Home Fires Smouldering: The Month In Review

October – November 2014: Everton are going great guns in the Europa League and are on course to top Group H but have yet to catch fire on the home front. Thanks to inconsistency among the clubs who are, on paper, their main rivals for the top four, however, there is still time.

Eleven matches in and, with the exception of early leaders and title favourites, Chelsea, the 2014-15 Premier League is arguably as open as it's ever been. Last season's champions, Manchester City, have yet to find their rhythm and are already eight points off the top of the table; their runners-up in May, Liverpool, are in the bottom half of the table with Tottenham; Arsenal, though sixth, are flattering to deceive ,while Manchester United are improving which team wouldn't be with close to 200m spent on it in the space of a year? but remain unconvincing.

All of which makes it doubly frustrating that Everton seem unable to find any consistent form. The current scenario playing out in the top half of the table, with the likes of Southampton, West Ham and Swansea City sitting in the top five teams that, if history is any guide, are unlikely to have the staying power to stay there is tailor made for us but, once again, we can't seen to grasp the opportunity. Thankfully, with fourth place still only four points away going into the November international break, there is still time.

Coming out of last month's international break, with Ross Barkley making a surprise start after three months out with a knee ligament injury, James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman also returning to the team, the Toffees comfortably taking three points off Aston Villa at Goodison Park and then winning at Turf Moor for the first time in 44 years, it looked as though Roberto Martinez's side had built a platform to launch another tilt at the top four. Unfortunately, though, while things continue to go according to plan in Europe, the domestic campaign remains stuck in second gear.

At the heart of it appears to be a general lack of continuity brought on by those injuries to key players and the player-rotation policy that the manager has deployed to try and balance out the demands of playing in the Premier and Europa Leagues. Doubts have been raised regarding the need and effectiveness of that policy, particularly from fans who watched the Blues team of 1984-85 play 50-odd matches together as a core unit on their way to domestic and Continental glory, but Martinez clearly approaches each season with a holistic view that targets peak strength and readiness for the final third of a given campaign.


In the Catalan's first season in charge, his team seemed to run out of steam at a crucial juncture in April and with squad depth little changed this time around barring, of course, some significant investment in January Everton probably still don't have quite enough numbers to completely avoid mental and physical fatigue setting in in the latter stages. So that tendency to move players in and out between competitions will likely remain and, with it, the risk that the players will continue to find fluency from week to week hard to come by.

The absence of some important players hasn't helped matters and the injury curse struck again with Gareth Barry being stretchered off at Sunderland with a serious-looking ankle injury a week after Antolin Alcaraz was ruled out until late December with a dislocated shoulder. Both players join John Stones and Kevin Mirallas on the sidelines, two important players in their positions whose loss is testing the depths of Martinez's squad, although there is hope that the latter will be ready to return to action around the end of November.

Though it would be severely strained by further casualties, Everton's back line has stabilised now that the individual errors appear to have been eradicated Tim Howard's bizarre walkabout and ball-smothering trick outside his box at the Stadium of Light notwithstanding meaning that focus has shifted to the attacking areas of the team when it comes to analysing where improvements can be made.

Everything seemed to have clicked into place when Villa came to town in October, however. Barkley, restored to the starting XI, slotted seamless back into the "No.10" role in which he flourished last season and served up a goal for Romelu Lukaku as Everton won at home for the first time since the Grim Reaper was taunting David Moyes from the stands against United six months previously. The reappearance in that game of Coleman who scored the third goal in a handsome 3-0 win and McCarthy from their respective muscle injuries restored another important dimension and reinforced the feeling that with those key elements back in the team, the Blues could really get going after that iffy start to the season.

In the context of that promising victory, the flat, goalless affair that followed in Lille was something of a disappointment. The Blues took a huge travelling contingent to northern France but with a premeditated attack from local "Ultras" on a group of Evertonians the night before the match and an over-bearing police presence leading to tear-gas and stun grenades being deployed in the town square on the day, the game at Stade Pierre Mauroy itself was the least interesing aspect of the club's first competitive outing on French soil.

Viewed from the perspective of the formula for the group stages in Europe whereby winning your home games and drawing away guarantees progress, however, it was a professional job done and there was more than enough to suggest from the contest that the Toffees could comfortably deal with the Great Danes in the reverse fixture a fortnight later.

Opportunities to kick on on the domestic front presented themselves in the interim, though, and any suggestion that Everton would suffer a "European hangover" from the Lille trip were dispelled with an emphatic, Samuel Eto'o-inspired victory at Burnley. Martinez had suggested a few days earlier that the Cameroonian was ready to start playing a more consistent role in the first team and in his second start in as many games, he scored two goals and came close to notching a hat-trick but rolled an injury-time shot off the base of the post that would have made it 4-1 and ensured he took home the match ball for the second time in his Premier League career.

