Evertonians find themselves in depressingly familiar territory as another year draws to a close and another dawns. Football's year transitions in August, of course, but the New Year, representing as it does this time the start of the second half of the season, can still be pregnant with possbility.
Everton will start 2015 in something of a crisis, however � if not yet in terms of results, certainly in terms of confidence � following the concession of three goals on Tyneside that condemned them to a third successive defeat. A side changed signifcantly from the Boxing Day defeat to Stoke, in part due to injury and in part because Roberto Martinez was perhaps looking for a reaction from his charges, was unable to hold on to the early lead that should have been the platform on which to go on and beat a nervous Newcastle. Instead, more individual errors at the back and dreadful defending allowed Alan Pardew's men to end their own run of defeats and leave 2014 on a high.
The Blues finish the first half of 2014-15 in 12th place, 12 points off the European places that increasingly look fanciful for a team that has won just five Premier League matches and already equalled the number of games they lost in all of last season. Worryingly, they seem ill-equipped for the fight ahead of them and the absence of a true leader to grab the side by the scruff of its collective neck and drag a performance out of it makes it hard to see where the run of results required to salvage the campaign is going to come from. Put simply, Everton looked shambolic and directionless at times, further widening the gap between the fearless and swashbuckling outfit of 2013-14, whose expansive style was epitomised by their performance in this fixture in March, and the erratic, sloppy shower they have become this season.
Maddeningly, it could have been very different at St James' Park this afternoon. A confident start and a move reminiscent of Everton at their best under Martinez had yielded a first goal for Arouna Kone inside the first five minutes. Samuel Eto'o and Aiden McGeady moved the ball through in midfield to allow the latter to find Seamus Coleman's overlapping run and the Irishman delivered a perfect cross that Kone despatched cleanly through Jak Alnwick's arms.
Three players introduced to the line-up at the expense of Ross Barkley, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas had combined to give Everton the perfect platform from which to exploit the Magpies' uncertainty and press on to win for only the third time away from home this season. Unfortunately, they immediately sat off their hosts and stopped pressing the ball, allowing Newcastle to regain their composure and then mount the attacks that would eventually yield an equaliser.
The Blues' defence parted like the Red Sea in the 12th minute when Papisse Cisse's flick-on put Moussa Sissoko in the clear but an awful first touch allowed Joel Robles to bat the loose ball behind for a corner. More set-piece opportunities would follow as Everton continued to either squander possession � the leaden Gareth Barry was a repeated offender in front of his own back line while McGeady and Eto'o were guilty of poor distribution further forward � or backed off sufficiently to invite pressure but Martinez's defence, shorn of injured duo Phil Jagielka and John Stones, was dealing with the pressure.
That pressure told, though, when Everton switched off during a short corner routine between Jack Colback and Cheick Tiot� and the latter had time and space to launch a ball to the back post where Michael Williamson had stolen in behind Sylvain Distin. He knocked the ball back into the danger zone and Cisse half-volleyed home from eight yards out to make it 1-1 by the time half time arrived.
There would be plenty of debate after the match as to whether the Senegalese striker should have been on the pitch at that point as television cameras had picked up a despicable elbow to the side of Coleman's face at an earlier corner but the incident was not seen at the time by referee Craig Pawson and his assistant. Had they picked up on it, it might have proved a turning point in the game but in the context of Everton's overall performance, it was largely moot.
In truth, though the equaliser and the manner in which Martinez's men had ceded the initiative boded ill, for an away game, the Blues' display hadn't been all that bad over the first 45 minutes. Luke Garbutt had again slotted seamlessly into the starting XI at left back and Leighton Baines was proving a useful presence in a seemingly undefined midfield role, popping up on both sides of the field but offering little of the natural width he nornally provides from fullback.
Barry, betraying all of his 33 years, was alarmingly off the pace all afternoon, however, while Coleman after the goal was a shadow of his usual marauding self and Eto'o offered next to nothing floating around the middle of the park behind Kone. Nevertheless, the introduction of Barkley for McCarthy at half time offered hope of more dynamism going forward against a Newcastle team that really was there for the taking.
