration of Martínez’s spell – at least so far.

Yesterday’s defeat at Etihad to a stardom-packed Manchester City wasn’t much of a surprise or a disappointment – at least not to a football realists. But the actual problem is how exactly the visitors handled themselves in such critical game – by this point of the season, the only game which could’ve brought them a trophy. In many ways, this was exactly the kind of performance they’ve been delivering constantly under Martinez’s guidance: fiery and spectacular, but somewhat naive and defensively feeble. Don’t we all remember insane 3-6 against Chelsea in August 2014? The gruesome, 2-3 defeats to Palace, Villa or Newcastle suffered in the same campaign? Current, messy results like 3-3 at Stamford Bridge, 3-4 to Stoke and a crazy 3-2 comeback at Hawthorns? Yeah – that’s Everton A.D. 2016 for you.

Martínez himself claims that he’s not interested with the clean sheets but only with the wins – potentially thinking that a spectacular, attacking style of his team is bound to bring the results eventually. Unfortunately, in times when well-organized, conservative teams like Stoke, Palace, Watford or West Ham are all having their five minutes of glory – such bold approach remains counter-productive. The Spanish boss always demanded more than just having players in their zones and clearing the danger out; his lads are supposed to build attacking play from the moment they win back the ball. So far, they weren’t able to do that without further exposing the team – thus the staggering (21) number of individual errors that led to goal during the 2015/16 campaign.

If we analyze that particular, arguably the most dangerous fixture in British calendar – away at Manchester City – we’ll find out that the teams to succeed at Etihad were the teams that took a step back and reverted to the basics of defensive play. A year ago, Arsenal snatched three points there by having 37% of possession and relying on the counterattacks combined with set pieces. Slaven Bilić’s West Ham took that someone else’s lesson to their own hearts and repeated it in September: 30% of possession, 10 out of 27 City’s shots blocked and an utterly ridiculous number of clearances (57) made before the creative forces of the hosts could seal their fate. Compared to that, 47% ball retention by Everton seems like a statement – in this case, a statement that the team is so unsure of their defensive qualities, it seeks a refuge in keeping the ball.

What’s even more disappointing, despite using the wrong approach, Everton have been thrown a lifeline from one of their most brilliant heroes, Ross Barkley. Even though 0-0 satisfied The Toffees by that point of the game, England’s #10 casually shrugged off premature Otamendi’s challenge, drove through the empty middle of the park by himself and buried it with a long shot before indecisive Demichelis could get a successful block. It’s been an excellent piece of work from the Englishman, but partial credit goes to Gerard Deulofeu and Romelu Lukaku, who both lurked down the left and pulled City’s defenders away, creating space for their mate. 3-1 on aggregate and 73 minutes to go – in such circumstances, sealing the final should not be out of reach of any Premier League team, let alone a team with the ambition; a team wanting to face derby rivals for the trophy.

Later, there was a big controversy surrounding Kevin De Bruyne’s equalizer and big drama when EFC’s defenders attempted to weather the storm, but make no mistake about it: the visitors weren’t coming out on top from that game the way they allowed it to unfold in the second half. Two shots hitting the woodwork of Robles’ goal, the inclusion of Jesús Navas down the right wing as well as De Bruyne’s presence in the middle – they all were way too much to handle for the improvised midfield of Cleverley and Barry. Fernandinho and Yaya Toure have managed to pretty much run over the Toffees’ duo, and those two City badasses were not even having the best games of their careers. Would it be any different with injured Muhamed Besić or slowly recovering James McCarthy out there? Probably – but the defensive midfielders’ slots weren’t the biggest of Martinez’s concerns.

Let’s take a closer look at potentially the most hyped-up player in the UK – John Stones. He’s 21, an English international, an excellent passer and a potential subject of £50 million transfer to Chelsea, Barcelona, Manchester United or… Manchester City. Shortly after Christmas, he saw Bojan, Marko Arnautović and Xherdan Shaqiri walking around him like he wasn’t even there. Then, there was a decent display against Tottenham; then, two forgettable games against Man City. Everton did well when they went to Chelsea and should’ve won that game – but again, Stones was far from being the key characters in his teams’ story. An ugly, indecisive backpass against Swansea resulting with a penalty only highlighted the trouble this young lad has been going through recently.

