I'm sorry, Roberto, but this team IS under-achieving... massively

By Lyndon Lloyd 31/01/2016  0 Comments  [Jump to last]

A lot has been said and written about Roberto Martinez and his Everton side over the past few days, ever since Wednesday's crushing defeat at the Etihad Stadium that saw the Blues falter just one step from Wembley. Amid the growing clamour in social media's echo chambers and a slew of articles, from concerned Evertonians and a befuddled media at large alike, a metaphorical levee of opinion has been breached with the latest in a series of damaging results.

Everton fans are, in the main, a patient and forgiving lot who agonised their way through 15 years of decline following the club's last League championship – including in that time two brushes with relegation and Peter Johnson's false dawn after the 1995 FA Cup triumph – and then afforded David Moyes, and the Bill Kenwright regime behind him, 11 years of slow but measurable progress towards reestablishing the club as a force among the English game's elite.

Far from the sound of knees jerking on the Blue half of Merseyside, the outpouring of frustration this week represents months of pent-up frustration from supporters who saw the bright promise of the Martinez era two seasons ago but have since witnessed an alarming decline in results and Everton's league position at a time when the top half of the Premier League is being disrupted in historic fashion by clubs who have not had the benefit of an uninterrupted runway in the top flight since Sky invented football in 1992. This should have been Everton's year to shatter the glass ceiling; instead that demolition job is being carried out – improbably but magnificently – by Leicester City, a team that was, at this stage of the season a year ago, rock bottom of the pile and three points from safety.

So, while it's obvious that he would plead for patience from long-suffering and dismayed Toffees, it's galling to hear Martinez flatly deny that Everton are under-achieving this season and to insist that it's impossible to expect them to achieve at all given how "new" the team is. Because, by almost all measurement, they are under-achieving and have been for the last 18 months.

They're under-achieving the benchmark of consistent top-seven finishes set by Martinez's predecessor who did so with a far less talented squad and, it shouldn't be forgotten, guided the Blues to a top-four finish in his third full season.

Just like last season's alarming mid-season collapse that led to an 11th-place finish, they’re under-achieving Martinez's own first term in charge by a considerable margin, a season when claims of a “new” team were far more valid than they are now given that four of the current team were just bedding in then.

They’re under-achieving Watford, a club that has actually gone out and bought almost an entirely new team and, of course Leicester who are only halfway through their manager's first season at the helm (although, everyone is effectively under-achieving compared to the Foxes as things currently stand!). Indeed, allow yourself this uncomfortable "shower thought" based on what we've witnessed over the last season and a half: where would Leicester be in the table this season if Roberto Martinez was their manager?

Furthermore, they are under-achieving not only Martinez's own relentless "bigging up" of his own players but also their reputations outside of Goodison Park: in John Stones, Ross Barkley, Romelu Lukaku and Gerard Deulofeu, the Blues have, by Martinez's somewhat hyperbolic estimate, £250m of talent on their books. Combine them with two of the Premier League's most effective and coveted fullbacks in Leighton Baines and (until last season, at least) Seamus Coleman; one of England's first-choice starters at centre half in the World Cup in Phil Jagielka; an Argentine international in Ramiro Funes Mori; "one of the best players England has ever seen" in Gareth Barry and his industriously effective defensive-midfield partner James McCarthy and you have the bedrock of a side that almost every commentator around believes should be comfortably top six. (That's not even to mention the mercurial talents of Kevin Mirallas, the exciting blend of steel and finesse boasted by Muhamed Besic and the potential stars of the future like Brendan Galloway and Mason Holgate waiting in the wings.)

Much of the credit for assembling such a mixture of ability, experience and promise goes to Martinez, of course, and his trusted coach Kevin Reeves but his increasingly apparent inability to organise the team into an outfit capable of both attacking and defending effectively smacks of someone who would make a stellar director of football but is less cut out to be a hands-on manager.

