Let it be known, at this very moment, that Everton have won only one of their past 11 games. Let it too be stated that they have the fourth worst goals-against tally in the league at 39, with three of the six teams below them on the table having conceded less. When they lost their first match of 2015, to Steve Bruce’s dire Hull City, of all clubs, they set the tone for what has come since. This season hasn’t just been a disappointing follow-up to last season’s splendid fifth place finish; it has been a regression extreme enough to cause grave concern. Roberto Martinez was the charming, attack-minded manager that washed away the grayscale pragmatism of the Moyes era. His first season was a refreshing spritz, all citrus notes and fizzy bubbles. His second has morphed into a flat, room-temperature club soda with a chewed-up straw hanging out of it.
There were some who saw this coming. When Everton were beating up Arsenal last season, registering decade-overdue wins over Manchester United, and scoring freely, it was hard to believe that this wasn’t the start of something special. Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley, John Stones, Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy; much of Everton’s weekly teamsheet was a list of the league’s most promising young talent, players of the requisite calibre worthy of building a successful team around long-term. Mirroring the fresh-faced squad, was Martinez, dashing and cultured, and one of the most promising managers in the country. He had cut his teeth at Swansea and Wigan, had just won the FA Cup with the latter, and had been earmarked as the next manager destined to ascend to and, we presumed, succeed at the next level. He had sold well, securing goodly fees for Marouane Fellaini, Victor Anichebe and Nikica Jelavić, and had manoeuvred expertly in the domestic and international loan market, bringing in Lukaku, as well as Gareth Barry and Gerard Deulofeu. They lost only three times at Goodison Park last season, and finished the season sitting smugly above Manchester United, the club that Moyes had left Everton to manage.
But, it seems, though Moyes took Fellaini (and tried to take Leighton Baines) with him to Old Trafford, the Scot might have left something more valuable behind, a stoic trace, a residual stolidness in defence, the sort of firm base for which his Everton team was famous. In his final season at Everton, Moyes had finished in sixth, with his team conceding 40 goals, the fourth best goals-against tally in the league. The season before that, Moyes’ Everton had conceded the same amount, the equal-third best tally that year. His time in charge at Everton, over a decade of tenure, had been very much an effort of bottom-up progression, of building from the back. Yes, they weren’t the prettiest team, but by God, they were hard to beat. His stalwart defence of 2012/13, a back line that conceded three goals in a match only once all season, was thus: Leighton Baines (44 appearances), Phil Jagielka (41), Sylvain Distin (40), Seamus Coleman (31) and Tim Howard (40) in goal. This is the same back line that started the comical 6-3 loss to Chelsea this season. Yes, Jagielka and Distin have declined as players, but their ageing bones can’t explain the decline of Everton’s defence generally, not to this degree.
Was Martinez’s sensational start to life on Merseyside partly the result of a tarrying Moyesian sense of defence? Certainly, the two managers comprise an utter yin-yang; Moyes was exposed at United for not knowing how to fashion a vivacious, attacking team. He was unable to work under the ‘Attack! Attack!’ footballing paradigm with which United had for decades overburdened their trophy cabinet. Martinez, on the other hand, was a proven footballing aesthete, a manager who could craft a team capable of seducing you with their football, only to grind your teeth into dust with a well-timed capitulation at the back. There was a reason why his Wigan side needed a miracle to escape from relegation every season. Combined, these two managers make a perfect whole. And the trace of Moyes, working with Martinez’s attacking instincts, made for a rapturous first season for the Spaniard. But now the lees of Moyes has faded away, and all that’s left is an attractive, ball-playing team with no intestinal fortitude in front of their own goal.
Only Burnley (40), Newcastle (39), Leicester (38) and QPR (37) have conceded more goals from inside their own area than Everton (33). Of these goals, only 5 conceded by the Toffees have been headers, the rest have been left or right footed shots. This indicates that they aren’t being overpowered aerially, rather they’re allowing the opposition clear shooting opportunities in the penalty area, a tell-tale sign of a disorganised defence. Their errors back this up; no team has made more defensive errors this season than Everton (27), with a league-leading 13 of those errors leading directly to opposition goals. The next worst team is Arsenal, and they’re a fair way back with 19 and 7, respectively. Of the goalkeepers to play more than twenty games this season, Tim Howard has the fewest clean sheets, with 3. Everton are fifth in the league for blocked shots (116), seventh for clearances (974) but 19th for interceptions. Last ditch tackles, desperate blocks are the hallmarks here, not the considered and organised stifling of opposition build-up play. Arsenal, a team that plays the kind of football Roberto Martinez aspires to emulate, are first in the league for interceptions, as a comparison.
Martinez, however, is nothing if not dedicated to his style. “You don’t win games by changing the style. You win games by being very good at what you do,” insisted the Everton manager. “Changing only brings doubts. I’ve been in this situation too many times. Maybe when I was a young manager starting out you would start thinking about it after a run like this but it is very clear – in football you need to be outstanding at what you do” he said in December. His dedication is admirable, if a little dogmatic. He could be accused of being damagingly ignorant to the glaring unsuitability of his players to play the style he so favours. Playing a high line, with rampaging full backs, demands the presence of quick, agile centre backs, which Distin and Jagielka aren’t. Stones is still rather green-horned, and Antolín Alcaraz is plainly not up to the required standard. Kevin Mirallas is not what one would call a defensive-minded winger either, and so his flank can often look like a red carpet, begging to be counter-attacked down. Too often, faffing around at the back has cost Everton, and yet, after John Stones dribbled into trouble and was tackled, ultimately costing his team a goal against Newcastle earlier this season, Martinez refused to criticise the youngster for attempting (in this case, in wildly inadvisable fashion) to play his way out of defence.
There is evidence that Everton’s attacking prowess from last season has endured, but it is being badly hamstrung by their defensive ineptitude. Everton have taken the lead in slightly under half their games so far this season (48.1%), a percentage bettered by only seven other teams. But of those 13 games, Everton have taken an average of only 1.69 points (W6 D4 L3), the third-worst points return from games in which a team has opened the scoring. The attack are doing the best they can to put the team in a position to win the match, but they’re constantly being undermined.
Evertonians everywhere are fretting. They don’t want their team to develop the flaws of Martinez’s Wigan, no matter how lovely the football is. They don’t want the success of last season to fall by the wayside, to be looked at in years to come as a strange fluke, a first-season bump. Last season, Martinez convinced a lot of people that he belonged at the top table, competing for Champions League spots. Today, all that good work, in the harsh light of one win in 11 matches and 39 goals conceded, has been all but eroded.