Just four minutes after coming on Barkley was evoking memories of that mesmerising goal he scored in the Blues' 3-0 win on their last visit to St James' Park with a surging run but when Kone clipped a ball to the other side of the area, Coleman chose not rattle off a first-time shot, choosing instead to cross and it was deflected behind. Barry was adjudged to have fouled his man attempting a header from the resulting corner and from their next possession came the set-piece from which Newcastle took the lead.
Sissoko fired a wicked cross in from the right behind the Everton defence that Alcaraz tried to deal with by nudging it on the far side of the box but it hit the on-rushing Yuan Gouffran and looked to be heading for the corner until Robles finger-tipped it past his post for a corner. From there, a succession of errors just summed up the shambles that Everton have become at the back in recent weeks.
Barkley had headed the initial corner clear but when the ball was worked wide to Jack Colback and he swung it back in, Robles flapped unconvincingly and Barry did just enough to get himself out of trouble near his own byline and dig out a clearance to Baines. He chose to pass to McGeady but the Irishman gave it straight to Tiote who was alive to Ayoze Perez in acres of space outside the Blues' area and picked him out with a pass. The Spaniard did the rest, teasing Coleman and Distin on the 18 yard line before firing through the former's legs and past the stranded goalkeeper.
There had been much to be positive about Everton in the early going but with Newcastle taking the lead, the writing was on the wall. The dreadful McGeady was hooked in the 61st minute in favour of Mirallas who should never have been left out in the first place and there was a brief upturn in the Blues' play as they pushed for an equaliser of their own.
Terrific, determined work by Baines on the left wing ended with him pulling the ball back for Eto'o but he skied a left-foot effort high over the bar and the England international laid a chance soon afterwards for Kone but he prodded a difficult chance wide midway through the second half.
Two minutes later, though, it was effectively game over. Another cross from the right, this time from Daryl Janmaat, was aimed to pick out Colback's run but Barkley was there to intercept. Unfortunately, his touch was calamitous and served the third goal on a plate for the Newcastle midfielder who had the simple task of sliding the ball under Robles for his first goal in Barcodes colours.
Even with a two-goal advantage, the home crowd remained on edge when Everton came forward and the grandstand finish they feared arrived via a world-class throughball from Baines who threaded Mirallas in beautifully and the Belgian provided a finish to match, knocking it first time over the 'keeper to make it 3-2 with six minutes plus stoppage time to play.
There was still life in the Blues and when Mirallas won a free kick just outside the area, there was hope he could provide a dramatic finale but his direct effort bent the wrong side of the upright. And apart from a last-ditch opportunity to put the ball into the box that Coleman wasted by pussy-footing around on the edge of the area as the clock wound down, that was more or less it from Everton, sadly. Instead of a late assault on the Newcastle goal, it was the home side who nearly added to the scoreline but Perez hammered a shot off the post as Alan Pardew's attackers swarmed through the gaps left at the back.
Quite where the next point is coming from let alone the next win is hard to envision at this point. Things have quite clearly fallen apart and there isn't much evidence that Martinez knows how to arrest the slide. He will point to the impact of continuing injury problems in defence and more individual errors leading to crucial goals but it's the lack of organisation and shape and the general impotence going forward that continue to lie at the heart of Everton's problems.
All this despite possessing the club's most talented squad of the Premier League era. It's unclear whether the omission of Lukaku, Mirallas and Barkley was made on the basis of fitness during a congested part of the fixture list or to make a point about their overall form but coming on top of the three changes he was already forced to make based on injuries picked up in the Stoke game, it was a questionable decision.
Lukaku, who now has just one goal in seven games, may have played 18 anonymous minutes after replacing Kone (who looked far more adept at dropping back and playing with his back to goal than the Belgian ever really has) but there many, myself included, who feel that the system Martinez is employing is doing the Belgian a massive disservice. It's a pity that the manager has thus far refused to play him and Kone together because Eto'o was largely a passenger we could ill afford. Given the stakes now, the line-up at Hull on New Year's Day will be instructive as to what Martinez feels is his best XI and system.
The trip to Humberside in its entirety will be very revealing in what it says about the team and where it is heading under Martinez. The excuse of Europe has long since been removed from the equation while the display against Stoke undermined the argument for injuries being the chief culprit for the Blues' poor form of late. Everton are a team looking for direction, leadership and a reliable system at the moment; one that can override those transient factors and keep them from sliding into a dogfight at the bottom of the table and exiting the two cup competitions that could yet provide redemption.
