It’s safe to say that few Evertonians, even weighing their most pessimistic pre-season fears, could have imagined that come mid-April, Everton FC would sitting in 14th place in the Premier League. That is 14th in the most wide-open Premier League in years with the most talented group of players Goodison Park has witnessed in even longer.
And yet Blues fans have been whisked back to the darker days of Walter Smith-induced mid-table mediocrity by a run of form that has seen the Toffees beat just one team outside of the bottom three since the end of September. Couched in those terms it’s a stunning indictment of the way Roberto Martinez’s third season in charge has unfolded and the mentality that exists in his squad.
Yet again Everton not only let a precious lead away from home slip, they did so within a minute of scoring themselves in first-half stoppage time through poor defending at a set-piece. What’s worse is that they’d had a dress rehearsal for the routine that Watford employed just a couple of minutes earlier and been let off when Jose Holebas out-jumped Seamus Coleman but put a free header wide of goal.
After two awful displays and the pressure starting to mount, Martinez needed a big performance and a win today against a team on a four-match losing streak; what he got instead was a middling display lacking in guile and a result, at least, that does very little to advance the argument either way surrounding his tenure at the moment.
The manager and his players will have been glad to have put on a better showing than they did at Old Trafford last week — not, in itself, all that hard, really — avoided defeat and could probably count themselves as unfortunate not to have won the game. That is faint praise, however, because the performance was still desperately short on quality, particularly in the final third where once the Blues were reliably prolific but now are struggling badly to create enough clear-cut chances to win games. Despite the draw, there was plenty for those who unfurled a prominent “Martinez Out” banner in the away before the game to be concerned about with regard to the manager’s oversight of this team.
Romelu Lukaku was simultaneously too isolated (again) and starved of regular service on the one hand and frustratingly ineffective with the ball at his feet on the other. His first touch, control and hold-up play, so much improved this season, was generally off today but in the areas where it counts he was consistently let down by abysmal deliveries from the flanks.
Nevertheless, the Belgian came close to registering an assist when he back-heeled into the path of Aaron Lennon with 20 minutes to go and Heurelho Gomes palmed the winger’s shot behind for a corner, was foiled well by Craig Cathcart as he tried to flick home a low cross by Gerard Deulofeu, but then spurned the chance to potentially win it four minutes from the end when he fired a rebound off the crossbar.
Had that snapshot gone in, it would have rewarded the Blues for a late push that owed much to the energy shown by substitute Kevin Mirallas but, by the same token, not many neutrals would have begrudged the Hornets all three points had Ben Watson’s deflected shot won it at the death. That it didn’t was down to a second brilliant save from Joel Robles whom Martinez owes a debt for preventing what would have been a hugely damaging fourth straight defeat.
Gareth Barry returned to the starting XI following suspension in place of Tom Cleverley as the only change to the side that lost to Manchester United last Sunday and, in terms of general organisation in front of the back four, it was a positive development. He didn’t help himself with some very poor distribution at times but the security he offers gives Coleman and Leighton Baines greater confidence to get forward down the flanks.
Not that that was a great advantage for the most part. Coleman was the more purposeful and energetic of the two bombing forward but, despite getting into some good positions, he barely put in a decent cross all game. His partner down the right, Deulofeu, was better, at least in the first half, and appeared to be Everton’s biggest threat, particularly as Lennon was largely anonymous for the first 45 minutes.
It was Deulofeu’s curling effort after 18 minutes that forced the first save from Gomes and his determination to make something happen with runs at the fullbacks that threatened to open things up. Unfortunately, the Spaniard’s end product was sorely lacking and he increasingly lost his way and with the home side having really only threatened Robles once with a rasping shot by Jurado that Robles palmed behind superbly at full stretch, it wasn’t surprising when the first period looked to be heading for a goalless conclusion when the referee’s assistant signalled one minute of added time.
A gift by Watford’s defence at one end, however, and poor set-piece organisation by Everton at the other saw the two sides trade goals in the space of 70-odd seconds.
First, James McCarthy robbed Miguel Britos as he dallied just outside his box and drilled a low shot past the stranded Gomes to give the Blues the lead in the first minute of stoppage time. Then, after Etienne Capoue’s shot had whistled just wide after taking the merest of deflections off a defender, Holebas easily rose above Coleman at the back post to head in almost on the goal line.
For those looking for more spirit and fight from Everton, the better news was that the Blues were more effective going forward after half time than they had been in the first half, even if the execution was still largely disappointing. Lennon became a more integral part of the attack and it was his shot after an excellent interception by Coleman and good work by Deulofeu that deflected wide seven minutes after the interval.
