Everton 2 - 3 West Ham United
It was Groundhog Day at Goodison Park. Again.
At some point you just move past anger into a surreal depressed acceptance and marvel at Everton’s penchant for late capitulation in the arena that is meant to be their fortress. After repeated body blows of this ilk this season against Leicester and Stoke and at Bournemouth and Chelsea (those are the most painful examples but there are others, of course), you would think that surely — surely, for pity’s sake! — some lessons would have been learned about how to protect a lead.
With five wins in the last six in all competitions, the team standing again on the threshold of a first Wembley appearance for four years and the prospect of fresh investment, this game really was the siren song for the Everton’s season. A win would have pulled them within five points of fifth place and put them right back in contention for Europe, the prospect of rescuing another massively disappointing league season well within their grasp.
Instead, though they had done all the hard work in largely nullifying an enterprising and dangerous Hammers side, taken a deserved 1-0 lead, and then doubled that advantage despite losing Kevin Mirallas to a pair of stupid yellow cards with 65 minutes of the game left, they tossed away three precious points by simply failing to address the imperative to defend in numbers to see the game out.
Romelu Lukaku’s dreadful 68th-minute penalty, one that would have been comfortably saved by Adrian even if the Spaniard hadn’t illegally leapt two yards off his line before making the stop, will be highlighted as a turning point. Had he managed to finish with any of the conviction that a striker of his ability should, then you would have thought that even a defence as porous as Everton’s could have seen the game out from 3-0 up.
Even a man down, 2-0 should have been more than enough, though. Up to the last quarter of an hour when, once again, the whole shape and look of the team appeared to be disrupted by a seemingly needless or misguided Roberto Martinez substitution, the Blues were in remarkable control of the game. Instead of pulling his men back behind the ball and just grittily seeing out the final 15 minutes, he withdrew the industrious Aaron Lennon in favour of another striker in the form of Oumar Niasse and the tide of the game changed soon afterwards.
Whether the change in personnel had a direct influence will be debated but everything changed immediately afterwards. A man down and 2-0 up, surely you just do everything to get over the line with three points. Surely you just “Pulis” it for the last 15 minutes — pull men behind the ball and just make it as hard as possible rather than throw on another attacker.
The raised eyebrows and unease at the deployment of a largely untested back three, apparently prompted by illness to Gareth Barry, when the team sheets were announced had been largely forgotten about half an hour into this match. Everton had started in assured fashion, betraying little of the nervousness or lack of intensity or tempo that has made watching Martinez’s side at times this season so frustrating.
James McCarthy’s excellent early shot that was batted over the bar by Adrian was an early sign of their intent and, after John Stones’s pleas for a penalty had been ignored by referee Anthony Taylor, they took the lead with impressive goal from Lukaku.
West Ham’s depleted back line was pin-pointed as an area to exploit prior to the game and the Belgian did so brilliantly by rolling past young centre half Reece Oxford and drilling a low shot in off the far post with 12 minutes gone.
Ross Barkley then tested the ‘keeper with a similarly excellent effort, chesting a loose ball forward and unleashing a left-foot volley that Adrian pushed away with a diving parry as the Blues looked to extend their advantage.
The complexion of the match changed significantly 10 minutes before the break, however, when Mirallas received his marching orders – and, most likely a permanent place in Martinez's dog house – from Taylor for a second bookable offence. Already on a yellow card for simulating a foul when trying to win a free kick earlier in the half, the winger clattered through Aaron Cresswell with a clumsy late tackle that left the official with few options, although he looked to set to give Mirallas a final warning until Mark Noble got into his face, Steven Gerrard-style to remonstrate on behalf of his team-mate.
West Ham had seen a lot of the ball in the first half without being allowed to do an awful lot with it. A rash tackle by Jagielka on the edge of the box had given Dimitri Payet a chance from a direct free kick but he curled it well over, Angelo Ogbonna had a claim for a penalty himself waved away when he went down under the attentions of Ramiro Funes Mori and Joel Robles made a good save to deny Emenike just before half time as the striker connected with a low cross at close range.
Apparently concerned by the space that Payet was finding in front of his defence in the first period, Martinez withdrew Stones at the break and introduced Muhamed Besic to patrol in defensive midfield alongside James McCarthy. The change offered Everton more options in both defensive and offensive capacities and it was the Bosnian’s tricky footwork that would win the penalty that might have made it 3-0, but not before Lennon had precipitated a wave of mis-placed relief at Goodison by doubling the lead.
Operating more frequently on the left flank after Mirallas’s sending off, the winger came in off the touchline and exchanged a pass with Lukaku that took him between two defenders where he could slot past Adrian and make it 2-0 with 55 minutes on the clock.
It was the latest contribution from what had been a very different Lukaku to the one Evertonians have been watching for the best part of the last month. The striker was strong, in command his touch and his all-round play had been excellent for the first two-thirds of the game; that was until he stepped up to take a disputed penalty after Alex Song had tripped Besic right on 18-yard line.
It was a sorry effort from 12 yards by the Belgian but he had the chance to atone minutes later when he was put through by a defence-splitting pass into a one-on-one confrontation with Adrian from which the goalkeeper emerged the victor by sticking out a leg to divert Lukaku’s attempted flick past him behind for a corner.
From the chance to put the game away, Everton eventually succumbed in bitterly familiar fashion in the closing stages and it again throws up huge question marks over the soft centre in Martinez’s defence where three crosses into the box produced three goals in 12 minutes. First, Michael Antonio, a player who should have been highlighted as an aerial threat following his winner against Tottenham on Wednesday, beat Funes Mori to Noble’s curling cross following a corner to head decisively past Robles.
Three minutes later, Diafro Sakho rose between Funes Mori and Seamus Coleman to nod into the corner and wipe out the Blues’ lead; the Argentine defender, so impressive since arriving from River Plate last August, not covering himself in glory for any of the goals conceded by allowing himself to be out-jumped for all three.
With Niasse, who has unsurprisingly only looked lost in his brief cameos thus far, already on the field, Martinez appeared to give up on the idea of winning the game and belatedly opted for what he thought would be greater defensive solidity by throwing Barry on for Lukaku with a couple of minutes to go. Everton remained wide open in midfield, though, and as a last-minute cross was floated into the Blues’ box, Payet moved untracked by the substitute into a gaping hole in the middle of the penalty area to sweep home Sakho’s flick and complete another miserable afternoon at Goodison Park.
Everton’s recent run of results has had an impressive look on paper and has certainly fostered hope that, despite the questions over the his ability to organise his defence, the uncertainty over the collective mentality of his players and the paucity of his own ability to manage games from winning positions, Roberto Martinez was showing belated signs of getting to grips with another season of under-achievement.
It has proved to be another false dawn and the belief that the problems ingrained in this team are not going to change under his stewardship has been reinforced once more by what was, to be frank, an utterly unforgivable collapse. Tragically, what was an impressive performance for 75 minutes will count for nothing thanks to familiar failings at the back; what could have been a wonderful season has been critically undermined by the same weakness.
The players must take some responsibility, of course, but when it comes down to it, the manager has had opportunity after opportunity now to prove that the mis-steps that have plagued this season have been heeded and addressed.
Unfortunately, he is not learning from that history and both he and this Everton side look doomed to repeat it. Over and over again.