Roberto Martinez shook things up a little with seven changes for the first of two crucial away games coming hot on the heels of two poor defeats. Arouna Kone starts for Everton with Joel Robles in goal, Aiden McGeady and Luke Garbutt recalled as Tim Howard, Phil Jagielka, and John Stones are all out with injuries. Barkley, Mirallas and Lukaku are all dropped to the bench while Steven Naismith served out a one-match ban for picking up five yellow cards. Russel Griffiths from the academy is the substitute goalkeeper while Besic and Oviedo reappear on the bench.
With Garbutt and Baines in the startiung line-up, suggestions that Baines could finally play further forward, with McGeady on the right side and Eto'o playing in the hole behind Kone. Everton stqarted the game in this formation, and dominated the early possession, Coleman crossing a superb layoff for Kone to rocket home!!
Barry gave away a poor foul on Sissoko, who then got free but overhit his first touch, forcing Robles to give up the first corner as the home side applied some pressure. Everton were disappointingly reticent when they did get the ball � almost as if they were happy to sit back on their ominously early slender one-goal lead... A Garbutt free-kick was was wasted and Newcastle were right back in their faces, winning another corner that was palmed out by Robles but Barry then gave it away.
Finally, Everton got some forward possession, Kone and Eto'o looking to link up, but it came to nothing and Everton resorted to defending deep, giving up another corner as they invited the Barcodes to equalize. Baines was fouled, the ball played out to Garbutt then back to Robles via Distin, losing possession! Maddening piss-farting about instead of playing the ball forward! But suddenly a brilliant move through the middle, Garbutt letting Kone play in Coleman who was called offside as he shot brilliantly, forcing a good save.
Kone got down the left but showed too much of the ball to a defender as Everton finally got into the Newcastle area, but stopped the play when Tiote went down. Gouffran was carded for a heavy challenge on Coleman. Play looked to be developing when McGeady hopelessly left the ball behind. McCarthy clattered Sissoko and he saw yellow. A free-kick and another corner to defend, but taken poorly. Coleman took an elbow in the face from Ciss� at the third attempt, not seen by the referee.
Promising midfield possession ended with a desperate scoop back to Robles by Barry with Newcastle pressing, winning yet another corner that saw the home side really fighting for a goal. And that came form the next corner, taken short, the ball coming back to Ciss�, who could not miss. Shocking concession of the early advantage, but nothing less than expected as Everton had totally failed to build on the brilliant early goal.
Everton won their first corner on 36 mins with Kone, running away from goal, trying an impossible header. Some better forward possession saw Kone playing a little too deep but at least keeping the ball moving much more effectively than Lukaku of late, a good move ending when McGeady typically lashed the ball high and wide. The half ended with the annoying feeling that Everton had squandered a tremendous opportunity to really hammer the home side; instead, it was Newcastle who finished the half almost scoring again.
Barkley came on to replace McCarthy after the break. McGeady got forward down the right but his cross was too close to Alnwick and Newcastle were attacking, but a great drive down the middle by Barkley should have led to at least a shot on goal, rather than a corner that Baines fired in superbly to the far post but Barry could not finish it off.
At the other end almost an own goal, Robles needed ito be alert to push it behind but from the corner, some dreadful play by McGeady, playing it straight to Tiote and Perez had an easy task to finish through Coleman's legs with Robles immaculately statuesque... pathetic defending from Everton, as they were soon under pressure again, giving up another corner. Everton did get some forward possession but Eto'o overhit his defense-splitting pass to Kone for a goal kick.
Garbutt did his best with a tremendous cross but it was headed back and Newcastle were quickly down the other end, as Martinez had Lukaku and Mirallas warm up. Barry was next to give the ball away under zero pressure, then Coleman likewise from an Everton throw-in! More piss-farting about, Barkley playing very deep, almost let Newcastle in again.
Everton should have broken at pace but somehow Barkley lost the ball as Mirallas replaced the maddening Aiden McGeady. Coleman then shamefully played the ball along the line and ran it out of play as mistake after mistake destroyed any tempo Everton tried to achieve. Baines did brilliantly to defeat Tiote and lay it back on a plate for Eto'o who scooped it wastefully high over the bar.
