It’s a slightly strange experience watching Everton these days. It’s not that they’re bad, incapable of winning or scoring goals, or being tedious no-hopers like Sunderland, Villa or Manchester United, but they sure as all heck aren’t that good either. Or at least, not as good as they probably should be. In the end, you’re just left with the feeling that they should and could be so much better.
The Toffees are in the middle of a run that at the start of the season would have looked like a ripe period for collecting relatively simple points. While one can hardly blame them for losing to Leicester, given plenty of others have done the same in this implausible season, it wouldn’t have have been unreasonable to expect at least seven points from their previous three, against Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and Norwich. And yet, they only have three, their assorted fragilities combining to prevent victories in each.
At Carrow Road last week they were utterly dominant in the first half, with Gerard Deloufeu and Romelu Lukaku rampant, combining beautifully for the one goal they did manage to score, but they couldn’t convert their superiority into more, which made a Norwich comeback feel rather inevitable. Of course, that’s exactly what happened, something that happens far too often.
In theory, Everton should be a strong team with a realistic chance of breaking into the top four, particularly in this absurd season when points are scattered around like discarded Quality Street wrappers and nobody seems keen to win anything. They have John Stones, one of the most sought-after young central defenders in the country, one among the Premier League’s most underrated midfielders in James McCarthy, and Romelu Lukaku, a glorious and prolific striker still aged just 22, a walking example of why Jose Mourinho’s instincts are not always exactly spot on. Add Seamus Coleman, Leighton Baines and Ross Barkley to that list, and you have a rather handy looking team.
They also have Roberto Martinez, a manager with a shining reputation as one of the country’s great young bosses and thinkers on the game, one who is spoken of as heading to the very top by those who have known and worked with him.
Additionally, they have stability. Martinez is one of the two managers they have had since 2002, and as teams all around them toss coaches to the wolves at the slightest hint of trouble, Everton maintain that much sought-after state of serenity and consistency, the quality that we are led to believe is the key to success.
And yet, they have been without a trophy for 20 years, the longest dry spell in the club’s 137-year history, finished 11th last season and currently sit in the middle of a profoundly average division. They are capable of excellence but also, too often, of performances that leave the Goodison Park crowd grumbling with dissatisfaction and, perhaps most worryingly for the club, apathy. So why aren’t they better?
One answer is that Martinez simply hasn’t been allowed to make them better. This summer other clubs, of comparable or arguably lesser standing, showed the ambition to sign players like Yohan Cabaye, Xherdan Shaqiri and Dimitri Payet. Everton spent around £15million on Ramiro Fures Mori, Aaron Lennon and Gerard Deulofeu, only one of whom can seriously be argued to be an improvement to the starting XI.
Chairman Bill Kenwright is a fine salesman of his own image, that of a garrulous and passionate chairman who cares about his team as a fan does, and that’s quite possibly true. But that doesn’t mean he’s a good chairman. Everton fans, or at least those who look beyond the PR, have recognised for some time that while Kenwright gives a fine interview, his parsimony is frustrating and has led the club to stagnate as others around them have grown.
Perhaps that’s the reason that a look beyond the top players reveals not a great deal in terms of depth and quality. Their first XI is fine, aside possibly from Stones’s partner in defence and some consistency issues from Barkley and the sometimes dazzling but often frustrating Deulofeu, but a scratch beneath the surface reveals a collection of youngsters and cast-offs, and a large amount of injuries. That Arouna Kone, an honest trier but not much more, has appeared in every league game so far and seemingly retains his place in the team thanks to a hat-trick six weeks ago against Sunderland, should tell you plenty.
But perhaps the uncomfortable truth, and the main reason Everton aren’t perhaps as good as they should be, is that Martinez simply isn’t as good as his reputation suggests. He did, after all, get the Everton job after taking Wigan down (admittedly also winning the FA Cup), and defensive organisation has proved as much of a problem at Goodison as it did at the DW Stadium. Last season they conceded only one goal fewer than relegated Hull, while this term they have continued to show plenty of weaknesses, particularly from set-pieces. The goals against Palace and Norwich both came from this route, and the two basically pointless penalties they conceded against Leicester were indicative of a defence in which panic is set.
Martinez seems to lack anything like a Plan B; when his usual aesthetically pleasing style doesn’t work, he has nowhere else to go. Perhaps that is due to the construction of his squad, but his substitutions are frequently head-scratching, and the persistence with Kone when the more lively Kevin Mirallas and Steven Naismith sit on the bench is baffling.
“We need to be better,” said Martinez after the Leicester defeat. “We conceded three goals, in my eyes with very little threat from Leicester.” He almost seemed to be talking about this as if it was an isolated incident, an aberration among a much more consistent run of defensive solidity, when anyone who has watched them play can clearly see otherwise.
“When you go away from home, the home side is always going to have a say,” Martinez said after the draw with Norwich. “I don’t think anything changed – our intensity was as good in the second half as it was in the first.” Perhaps, much like his chairman, Martinez was trying to put on a positive front, to publicly insist all is well while giving his team both barrels in the dressing room, but if Martinez genuinely believed there wasn’t much difference between his side’s performance in the two halves, then that points to wider problems. There is a fragility to this Everton side that was exposed at Carrow Road, as it has been on a number of occasions this season, and Martinez seeming not to (publicly) recognise this suggests he isn’t doing anything, or at least enough, to rectify that.
There’s a temptation to write Martinez off as a fraud and a spoofer, the managerial equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes, and while that would probably be too harsh, he’s not exactly earning his shining reputation. Everton are still handily-placed to achieve a decent league finish this season, and are a long way from being a bad team. It’s just that they should be so much better than they are.