There was also a goal for Lukaku who seemed to enjoy playing alongside his new mentor, atoning for a costly error at one end that had gifted the Clarets a goal by quickly restoring the Blues' lead at the other before being forced off with another flare-up of the toe injury that has blighted him since August. Eto'o appeared to revel in the hole behind the Belgian and Steven Naismith, signalling perhaps that at the age of 33 he can offer more in that withdrawnrole than as an out-and-out striker. It was a suggestion lent more credence the following weekend when Swansea City came to Merseyside and stymied an Everton side that seemed bereft of the creativity and penetration that had characterised their win at Turf Moor.

Eto'o was pushed back up front to make way for the return to the side of Barkley, Lukaku was left on the bench after starting the previous two matches, and Martinez's men were found wanting for the guile and imagination needed to break down a team that had clearly come to Goodison to defend. The game finished 0-0 and a chance to make up ground on the top four was spurned.

The relatively toothless performance against Martinez's old club was in stark contrast to the showing against Lille five days later, though one which was, arguably, Everton's best of the season thus far and certainly the most complete display from Lukaku in terms of his touch and hold-up play... evidence perhaps of the extra work being put in on the training ground with Duncan Ferguson. He didn't get on the scoresheet but he was robbed of a goal by an erroneous offside decision that would have put the icing on his proverbial cake that evening.

When viewed side-by-side with the blank against Swansea, the 3-0 win was perhaps indicative of how well-suited Everton are to playing in Europe under Martinez. The extra space and time on the ball afforded by many Continental teams is ideal for the way the Blues like to play and nothing illustrated that more than the third goal an 18-pass move that started with Howard and went through all 10 outfield players before being finished off beautifully by Naismith.

Having that latitude to express yourself as a team is only part of it, though; Everton had an intensity and a drive that evening that they would again be lacking the following Sunday in the Premier League against Sunderland. Though the Black Cats had gone some way to righting their own ship after an 8-0 humiliation at Southampton a 2-0 home reverse at the hands of Arsenal by winning at Crystal Palace the week before, their porous defence should have been an invitation for the Blues to go at them and claim three vital points.

Instead, due to that curious lack of intensity, more shuffling of the forward three and what could mildly be described as an off-day for Lukaku, Everton laboured to cause their hosts problems at the back and it took a Seb Larsson free kick through a shoddily-arranged defensive wall mid-way through the second half to rouse Martinez's men to finally put something on the board. Seamus Coleman provided it, prompting Conor Wickham into a striker's tackle as the last man that brought the Irish fullback down and Leighton Baines did what he almost always does without fail scored from the spot.

It was notable that the breakthrough came once Eto'o had withdrawn into the No. 10 role. It was the 33 year-old's glorious pass that dissected the Sunderland defence and found the run of Coleman that created what would probably have been a goal even had Wickham not chopped him down in full flight. Therein lies another conundrum for Martinez when all four of Barkley, Lukaku, Eto'o and Naismith are fit and you could add Mirallas to the mix when he returns from a hamstring injury: namely, how to accommodate Barkley and Eto'o given that both seem to be at their most dangerous playing in the hole behind the strikers; is there more value in terms of results in continuity than rotation in that part of the team and, if so, who should the manager favour?

The last question is effectively moot because Martinez's rhetoric suggests that he is committed to using his 23-man squad and, given the pattern he established last season, is therefore likely to keep cycling his forward players to keep them fresh. By contrast, he has tended to only disrupt the McCarthy-Barry axis when forced to by injury, as he will be between now and the end of the year following the damage the latter appeared to suffer to his ankle at the Stadium of Light. McCarthy didn't escape that game unscathed either and depending on the serverity of his hamstring injury, one or both of Darron Gibson and Muhamed Besic will get the opportunity to stake their claim for a regular starting berth.

If the somewhat erratic start to 2014-15 and the recent stabilisation during what is now a six-match unbeaten sequence has merely been laying the groundwork for a more consistent run between now, the New Year and beyond then Martinez's Everton can count themselves somewhat fortunate that they are still in touch with the Champions League places they covet. Given the inability of many of the teams with whom you would expect the Blues to once again be battling for the top four come the spring to find their own feet, the opportunity is still there to establish a foothold in the upper reaches of the division and wait for the hard winter grind to take its toll on some of those surprise packages of the campaign so far.

Leighton Baines was quoted as saying recently that the players are desperate to go on a run that would take them to the promised land of the Champions League but that desperation hasn't yet manifested itself in sufficient urgency on the pitch. Martinez established a blueprint last season for the team he has built at Goodison in that famous win over Arsenal: attack teams early with gusto and tempo, race into an early lead and then rely on a combination of rock solid defending and further incisive forward play to put the opposition to the sword while they chased the game.

If he can re-instill that attitude in his players and rediscover that appetite and intensity in every match they play, then Everton can start to close the gap on the clubs chasing Chelsea. He may have to negotiate another burgeoning list of injuries before the team can really hit its stride but the foundations are there.

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