If it wasn’t for the underachievement of Everton, the 2015-16 Premier League campaign is one which we’d all be enjoying wholeheartedly.
Teams have emerged to upset the established order, with Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur occupying the top two positions. New stars have surfaced too, with Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, Dele Alli and Dimitri Payet taking the division by storm. Every round of fixtures conjures a gripping new storyline and another segment of raw drama.
If the Toffees were in the mix at the summit or even clinging onto the coattails of the top teams in this thrilling campaign, there’d be a swell of confidence in the fanbase; confidence that next term, perhaps with the squad a little more mature, this team assembled by Roberto Martinez would be capable of repeating the heroics of Leicester or Spurs.
After all, few players from Claudio Ranieri’s squad would get into the Everton starting line-up on paper, while there’s little to choose between the personnel available to Martinez and Mauricio Pochettino, overall.
The performances of these two outfits will trigger hopes amongst other midtable sides of producing something similar in 2016-17. But as we watched the Toffees toil to a 1-0 loss against West Bromwich Albion this weekend, not to mention other underwhelming showings throughout the season, it was striking just how far this team has to go before they’re as formidable a foe.
As aforementioned, man-by-man, Martinez has a squad bristling with ability. The starting back four are all excellent players in their own right, the midfield options are a brilliant blend of experience, energy and ingenuity, while up front, the league’s second-highest goalscorer leads the line. But there’s little fortitude behind a flashy starting XI.
It’s the equivalent of buying all the individual parts to assemble a supercar, but when all put together, while looking pristine, it splutters and stutters down the road.
There’s no substance to the Toffees; they can’t press opponents, they gift silly goals and struggle in big pressure matches.
Against West Brom, a team revered for their set-piece skill, they were unable to cope with the one corner the visitors had all game. And while there may have been some strokes of misfortune in the team’s failure to find the net in the first period, there’s nothing unlucky about not dealing with the opposition’s only and obvious attacking threat.
They’re basic lapses in concentration which the sides pushing on simply don’t show. Two weeks ago Spurs played Watford in a game very similar in style to Everton’s clash with West Brom. They dominated from beginning to end against defensively robust opposition, boasting 66 percent of possession and firing off 25 shots at goal.
They remained sharp at the back, didn’t give the Hornets a sniff and a shrewd managerial change helped them to a 1-0 win. A similarly composed display and calculated change at Manchester City, bringing Erik Lamela off the bench late on, helped Spurs to a crucial 2-1 victory, thus cementing their title credentials.
Additionally, Leicester executed a counter-attacking gameplan at the Etihad Stadium which Everton failed with twice in the space of two weeks last month. Their players were intelligent, focused, pragmatic and perhaps most significantly of all, something which also applies to Spurs, remarkably hardworking.
Some expect these traits to suddenly coarse through the XI when this Everton side clicks; this writer did earlier in the season. But they don’t appear from nothing. Nigel Pearson and Pochettino meticulously instilled these qualities last term and both clubs are reaping the rewards; it’s not as if a switch suddenly has been flicked, there’s been clear and steady progress.
The altruistic attributes these teams possess have not been seen consistently from Everton for a while. Indeed, while the pragmatic shape which was used against Stoke City and Newcastle United is undoubtedly the way forward, it means sacrificing some of the attacking flair which was badly needed against a side such as West Brom.
Players like Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley, Kevin Mirallas and Gerard Deulofeu are all huge attacking weapons, but playing all four carries a risk of being outmuscled, outworked and subsequently overrun.
On the flipside, players like Harry Kane, Alli and Christian Eriksen, as well as Vardy, Mahrez and Shinji Okazaki, marry graft and guile expertly; they’re all menaces in the final third, yet could never be described as defensive passengers.
Structure and solidity count for so much in the Premier League and in the most competitive competition for years, it’s no surprise to see the two hardest-working, highly-organised teams in the division leading the way. There’s been a balance struck which few can match.
By contrast, those teams who have been reliant on isolated, individual moments have underachieved, like Manchester City, Everton and Newcastle United. The former and the latter are upmarket and pound shop versions of Toffees, respectively; they have some very talented players which fail to cover up a lack of cohesion.
Evertonians may lament opportunities missed this term to get amongst the upper reaches of the division based on the talent of this squad alone. Yet the simple truth is that having fine young players isn’t inextricably linked to success at this level; footballers need to be guided, organised, nurtured and motivated.
That process doesn’t seem to be in motion at Everton, with the same players and the same manager making a succession of similar errors. When you look at scrupulous groundwork and the time taken by Leicester and Spurs to form the foundations which have facilitated their impressive positions, it makes it difficult to keep the faith.