Baines played in a good cross that Kone tried to force home as Everton showed a little more initiative, but the game was open and Newcastle were back in attack. Some absolutely dreadful defending at the back saw Barkley cushion the ball perfectly for Colback to benefit, closing in behind him to beat the yellow lummox in the Everton goal with consummate ease.
Newcastle surged forward again, and Robles benefited from a shot that he couldn't help saving as it was straight at him; otherwise, goal number 4, as Kone gave way to Lukaku.
It was Game Over with 20 minutes left to play. Everton trying to raise their game while Newcastle sat back, a corner wasted by Garbutt, overhit. It was painful in the extreme as the Everton players really had no idea what to do and no self-belief taht they could get anything from the game. T'was ever thus when they score that early goal and give you such hope.
But suddenly, Baines played a fantastic forward pass, Mirallas dinking the ball over Alnwick to make it 3-2. Barkley then got a soft free-kick as he slipped over, Mirallas curling it just wide of the post wen he should really have got it on target. Eto'o had a great chance to play in Lukaku but played it to a defender instead. Barkley then crossed poorly, overhitting it as the minutes ticked away.
Coleman put in an excellent low cross that was meat and drink for a decent centre-forward but Lukaku was hanging back a yard or two and showed zero initiative to convert at the near post. Newcastle almost walked the ball into the net, Garbutt scooping away out of Robles' hands. Incredibly, they then missed two more chances, Riviere smacking the post with Robles a gormless spectator.
A home side who had scored just 9 goals in 10 home were gifted three by a super-generous Everton side who seem to have no idea how to press home an advantage from such a tremendous early goal, Everton conceding 3 goals in successive away games for the first time since May 2005. Five defeats in seven Premier League games and Roberto Martinezx looking fearlessly down both barrales of a shotgun, still believing the performances of his charges are 'phenomenal'...
With their form testing the bounds of crisis, Everton face consecutive away matches that will put Roberto Martinez and his players to a severe test as they struggle to salvage their Premier League campaign at the halfway point.
With the Boxing Day defeat against Stoke deepening the gloom at Goodison and throwing up more questions than answers, the Blues first travel to St James' Park, the scene of one of Martinez's greatest triumphs. Epitomising the Catalan's Sin Miedo ethos and the masterful counter-attacking strategy that served his side so well at times last season, Everton demolished the Barcodes 3-0 on their own turf.
That performance and the Ross Barkley goal that lit it up seem a world away from the crippled confidence and blunted attack currently plagueing the Toffees and there is no question that Martinez needs to find a cure for the malaise in short order.
He admitted as much after the Stoke loss, suggesting that Everton are at a "pivotal moment" in their season but his erring on the side of blaming ill-fortune and poor officiating in that game rather than getting to the root of deeper-lying issues is leaving many supporters craving more of a reaction and more fire from the manager.
Martinez's quest for a first away win in the Premier League since late September has been made harder by injuries to Tim Howard, captain Phil Jagielka, John Stones and Kevin Mirallas, with the first two the least likely to be involved against Newcastle after being withdrawn at half time on Friday. Stones suffered a knock to the same ankle that had kept him out for three months prior to the Stoke game and Mirallas went down again after Charlie Adam raked his studs down his heel; both will be assessed before the team is named.
Steven Naismith, meanwhile, is suspended, after picking up a fifth booking, forcing at least one change in attack where Barkley could be re-deployed in his preferred central role. Whether Martinez feels the need for further personnel changes remains to be seen but the likes of Steven Pienaar, Aiden McGeady and Arouna Kone are all waiting in the wings should he be moved to do so.
Newcastle, who have lapsed back into their own run of bad results after putting together an impressive run that had them briefly in the top four, will be missing Tim Krul and Rob Eiliott, and have doubts over Mehdi Abeid and Siem de Jong. Cheick Tiote is available again, though, after serving his own ban.
Given the talent that exists in the Blues' squad, the "R" word should be unthinkable – and remains an unlikely threat – but in order to avoid getting dragged into an unwanted fight that no one ever foresaw as possible at the start of the season, Everton are going to need to find a way of winning, particularly when they're not expected to.
That same talent in the team should be enough to beat a faltering Newcastle under Alan Pardew's erratic leadership if Martinez can find the motivation in his players and the spark in his own management to pull out a result. The evidence of the past week suggests it will be a tall order but it's soon going to be now or never. A pivotal moment, indeed.
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