Everton’s perennial lapses in focus threaten to undermine steady recent progress

By Matt Jones 18/01/2016  0 Comments  [Jump to last]

Where on earth do you even begin with a game like that? Another performance sprinkled with daring, enterprising and effective attacking football, merged with those moments; those moments which have conspired to plunge this talented group of players into the bottom half of the Premier League.

Of course, there are positives to take away from the frantic 3-3 draw with Chelsea. Leighton Baines continues to improve, Muhamed Besic is making himself undroppable and Kevin Mirallas took his chance with a swagger. A point against the champions on their own patch, regardless of circumstances, is never a disaster either, you might say.

But this game left Evertonians stunned once again. Another late “winner” cancelled out in the twilight of stoppage time. Another lead surrendered. Another match gone by with a result which doesn’t mirror the performance. Lessons, it seems, are not being learned.

Throwing the game away in that manner just 49 days on from doing so in exactly the same circumstances at Bournemouth is almost unforgivable. Of course, manager Roberto Martinez is right to castigate the officials, as the decision to let John Terry’s late goal stand was a remarkable one. But delve a little deeper and Everton have to consider themselves culpable for their downfall. Again.

Amongst the furore of Chelsea’s late equaliser it was forgotten that the Toffees led this game 2-0 after an hour, with the hosts seemingly going through the motions.

Everton, by contrast, were playing with authority at that point, after an own goal from Terry and a stunner from Mirallas. But those lapses in focus gave the hosts a route back into the contest, as Phil Jagielka and Tim Howard conspired to leave Diego Costa with an open goal. Suddenly, the champions were awoken.

Everton have not only made a habit of letting late goals in, but conceding two goals in quick succession in a spell of blind panic. Chelsea’s double salvo against the Blues can go alongside the quickfire goals scored by Manchester United, Arsenal, Sunderland, Leicester City and Bournemouth against this Everton team.

Even in the build-up to Chelsea’s controversial equaliser, Oscar, probably the slenderest player in the Premier League, was able to flick a header on inside the Everton penalty area. The hosts had won two aerial duels in succession before that, against a team sat back in their own half seeking to defend a priceless victory.

They’re moments in the game which are over so quickly and can give the impression that this is a team which is not far off clicking into gear, given their overriding dominance in matches. It’s a school of thought I’ve adhered to myself many times this season, especially in the wake of draws with Crystal Palace and Norwich City. 

Yet they’re costly instances for the Blues which must be eradicated. Martinez is the man who has to spark such change, but his strive for a footballing utopia is hindering the team. “We want to be a brave team and win games by not running the clock down or playing with aspects that aren't what we want to be,” were his comments after this clash.

What’s impressed about Everton in recent weeks is their ability to amalgamate flair and fortitude, a process expedited by the introduction of Besic into the XI. Despite the manager’s penchant for cavalier football, it’s a blueprint which will hopefully be followed for the remainder of the campaign.

It has to be accompanied by a ruthlessness, though. An in-game appreciation of when to keep the ball, when to take a man on, when to hoof it clear, when to play out from the back. They’re moments in which the players take ultimate responsibility, but the persistent indecision we often see at precarious points in matches stems back to the manager. This is a side he’s assembled and nurtured, after all.

Yet it doesn’t seem as though Martinez feels as though this is a major flaw. “The players don’t deserve to be questioned for their game management,” he said. “…We won the game against Chelsea, it’s as simple as that.”

Sadly, as the scoreline suggests, it’s not that simple. The bald facts say another draw and more points surrendered. 

But Martinez’s willingness to overlook what’s black and white is understandable, because some truths don’t make for especially easy reading for him: One win—with the last touch of the game at Newcastle—in nine games, six Premier League wins in as many months, 32 goals conceded in 22 top flight fixtures, 11 points squandered from winning positions since the Bournemouth match. 

Perhaps most damning of all, despite boasting the division’s top scorer, a wonderful playmaker and one of the best ball-playing centre-backs in the country, Everton sit 11th in the Premier League.

There have been some encouraging signs as of late, especially the performances against Manchester City and the last 30 minutes against Tottenham. In those clashes Everton have been defensively focused, mature in their play and, as has been the case throughout the season, a massive attacking threat.

Still, as long as these mental frailties continue to blemish performances, Everton will continue to falter. Of course, with time and consideration these young players will inevitably learn key lessons about the game. But an 11th place finish and even a League Cup triumph will not be enough to sate the desires of this supremely talented nexus of footballers. 

Given the shelf life of this side, potentially very short if European juggernauts come calling in the the summer, it’s imperative a consistent defensive focus is discovered. Otherwise, this team will continue to be revered as the division’s great entertainers and, simultaneously, lamented its biggest underachievers. 

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