It's wonderful seeing the displays of individual prowess that we have witnessed under Martinez: the sight of Gerard Deulofeu flying forward and terrorising defences can be tantalising; watching Barkley flick, shimmy and bamboozle his way past defenders is vintage School of Science; seeing Stones glide his way out of defence in his almost regal manner is another joy; and there have some genuinely exhilirating moments in the Europa League last season and very late in games this term. It's all tempered to a heart-breaking degree by the fact that, far from resulting in the progress we all believed was possible with this team, we're actually regressing. Because, at the end of the day, it's all about results – watching replays of the scenes at Bournemouth and Chelsea or goals like Barkley's at Manchester City should be moments for Blues to savour for years to come; instead they gnaw at your insides with the agony of what should have been.

On paper, it's a team that can beat anyone but, contrary to the manager's insistence that Everton are "very close" to "becoming a winning team", results stubbornly dictate that we're nowhere close. Martinez spoke last Wednesday of his team having "swagger" at the Etihad. The only evidence of swagger that evening was Barkley’s wonderful opening goal. Everton managed two shots on target in the entire 90 minutes and when they just needed a single goal to put them back ahead in the tie on away goals against 10 men, they couldn’t muster a chance worthy of the name in 7 minutes of added time. Swagger is what — and it pains me to highlight it, but it’s true — Liverpool, an inferior side on paper to this Everton team, demonstrated on the same ground in November when they went in there and stunned City by taking a 3-0 lead. They added a fourth goal for good measure (from Martin bloody Skrtel, for heaven’s sake).

Martinez's Everton have shown swagger in the past – his first season was full of it – but, psychologically, they are fragile. Right now it's an exciting collection of individuals that doesn't function as a team. They don't press as a team, they defend less and less as a team and with too many players given license not to track back or harry the man in possession, opposition sides are all too often just ushered into our own half putting immediate pressure on the defensive six.

In that sense, Martinez is doing his bright young stars a grave disservice. Talk of Barkley being "the complete midfielder" will never ring true until he is instructed to do his part in stopping the opposition by closing down and tackling opponents more. Stones's form has been on a downward trajectory for weeks now and his manager has been culpable by allowing him free rein to court trouble at the back, neglecting, it would appear, to teach him the fundamentals of marking, and then failing to pull him out of the side to allow him to refind himself when the going got tough recently.

The almost wholesale reliability on Romelu Lukaku to play every single fixture and score the team's goals week in, week out has now affected his performances, too. The Belgian has looked jaded and almost disinterested over the last few matches, and the fact that Martinez has left Arouna Kone – a player who has scored a grand total of 7 goals in 48 appearances – as the only back-up striker makes a mockery of Everton's top-four ambitions and, should it continue much longer, would represent an unforgivable dereliction of duty on the manager's part. Reports this weekend of Lokomotiv Moscow accepting an £13.5m offer for Oumar Baye Niasse will come as music to Evertonian ears, especially those who felt that an injury to Lukaku and any further deterioration of morale at Goodison would put the club at serious risk of being sucked into a relegation scrap.

If it feels like there's an edge to these words it’s because, like many Evertonians, I’m angry – not so much at the results because I’m back to becoming numb to the weekly let-downs, but because it feels like someone is pissing on my leg and telling me it’s raining. There is absolutely no acknowledgement of any failure here; no real accountability. Saying you accept the criticism being directed at you “from outside" is more an acceptance that scrutiny of your job comes with the territory than it is actually fronting up to the fact that this team has a systemic inability to win enough football matches.

Pleas for patience were understandable and correct a year ago when, even if you bought into the notion that the Europa League was the cause of our ills I didn't), it was only right and proper to allow the manager to work through his second-season syndrome and continue his rebuilding efforts over the summer. 12 months later, we’ve only beaten one of the teams above us in the table, have managed a paltry 18 wins from the last 61 league games and won just three at home all season. It's just not good enough.

