This time last year Everton was undefeated with three wins to their name, quite a stunning difference to this season’s single victory that’s left them 14th in the table and one point from the drop.
Such a slide in form is typically attributed to the sale of key players or the acquisition of a new manager but for the Toffees, it’s quite the opposite. This summer business at Goodison Park was booming as the club tied up key players to long term deals (Seamus Coleman, John Stones, Ross Barkley), extended the contract of manager Robero Martinez and even convinced Romelu Lukaku to ditch uppity West London for the row-houses of Walton.
To say hopes were high for Bluenoses heading into the 2014-15 Premier League season would be an understatement: A strong, healthy core of players with an optimal mix of youth and experience. A young, likeable manager with creative, attacking ideas. A club with a distant, albeit foreseeable opportunity to achieve Champions League play through either a Top 4 finish or Europa League title.
Yet somehow, things have crumbled quickly for the Toffees. Below we explore four reasons for the early season woes and look at some potential solutions to stop the rot.
Tim Howard’s horror show against Crystal Palace last Sunday came at stark contrast to his performance just three days prior when he stood on his head making 12 saves in the 4-1 win over Wolfsburg. Bad matches will come and go but some believe Howard has lost his edge, as evidenced by the concession of a league-high 13 goals in five matches.
In fairness, however, the lion’s share of those goals have been the fault of slack defending among the back four rather than misjudgments by Howard. “I think the goals we conceded are quite soft and we got some basic errors and we lack a bit of intensity defensively,” Roberto Martinez said following the 3-2 loss to Palace. “On others we have been quite unfortunate – own goals, deflections – and you get periods like that.”
Nevertheless, one issue that’s cause for concern is Howard’s desire to play every match, even those like Tuesday night’s League Cup match to Swansea City where Martinez put out a b-squad and the Toffees were beaten 3-0. No question Howard is Everton’s surefire starter. But at 35-years-old additional recovery time can be a blessing meaning rotation with backup Joel Robles, certainly for non-league matches, feels like an obvious decision Martinez needs to make.
Back Four Shake-Up
Nine goals. That’s the difference in goals conceded between this time last year (4) and this season (13). And while all three goals from last week’s loss to Palace fall directly on the shoulders of Howard, the remaining 10 goals are almost entirely the fault of a disjointed back four.
The leader, Phil Jagielka, has been anything but that. In a matter of months he’s gone from a drill sergeant to vocally meek. With Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman eager to fly up the pitch the control factor rests with Jagielka, who needs to ensure the defense remains balanced. If that means keeping Baines or Coleman back, or hassling Gareth Barry or James McCarthy into a cover role, so be it.
Physically, Jagielka looks off-the-mark as well. Known as one of the best center-backs in the league at last-ditch tackles, the 32-year-old seems to have lost a good deal of his lateral sprite. The team has kept quiet on any injury but whatever is plaguing him needs to be addressed, and quickly.
As for his center-back partner, Sylvain Distin, age seems to finally be catching up with the 36-year-old. Despite having notable pace Distin has been caught flat-footed on a number of occasions while his nervy touch continues to let him down. Non-league matches and the occasional Premier League match will do Sylvain well but the time has come for John Stones to be handed the reigns alongside Jagielka. At 20-years-old Stones’ youth is a cause of concern but his positioning, intelligence and slick touch on the ball prove him wise beyond his years. At 6’2″ Stones has good height and seems to have grown a decent amount since last season. Continued work in the weight room could soon see him morph into a monster but even as is, Stones should be the starting partner alongside Jagielka.
At full-back an off season last year has seen Baines return stronger and more determined while Coleman continues to impress. As noted before, all-out attacks from both sides must be chosen wisely but it’s hard to knock this pair.
Roberto Martinez has made clear his aspirations for European glory:
“Last year we had to work so hard for 38 games to achieve that, it would be nonsense to say we don’t want to be giving it everything we’ve got. As long as people understand that making changes to the line-up doesn’t mean you don’t care about a competition. We really want to go all the way in the Europa League.”
With a Champions League spot on the line, it’s hard to argue with that kind of logic. Surely, Everton should try their best to win the Europa League. But that kind of dedication comes at a cost, as seen this past week when they thumped Wolfsburg 4-1 before succumbing to Crystal Palace 3-2.
Those kind of lopsided performances have to be overcome and Martinez could have benefitted from some fresher legs against Palace if substitutions against Wolfsburg had been made earlier. Notably, after going up 3-0 to Wolfsburg after 47 minutes, Martienz waited until the final eight minutes of the match to make two of his three substitutions. Lineup rotation can be difficult in such a small club but smarter substitutions will be key to preserving fresh legs moving forward.
Loss of the Boss
When Ross Barkley went down in August with MCL ligament damage, so too did the hearts of Evertonians. Barkley was a revelation last year with his bombing runs, stunning strikes and playmaking ability, he was the attacking midfield cog that set Lukaku free.
Without Barkley, there is no true playmaker in the Everton midfield. McCarthy can create from the deep-lying role and Kevin Mirallas can break opposition off the dribble but both lack the consistency and transitional devastation that Barkley provides. In the 20-year-old’s place Aiden McGeady and Steven Naismith have deputized well but the former is more dangerous on the wing (and has yet to come into his own) while the latter has had a fantastic season but lacks the back-tracking and well-rounded ability of Barkley.
Along with Lukaku and Mirallas, Barkley is absolutely crucial to the success of the Everton attack. His return, currently slated for mid-October, will be a massive lift for the Toffees.