Three minutes later, Lennon skipped inside and drove another skidding low effort that Gomes got a hand to and almost presented to the lurking Lukaku before he batted it away to safety. Five minutes after that, Deulofeu raced into the clear down the right channel and was bearing threateningly down on goal when he made a mess of the final ball looking for Lennon in the centre. It summed up the Spanish winger’s rustiness and inability to translate exuberance into end product.
Mirallas’s introduction added a bit more composure in Deulofeu’s stead but while his crossing wasn’t that much better, it was his direct free kick that almost served up the winner for his compatriot Lukaku. After he’d been chopped down Watson just outside the box, the former Belgian struck the low free kick through the wall that fell to Lukaku after Gomes had stopped it one-handed but the resulting shot was too high and bounced off the woodwork.
In the final reckoning, this was hardly an inspiring warm-up for a possible reunion in the FA Cup Final. For long periods, it was an untidy and uninspiring tussle between two teams drifting in mid-table. Definitely not the position Evertonians thought their team would be in at the “business end” of the season.
Everton made just one change for the trip south to Vicarage Road, Barry back in for Cleverley. Leighton Baines, in trouble with the manager during the week for his 'misinterpreted' comments about a lack of chemistry in the side, retained his place at left back.
Funes Mori, who played superbly for Argentina against Chile in the international break, started another game on the Everton bench as Martinez stuck with Stones in the back four, but retained some attacking promise behind Lukaku, who had scored 18 Premier League goals this season but would be unable to add to that total with a glaring miss at the death. The teams remained tied after a goal apiece from defensive lapses by each side just before the break.
Everton kicked off and looked bright as they moved the ball forward but Deulofeu could not get past the defender. Coleman and Deulofeu combined nicely but Lukaku could not hold the ball.
Some nice football down the left saw Lukaku feed Barkley on the overlap but his cross was not quite strong enough to reach the incoming Deulofeu. McCarthy was fouled, and Coleman tried to get around their left back who seemed to foul him. Deeney was next to foul, followed by another Capoue hit on Barkley and picked up the first yellow card. From the free-kick, Deulofeu won the first corner, clipped over by the Spaniard well enough but defended away.
Verado cut in and put a tremendous shot in on goal, curling toward the corner but Robles pulled off a great save to touch it around the post. Similar at the other end, a fabulous strike by Deulofeu turned behind for a corner by Gomez, but then Deulofeu got himself offside from the corner second ball.
Watford looked lively enough when they got the ball but Everton and especially John Stones were defending well. The ball got up to Lukaku whose shot from a distance was very wayward. Ighalo could not get past Jagielka and Lennon and the corner saw some worrying head tennis in front of Robles before it was cleared, Stones kicking it long and out of play.
Deulofeu ran at the Watford defence and git in a random cross well away from any blue shirts and the turnover saw Watord get forward, Watson firing straight at Robles. Lukaku won a corner on the Everton left that Baines curled over but it was cleared and Baines was called offside.
Lennon got in a decent cross that evaded Lukaku and Lennon coming in behind the big man could not control the ball. Deulofeu went on a great central run, ending frustratingly when he stood on the ball. Capoue was all over Barkley, and gave away a free-kick that Baines delivered well but it was met by a defender. Barry, very forward, laid back a great ball for Barkley but his shot was too close to Gomes.
Stones seemed under instruction NOT to play the ball out and it was forcing hoofball from his teammates that led to the ball coming straight back at them. Everton were becoming far far too slow to bring the ball forward, and Stones decided to take more control but Deulofeu once again tricked himself out of possession.
McCarthy got a yellow fr a nothing tackle that actually won the ball. McCarthy was then called for a questionable handball that Jurado powered into the wall but Capoue volleyed in a shot that was deflected for a corner that Holebas headed wide.
McCarthy was then very alert to jump on a loose ball and slot neatly past Gomes to give Everton the lead just before half-time. But John Stones forced Robles to concede a needless corner and Watford somehow scored at the far post, the ball going on off Coleman. A terrible goal to give away and Stones will be questioned again.
Guedioura replaced Behrami for the hosts and almost setup Ighalo, who was called ofside. At the other end, Barkley won a corner that Coleman headed on. But in the second phase, Barkley fired in for Lukaku who seemed to have a half-chance that did not come off.
A more lively attack down the left saw Lennon and then Deulofeu play good balls before a deflected shot won a corner but Watford broke at pace and Barry needed to be strong in defence.
The game was pretty open, Lennon running through and firing at Gomes, Lukaku failing to get his foot on the rebound. And then straight back up the Everton end, where Jagielka was a little strong on Ighalo, giving up a dangerous free-kick that saw Halebas strike the wall.
Deulofeu made a tremendous run but Lukaku tripped at the critical moment and a great opportunity came to nothing. Deeney won a soft free-kick that Holebas walloped well over the Everton goal.
