There seems to be something quite taboo when it comes to dropping high-profile players in the current age. The power players have in the game means the slightest discrepancy or disagreement can prompt some unrest, a few public quotes and eventually maybe even a transfer away.
Throughout his career at Everton, Tim Howard hasn’t ever showcased the traits of a man who would kick up a fuss if he was left out of the XI. But with the aforementioned facets considered, it’s perhaps understandable Roberto Martinez is looking to keep a figure he perceives to be vital in the first team and subsequently settled.
But at this juncture, Howard can’t be considered as a critical figure; if anything, throughout the entirety of this campaign—while some of Everton’s defending has also left much to be desired—the American stopper has been a hindrance to the Blues. His latest pair of errors against Leicester City cost the Toffees three points and sapped the momentum from a wonderful 4-1 win in the Europa League midweek. Sadly for the 35-year-old, this can no longer be considered as a blip, rather an emphatic regression.
Dropping Howard in the early stages of the season wasn’t deemed to be a feasible option in the eyes of a lot of Everton supporters, primarily due to the lack of quality options available for this bespoke role in the team. Back-up choice Joel Robles had resembled an erratic, unsettling presence during his scattering of appearances in the first team, but after the American was felled with an injury on Boxing Day, the Spaniard got his chance.
He seized it, too. While Howard was costing the Toffees almost a goal a game with his lack of authority, flimsy shot stopping and all-round rudimentary errors, Robles blossomed into a commanding presence.
The former Wigan Athletic man took the pressure of the back-four with some authoritative displays between the sticks and in the his last three Premier League games he kept three consecutive clean sheets. Indeed, the 24-year-old’s showing away to West Ham United in the FA Cup was one of the standout individual performances in Everton’s season.
By comparison, Howard has only kept his goal intact in three of his last 19 games. But despite these seemingly damning statistics, once he was fit, he was straight back into the team; already he’s conceded four in three, a trio of which he should have prevented.
Martinez admitted that the team “defended with fear” in their disappointing draw with the Foxes. Naturally, he refused levy his goalkeeper with the blame, but having the American between the sticks transcended a jitteriness into the back-four that’s been missing as of late; against effervescent attacking opponents like Liverpool and Crystal Palace, nonetheless.
Howard has been a fine player for Everton down the years and it’s sad to watch his recent demise; in the midst of a terrible season, the American’s string of poor performances is blemishing the legacy he’s left on Merseyside. But Martinez needs to shoulder some of the blame for the predicament the goalkeeper currently finds himself in too.
The injury to Howard gave the Catalan a chance to take a look at another option between the sticks without going through the fuss of dropping a senior player and apprehensions about Robles being thrown into the team—while he’s probably not the long-term solution to Everton’s goalkeeping issues—were abated by his consistent performances.
But bringing the man Martinez admitted was Everton’s undisputed no. 1 back in at the earliest opportunity was an unsettling decision.
Of course, there are some players who are automatic choices, but Howard isn’t one of them at the moment for the factors aforementioned. It doesn’t send out the right message to other squad members who are striving to make it into the first team either. Especially for a side like Everton, who should have spots up for grabs given the perennially horrendous domestic form.
Looking at the situation from the outside, what incentive do those on the fringes of the squad and up-and-coming stars have to break into the first team if longstanding figures are guaranteed a start regardless of form? And what does it say about the manager that he’s willing to withdraw a player—one he signed, no less—who seized his chance with distinction at the expense of someone who’s hemorrhaged goals for a prolonged period?
While Howard’s one-man mission to drag Everton into a relegation battle has turned many of a blue persuasion against him, it’s an issue that is souring the mood surrounding Martinez too. For a manager who is losing the confidence of a lot of supporters after an immaculate maiden campaign, that’s far from ideal and it’s one of many poor decisions that’s doing little to enhance the toxic atmosphere that’s engulfed Goodison Park this season.
How the Catalan handles this issue moving forward will be tantamount to salvaging something from this disastrous campaign. The Toffees aren’t out of the woods yet in the fight to avoid relegation, but there is still an outside chance of savoring some glory; barring a catastrophic collapse against Young Boys in the second-leg of their Europa League tie, they’ll be in the last-16 of the competition.
Based on recent, tangible evidence, Robles should be taking his place in goal for these critical games to come.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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