After leading his new Everton side to a fifth place finish and their highest points haul in Premier League history, many expected Roberto Martínez to better this feat in his second season in charge. It only takes a quick glance at the league table to see that Roberto’s men sit in a lowly 12th place, with almost half the points they possessed at the same stage last season.
Everton’s summer transfer window seemed successful on paper but at the half way point of the season the squad looks worryingly depleted. Are Everton simply experiencing a rough patch or has the aspiration of turning a traditionally defensive team into a slick passing side dubbed the ‘School of Science’ proven too great a task for Roberto Martínez?
Last season’s loanee Gareth Barry was Everton’s first piece of business in the summer and was tied down to a permanent deal. Fellow loanee Romelu Lukaku also joined the club, for a club record fee of £28m. Another signing came in the shape of young Bosnian defensive midfielder Muhamed Bešić after an impressive World Cup campaign, with veteran striker Samuel Eto’o also joining on a free transfer.
To complete the summer signings came youngster Brendan Galloway along with loan deals for David Henen and Christian Atsu. Much fanfare was made of new deals for Seamus Coleman, Ross Barkley and John Stones, all committing to the club long term.
With last year’s defensive partnership of Jagielka and Distin seriously deteriorating, Everton have gone from having one of the best defensive records in the league to joint second worst. Howard has looked surprisingly nervous in goal after an incredible World Cup and his defence has already conceded more goals this season that the whole of the 2013/14 season. 20 year old John Stones has impressed at centre-back but an injury has hampered his season, meaning an unconvincing Antolín Alcaraz has been left to deputize for Distin and Jagielka.
It’s no coincidence that judging by defensive performances, Everton have more errors leading to goals that any other top flight European team.
As for Baines and Coleman, both seem to be shadows of their former selves with both full backs often being nullified as attacking threats by opposition full backs as a result of failed link up play between the ever changing wing combinations of Roberto Martínez.
The likelihood of Roberto entering the the transfer market for a quality centre-back is increasing, with Virgil Van Dijk, Curtis Davies and Winston Reid being heavily linked to the club. Brendan Galloway and Tyias Browning are certainly ones for the future but as of now, Everton are badly in need of a quality centre-back who can form a solid partnership with John Stones.
Perhaps one of the shining beacons of light from a gloomy season has been the emergence of England U21 international Luke Garbutt into the first team with a series of impressive performances at left-back, providing real competition for regular starter Leighton Baines. With less than a year left on his contract, it’s pivotal that the promising left-back is offered a new deal before it expires in the summer. Another exciting addition to the squad has been fellow academy graduate Tyias Browning, who had a solid cameo appearance in his début in the Merseyside derby while playing at right-back.
In the middle of the park things have been slightly more positive with James McCarthy regularly putting in impressive performances. A stark difference to last season, Gareth Barry’s performances have been lacklustre and frustrating. Muhamed Bešić has also impressed but rarely starts with McCarthy as both have attacking tendencies. The more defensive minded Gareth Barry is often preferred to start alongside James McCarthy. Roberto Martínez has experimented with Barkley and Bešić in a defensive pivot against QPR which was surprisingly successful but it’s worth wondering whether such a partnership would be conducive against a top half outfit.
As for the wing, Everton’s problems become more pronounced. Although Kevin Mirallas has performed well, injuries have plagued his season. The void on the wing becomes all the more apparent with an ageing and injury prone Steven Pienaar rarely getting the chance to replicate the excellent partnership he has shared with Baines in recent years. Baines and Coleman have struggled to link up with Barkley, Naismith and Lukaku, who have often been forced onto the wing by Martínez, a tactic that has had limited effect thus far.
The memory of Gerard Deulofeu terrorizing Premier League defenders is still fresh in the mind; it’s evident that Everton miss the young Catalan’s electrifying performances during his loan spell last season. Christian Atsu’s contribution has been minimal and Aiden McGeady’s frustrating inconsistency has been difficult to watch. The wide spaces that Seamus Coleman loves running into are often filled by Aiden McGeady, who is occasionally brilliant, but often frustrating.
Samuel Eto’o has been a welcome contribution to the side, popping up with important goals but some may feel he’s lost an inch of pace and is more suited to playing behind the main striker, a position already congested by Ross Barkley and Steven Naismith. Playing Barkley and Naismith in the same starting eleven has been ineffectual and instead of one of the two being pushed out wide, Roberto Martínez will need to establish his first choice Number 10.
It’s easy to criticize a striker for not scoring goals. It can be a combination of lack of delivery, lost confidence or simply that he is not fully fit. As for £28m man Romelu Lukaku, it could possibly be a combination of all three. It would be unfair to say that he may be daunted by his price tag but Lukaku just doesn’t emanate the power and ruthlessness we saw last season when he notched 16 goals in his début season with the club.
Away from the league, Everton’s endeavours in Europe this season mustn’t be overlooked, with Roberto’s men topping their Europa League group in their return to European football after a five year absence. To use the old football cliché, it could be the dreaded ‘European hangover’ that is affecting the team’s performances and increasing the risk of injury and weakening the starting eleven.
At the half way point of the season it’s evident that change is needed at the club but the indicators are pointing that it’s not managerial change that is needed, but instead for fresh faces to be brought into a tired looking squad. With Tim Howard now out for six weeks, it would be wise for Everton to start looking into a long term replacement for Howard, whose form has noticeably dipped as Joel Robles, the second choice goalkeeper, has looked unconvincing between the posts.
Unless Martínez can start getting the best out of his centre-backs again, a solid centre-back such as Van Dijk would be a much needed boost to the team. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to see Martínez drop his club captain in favour of a new signing. As for midfield, it’s yet to be seen if Bešić can play alongside James McCarthy after a worrying dip in form by Gareth Barry. It seems that Everton are in dire need of a dynamic winger who is versatile enough to play on both flanks and relieve Barkley, Naismith and Lukaku of their wing duties.
It would be extremely foolish for Everton to let go of Roberto Martínez at this stage, he needs time and funds to execute his plan. At times his stubbornness and reluctance to change tactics can frustrate but with funds and full backing from the chairman and the supporters, Roberto Martínez can replicate the dynamic passing game of last season and bring the School of Science back for good.
He has a dream, right?