Typically, the international break is an unwanted blemish on the football calendar. But for Evertonians, this two-week hiatus will come as welcome solace.
It’s not been a brilliant start for Roberto Martinez and his side to say the least. The Toffees are perched one place above the relegation zone after seven games, with the lofty days of last season—in which Everton accrued 71 points, attacked with endeavour, defended diligently and finished in fifth place—but a wistful memory.
The reasons for this stumble out of the block have typically been glossed over in the written press and by generalising pundits. As far as they’re concerned Everton are adhering to the standard narrative of a team playing in the Europa League—tiredness is already getting the better of a squad that is incapable of coping with the requisite demands of another competition.
And the defence? It’s inexplicably gone to pieces. That’s all. It’s that basic for some.
But the problems can’t be attributed to factors as simplistic as that.
Much of Everton’s current woes can be tied back into the farce that was the club’s pre-season. They played two games at Tranmere—one against Rovers, the other a “home” game against Celta Vigo—a match against Leicester in Thailand, another against Padeborn in Germany and a home clash—Leon Osman’s testimonial—against Porto.
There was no structure, no pattern and for key players like Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas, no appearances at all. Five scattergun games were simply not enough. You can only suspect that Martinez envisaged that the added demands of playing in European competition would help get the players up to speed quickly.
But what about those first three games? The matches against Leicester, Arsenal and Chelsea? With Everton awkwardly undercooked in those three clashes, seven goals were conceded in the second half of those three games, six of which came in the last 15 minutes of matches. The fitness just wasn’t there to go toe-to-toe with Premier League opposition for 90 minutes and vital points were subsequently relinquished.
Those late surrenders set an undeniably rank precedent going into the first international break.
The players came back from the international break and put in their two best performances of the season, knocking off comfortable wins against Wolfsburg and West Brom. But when Crystal Palace came to town—the team that effectively ended Everton’s Champions League aspirations last season—the gloom engulfed Goodison Park once again.
Three individual errors, three shots on target for the Eagles and a 3-2 loss against Neil Warnock’s side followed. There was no lack of fitness this time around; Everton bossed the match and actually finished much the stronger of the two teams. Instead, there were players making inexplicable and uncharacteristic mistakes
A 3-0 loss to Swansea City—thanks to three more abject individual errors—followed in the League Cup and with a trip to Anfield looming, morale was at an all time low. Admittedly Phil Jagielka’s wonder-strike at the Kop end did help alleviate some of the misery, but there were still pertinent concerns there. Most notably, the form of Tim Howard.
On derby day Howard should have stopped the free-kick that Steven Gerrard scored from, against the Swans he let two slip through his fingers and in the loss to Palace he was rash to concede a penalty and completely missed the cross that allowed the Eagles to go 2-1 ahead.
Another error in Everton’s most recent game against Manchester United cost the Toffees furhter points, and it’s so peculiar to see a ‘keeper who was in such inspired form throughout the summer bereft of any kind of conviction whatsoever. His back-up Joel Robles is no great shakes, but it’ll be interesting to see just how Martinez handles that situation if Howard’s wretched form persists.
Learning Experience For Martinez
Physically, the Europa League doesn’t look to have taken that much out of Everton. They’ve finished strongly in the two domestic games immediately following their ties with Wolfsburg and Krasnodar, but it’s clear that this competition will be a big learning curve for all concerned with the club. Perhaps most pertinently, the manager.
A fair portion of Everton’s first team have played in Europe before, but for Martinez this is a completely new experience. It’s critical that he rotates his squad astutely, fits in training sessions accordingly and helps his side to adapt to the extra demands. As is often the case when lending your hand to something new, things haven’t gone swimmingly right away.
The Catalan has made some curious team selections, resting arguably the two best Everton players so far this season—Steven Naismith and Mirallas—for two consecutive games ahead of the Merseyside Derby. It was proven to be an especially peculiar decision in hindsight, when the latter of the two pulled up with a hamstring strain in the early stages of the game.
It’s not a major criticism of the manager by any means and Martinez has always seemed and adaptable man capable of learning quickly, so expect an immeasurable improvement in this facet of his management style as the season goes on.
Plain Bad Luck
The myriad injuries to critical players have sapped the momentum from Everton’s campaign. Ross Barkley was ruled out for eight weeks on the eve on the season and Steven Pienaar picked up a knock in Week 2 against Arsenal after a man-of-the-match display in the first game.
Then, Seamus Coleman—indisputabely Everton’s most irreplaceable player—picked up concussion against Wolfsburg; he’s not featured since. And just to compound matters James McCarthy and John Stones have also recently been sidelined.
Of course, every side has injuries to deal with. But the timing of these knocks have been especially damaging for the Toffees, meaning Martinez has been unable to field a full strength side in any game this season. With Stones reportedly out for up to four months, it could be a while until he does so yet.
The fitness problems are just one hampering factor during a spell in which things are perpetually going wrong for Everton too.
Leicester scored two goals from fortunate breaks of the ball on Matchday 1 and those sort torturous turns of fortune have seem to accompany Everton through the early weeks of the campaign, right up until the most recent clash with Manchester United, when David de Gea had the game of his life.
Things can only get better, right?
It’s all well and good lamenting over the past few weeks, but things need to change for Everton quickly if they’re to make an impression in the Premier League in 2014/15.
And after an opening seven games that featured matches with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, a much more favourable run of fixtures should allow Martinez’s side the chance to pick up some points and build some momentum. But after such a poor start there will be a massive pressure to do so.
The squad should be in much better shape for the clash with Aston Villa on 18 October too. Barkley is nearing full fitness, as is Pienaar, while the likes of Coleman and McCarthy should also take their place back in the first XI. With those four back in situ, the Toffees will be more cohesive, industrious and inventive.
In terms of the club’s European commitments, expect Martinez to play a strong team and look to sew up qualification for the next round as soon as possible. If Everton’s place in the knockout stage is secured after four group games, then the manager will be afforded much more freedom when it comes to resting the players that need a breather and allowing those who need minutes to get some.
After the swagger with which the team played last season, there’s than unshakeable belief amongst the vast majority of Evertonians that Martinez is the man to take things forward. But at this juncture, it seems as though the Catalan has been forced to take a few steps back as he strives towards his lofty ambitions.
So while it may seem a long way off at this juncture, as the season rolls on, expect Everton to make a few more substantial strides forward.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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