Of course Martínez has a ready-made excuse for all those woes. It’s him, who took the brave decision and benched Seamus Coleman, giving Stones a right-back role the kid was never suited for. It’s him, who supposedly talked the talented centre-back out of leaving Goodison Park this summer and awkwardly wrapped up this story by explaining that the August 2015 transfer request drama was a ‘mistake’ (!). And here we are today – with the player wound-up by the interest from bigger and better clubs, his overall performance took a major dip. Through the last few months, he had to live with Jagielka’s and Baines’ injuries, adapt to a new partnership with undoubtedly solid teammate Ramiro Funes Mori, fill into right-back’s shoes and consider his own future – quite a lot, even for a wonderkid.

All those frustrations of Everton’s centre-back anchor translate into collective performance. The Toffees are second-worst Premier League when it comes to intercepting the ball and concede less fouls that anyone else – possibly due to the relative lack of professional, calculated ‘result above style’ approach by their players. At the same time, they’re the most frequent dribblers (joint first with Arsenal) and quite excellent goalscorers: only Man City, Spurs and Leicester have pierced the nets of their opponents more times that Martínez’s boys. Everton’s 23 league games so far featured 74 goals – that’s the average of 3.21 goals per game! However, 34 of those goalscoring delights went the wrong way; and if it wasn’t for EFC’s attacking assets, the team with such a record would’ve been in a relegation dogfight.

To Martínez’s credit, the decisions he’s made regarding the attacking play have been spot-on. £28 million splashed on the permanent deal with Lukaku paid off handsomely when the Belgian stepped up and turned in the most complete forward in the entire league. Known before only as a towering forward who feasts on the crosses, he now has no problems with chasing the through balls on the counterattack or putting away the rebounds. Still, his main asset are the aerial duels – and this time around, he has Deulofeu as a main feeder. After moving to Liverpool for £4,2 million, Barcelona-grown winger has produced 8 assists in 21 BPL games and the amount of disruption he caused down the right flank classifies him as one of the most dangerous footballers in England. Those two plus a vintage #10 Barkley in the mix – it all equals trouble all across the pitch.

And yet, the question remains: does all-out attack really pay off?

Not really… For Martínez, a good benchmark to look back at would be 2013/14 season – his first campaign after taking charge following David Moyes’ departure. Back then, his lads suffered only two defeats in first 22 league matches – four less than they’ve accumulated today. They also played four 0-0 draws and scored nine one-goal victories – mostly, in a style similar to Tottenham’s 2015/16 approach. However, those were the final days of a splendid cooperation between Sylvain Distin and aforementioned Jagielka. They used to be younger and several MPHs faster – but time does not stop. Today, the Frenchman is at Bournemouth – and as of Jagielka, at the age of 33, he’s definitely not aging the way John Terry or Nemanja Vidić did. Providing the new generation of centre-backs sticks around at Goodison Park, Mori (24) and Stones (21) will need two-three seasons to flesh out the details of their partnership.

Looking to the future, while the present crumbles…

The problem is that Roberto might not have that time on his hands. William Hill have already put a 3/1 odds on his departure during this season – and that was before his side has been outplayed in the second half of the clash at Etihad. Through his reckless race to simply outscore any opposition he faces, he has piled up 11 league draws – more than any other Premier League manager this season. He wins points at the ratio of 1.26 per game – as opposed to 1.89, which he clocked during his debut season for The Royal Blues. On the other hand – the fans are still on his side. In all online polls, the boss holds between 60 and 75 percent of votes against his dismissal – which pretty much illustrates how low is the actual amount of pressure he’s facing.

Alas, today, he’s out of excuses. His team has Newcastle, Stoke and West Brom ahead of them: three opponents that should’ve been absolute cannon fodder for anyone, who aspires to the top 6 or top 7 finish. His squad already got bolstered by the recoveries of Besić, McCarthy and Baines – players he’s been sorely missing for several weeks or months. He’s got a choice: teach the team how to defend, change the irresponsible approach altogether or face the unemployment. The desire to create a spectacle isn’t enough: at one point, Toffees have to remind themselves about their ambition and that they used to do better under a man who used to put defending above anything else.


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