A surprise change was Barkley off for Cleverley, with Deulofeu reaching his fitness limit. The football in large part had been rather sloppy at times form both sides, Everton playing with enough spirit and desire this week but lacking the required fitness to get the better of Watford.
Coleman was next to go on a great run but his cross was picked out of the air by Gomes before Lukaku could get close. From the other side, Baines curled in a good cross but Lukaku could not make the space. But Lukaku did well to set up Lennon with a nice backheel and it forced Gomes to make the save, Cleverley firing in a decent enough corner but McCarthy was called for holding.
Fantastic defending by McCarthy prevented Capoue getting in his pass, and Capoue appeared to twist his knee as he evaded McCarthy's tackle. Mirallas then replaced Deulofeu, who had not managed to create anything magical.
Stones did well to get across Ighalo when it looked like a chance was on for Watford, but the quality of football from both sides was at best limited, as they continued to cancel each other out.
A great cross in from Mirallas went begging, then another was too close to Gomes. McCarty's cross was then overhit. Mirallas went for a little run and drew a foul right on the corner of the Watford area. Baines seemed set to take it but Mirallas stroked it over the wall and Gomes parried it, to Lukaku who should have scored but managed only to sidefoot his shot onto the top of the bar, a dreadful miss.
Then a seemingly perfect cross for Lukaku took him by surprise as he failed to head it properly with the goal gaping, Jagileka then went off in the final minute, with a possible hamstring injury, Funes Mori coming on for him.
A fierce shot from Watson, deflected, was saved superbly by Robles. A foul by Ighalo led to a booking and a very deep free-kick to the back post from Baines thaT Barry could only head to Gomes. At the other end, Ighallo threatened again but Robles saved well.
Everton make the trip south to Vicarage Road this weekend to face Watford in what is the second of three consecutive away fixtures in the space of 10 days.
Given how much better their away form has been for much of the season in contrast to their miserable record at Goodison Park, this might have been greeted as a blessing a few weeks ago but last Sunday's tedious and uninspiring defeat at Old Trafford might have tempered expectations.
The 1-0 loss to Manchester United effectively killed any realistic hope that Roberto Martinez might steer the Blues into the top seven or eight in the Premier League to lend some respectability to another disappointing campaign on that front. It also ratcheted up the pressure on Roberto Martinez's shoulders, at least in terms of supporter opinion (even if it is still confined mostly to frustrated outpourings in the digital realm and grumbling over pints in pubs) and sparked a mini-controversy over Leighton Baines's comments in the local media about the very obvious lack of chemistry that is blighting Everton's performances at present.
The manager's response to the inevitable questions about his team's under-performance — apart from a tortuous explanation of how this Everton side can't be under-achieving because it hasn't achieved anything — was to stress that he and his players need to be “obsessed” with their remaining league fixtures and to ignore the “hype” around the looming FA Cup semi-final that he blames for being a distraction.
The cup will be impossible to ignore, however, because anyone selected will be playing for a place in the team that walks out at Wembley against either Man United or West Ham on the 23rd. The supporters who may their way to Watford will be hoping that that incentive, combined with simple pride will be enough to motivate them towards something altogether more entertaining than last weekend's weak efforts.
Martinez rejected Baines's assertion that the team is relying too much on individuals but the manager went out of his way after the home defeat to Arsenal to point out how much the Toffees have missed Gareth Barry. The veteran will almost certainly return to the starting XI this weekend after serving a two-match suspension, possibly in place of Tom Cleverley or, more likely, one of Aaron Lennon or Gerard Deulofeu, but it's hard to see too many other alterations being made. Darron Gibson, Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar are all rated as doubtful as they nurse their respecive knocks.
The restored central-defensive partnership of Phil Jagielka and John Stones fared pretty well against United and will probably continue in an unchanged back line, while Ross Barkley could be pushed further forward again to support Romelu Lukaku if one of the two wingers that started last Sunday's game are indeed sacrificed.
Quique Flores may be presiding over the least injury-hit team in the top flight at the moment — Valon Behrami is the only doubt through illness and is expected to recover in time — but, despite making an excellent start to the campaign on their return to the top flight, Watford have been struggling for form in the league for the past couple of months.
Though they, too, are in the last four of the FA Cup, they haven't won a Premier League game at home since 23rd January when they beat Newcastle 2-1 and they have slipped beneath the Blues in the table over that time, although a win this weekend would see them leapfrog back above Everton. The Hornets are also the second-lowest-scoring team in the division on home turf with just 14 — only Aston Villa have scored fewer — suggesting that if Martinez's defence can keep Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney quiet and provide some proper service to Lukaku, a morale-boosting victory could be on the cards.
Kick off: 3pm
Referee: Kevin Friend
Predicted lineup: Robles, Coleman, Stones, Jagielka, Baines, Barry, McCarthy, Cleverley, Deulofeu, Barkley, Lukaku