Given that unless there was a revolt by supporters in response to a cup exit at Carlisle this weekend, it's almost certain that Roberto Martinez will remain at his post for the remainder of the season, there is a number of steps he surely must take in order to get things back on track and starting winning games over the remainder of the season in preparation for the next.

Starting by acknowledging reality: We are under-achieving. With the odd exception, performances have not been good enough. We concede far too many goals and, despite our much-vaunted attack, there are increasingly long spells now where we don't really threaten opposition goals as much as we shoould either.

Get back to basics at the back. No more messing around in dangerous areas and putting pressure either on the goalkeeper or the midfield with panicked passes. Hit row Z if necessary but find a way of shoring up a back line that is disconcertingly porous and getting worse.

End the farce with Tim Howard. He is 36 and demonstrably getting worse than he was 18 months ago. It's clear that he shouldn't be our first-choice goalkeeper beyond this season so take him of the side and allow Joel Robles an extended run to prove whether or not he is capable of fulfulling the role long-term.

Clear out the dead and ageing wood and blood some young players. Barring a miracle upturn in form, we're not qualifying for Europe via the Premier League this season so it's time to plan for the future. Beyond a swansong at the end of the season to acknowledge their tremendous service to the club, there is no reason for the Leon Osmans of the world to still be in the first-team squad. Not when there are players like Ryan Ledson, Jonjoe Kenny, Kieran Dowell and Joe Williams on the verge of graduating from the Academy and who could use some cameo appearances to begin their education at senior level.

Pay off the remainder of Darron Gibson's contract if you're not going to play him. Move Aiden McGeady out on loan with a view to a permanent deal in the summer. Use Steven Pienaar where needed to help get some results on the board over the next few weeks but ensure that you have already scouted his replacement. Sign a quicker, more agile, reliable and potent alternative to Kone.

Start making your own luck. Assigning the blame for recent failings against Stoke, Chelsea and City to poor officiating and bad luck, however important those factors have been, also ignores the fact that Everton did not do enough to win in their own right. Two shots on target to Manchester City's 19 and anoher blow two-goal advantage in the League Cup semi-final in midweek do not paint a picture of the losing team being "close" to matching the level of the top four.

And encourage the players to take more shots. Lord knows we've been the victims of enough deflections in recent games and it shows that if you don't shoot, you can't score. Make use of Barkley's explosive shooting boots, put your forwards in a position to profit from rebounds and deflections.

Instill a nasty streak in the team. Everton at the moment are a walk-over, a soft touch, for opposition teams and match officials alike. Start complaining en masse at obviously poor decisions and display some passion when it's clear you're being wronged. Players and managers that get into officials' ears eventually start to benefit from a subconscious shift in opinion about a team.

Some visible application of a few of these things would at least signal to the fanbase that there is some awareness of the shortcomings at Goodison at the moment, rather than this apparent pig-headed unwillingess to look facts in the face. Because, again, the situation that Everton are currently in with the talent at Martinez's disposal is simoply not good enough, not least because of the millions lost in Premier League merit money by finishing in the bottom half of the table.

Clubs that we really realistically should be regarding as our peers have clearly demonstrated that they wouldn't put up with such stark under-achievement – Tottenham fired Andre Villas-Boas when they were in a far better position in the League; Liverpool turfed Brendan Rodgers out on his ear once it had become abundantly clear that he couldn't organise a defence either and there was a top-class replacement boss available; and Manchester United haven't been shy about not putting up with mediocrity at Old Trafford.

Martinez is clearly being afforded more slack so he will, in all likelihood, get a chance over the remainder of the campaign to convince the growing number of doubters that he is the man to take Everton forward. He himself said that Everton had to achieve success this season with the players in the squad so he has effectively left himself just the FA Cup as his road to proper redemption. If he can pull it off and oversee the kind of unmistakeable turnaround in our league fortunes that would point to the Blues punching at their proper weight next season then it will prompt some reassessment over the summer. In the meantime, a little honesty and frank talk wouldn't go amiss. It's the least we deserve.

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