Evertonians sampled defeat for the second successive Boxing Day on home soil, but unlike a year ago, there were major concerns emitting from those supporters in attendance and in the following hours on social media.
Last season, Everton—reduced to 10 men early on—laid siege to the Sunderland goal at Goodison Park, with Vito Manonne producing a match-winning display for his side. “Everton are the best team we have played,” said Black Cats manager Gus Poyet afterwards. “Even with ten men.” It was clear, despite the loss, that this Toffees team was moving forward.
Sadly, the defeat to Stoke City this year wasn’t an anomalous instance, it was the latest moribund showing in a string of wholly underwhelming displays; against a side that had failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their last 11 games, no less. That was followed up by another disappointing display at Newcastle United, leaving the Toffees with three defeats in their last three games.
Everton have gone from perceived sleeping giants to plain sleep inducing, deteriorating from scintillating to soporific.
As is common practice during tumultuous times, it’s reached an uncomfortable stage where fingers are being unashamedly pointed at various parties. The manager, after being rightly revered on the back a record points total in his debut campaign with the Toffees, has understandably been levied with the baulk of the flak.
Martinez showcased an ability to be adaptable and pro-active in his maiden campaign, but those desirable traits have deserted him this season. He claimed that it is a “compliment” that sides come to Goodison Park with an obvious priority to nullify Everton, but as of yet, there’s been nothing tangible on show to counter those tactics from the Catalan boss.
Steve Bruce, Garry Monk and Mark Hughes have all easily outfoxed Martinez at Goodison this season, as a new found stubbornness of principles founded absolutely on short, patient passing has often rendered Everton ponderous and predictable.
We’ve yet to see anything resembling the direct, incisive football that saw the Toffees swat away Arsenal 3-0 towards the end of last season. The counter-attacking flair that was deployed against Manchester United to great effect in a 2-0 win has also abated.
At the moment, it seems to be this way, or no way at all for Martinez, emphasised best by his astounfing reluctance to make any substitutions in the deplorable 3-0 defeat to Southampton and the continually awkward deployment of Ross Barkley in a wide position.
With teams getting wise to these tactics and the Toffees showing no willingness to counter—the influx of changes at Newcastle aside—Everton have stagnated and it’s a shift reflected in the mood of the supporters in regular attendance at Goodison Park. After an infectious buzz gripped the club throughout the previous campaign, now there’s an irrepressible sense of frustration, apprehension and tedium from the stands of the cultured old ground.
The supporters are understandably dumbfounded by recent performances, and while it may be a difficult virtue to garner in the cut-throat nature of modern day football, it’s time for some patience.
There are those of the opinion that the players are ultimately responsible for the atmosphere and that’s a longstanding paradox that resembles another debate entirely. But there’s little denying that while the fans must remain pensive and the manager needs to up his game, so to do the XI men that go out onto the pitch.
Arguably, the team fielded against the Potters was Everton’s strongest side on paper, but they were without inspiration, intensity or any kind of purpose to their attacking play. Players like Barkley, Barry, James McCarthy and Kevin Mirallas were happy to pass the buck, unwilling to grasp the game by the throat and wrestle back some initiative from the visitors; the collective shirking of responsibility was downright staggering.
The full-back pairing of Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman—usually so industrious and inventive—look unfit and out of sync; a by-product perhaps, of the constant rotation that goes on in front of them in the wide midfield positions.
They are but a few pertinent issues, and consequentially, there’s no one solution to these problems. But it’s abundantly clear that the club needs to gather some impetus going into 2015. The European campaign has shown that this team is capable of operating with the panache that was so prominent last season, but it needs to be on show on the domestic front too.
A move away from the almost exclusively deployed 4-2-3-1 formation would be refreshing, and on paper, a switch to 3-4-3 would add some defensive steel, much-needed width and an attacking fluidity that has been scarce since the opening weeks of the season.
Maybe some fresh faces too. Drafting in players like Muhamed Besic, Arouna Kone and Luke Garbutt—who have all showcased glimpses of quality in their smatterings of appearances this season—into the first XI on a more regular basis would freshen things up and jolt others into action.
Those decisions ultimately rest with Martinez, who has admitted himself that the coming matches are “pivotal” in the club’s season, a notion with which it is hard to disagree. Everton stand on the cusp of a clash with struggling Hull City on New Year’s Day, a vital match that can set a positive precedent as the club moves into 2015.
If the Toffees lose that—which they will if no improvements are made on recent displays—what is a currently a worrying predicament can quickly morph into a whirlwind of hyperbole and subsequent crisis, especially with Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool to come in the five games following their trip to the KC Stadium.
What could potentially happen from that point on is a prospect that Evertonians would prefer not to ponder.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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