The season may not be officially over but the post-mortem of what has been a hugely disappointing second campaign under Roberto Martinez is already underway and there are myriad factors to point to when trying to understand what has gone wrong.
There is a good case for highlighting the lack of a consistent starting line up as being one of the biggest and it comes as little surprise that Everton's recent revival since the debacle at Stoke in early March has been under-pinned by belated continuity in the starting XI. What was surprising, therefore, was the manager's decision to change the formula for this trip to Villa Park after last Sunday's handsome win over Manchester United.
Martinez admitted after the game that he feared his team might react in this fashion to their impressive victory over United but his apparent attempts to mitigate it with two alterations to the lineup worked to the detriment of the team's shape and its ability to effectively support Romelu Lukaku up front. The improvement when Leon Osman and, to a lesser extent, Ross Barkley entered the fray in place of the ineffective Steven Naismith and Kevin Mirallas with 15 minutes to go was a partial indictment of his decision but, perhaps more than anything, what played out at Villa Park today was primarily a story of desire.
Aston Villa, haunted by relegation but determined not to allow the distraction of an FA Cup Final condemn them to the drop, had desire in spades and were richly rewarded with three points. More than pure effort, though, they exhibited technique, pace and organisation; Everton looked disjointed and disinterested by comparison, apparently mentally on the beach during a first half in which they failed to create a single chance or muster a shot at Shay Given's goal. That the Blues improved in the second half was as much a reflection of the fact that they couldn't have been much worse as any half-time inspiration from the manager but the 3-2 scoreline flattered them.
Martinez's decision to start Naismith for the first time since the defeat in Kyiv in mid-March might have been a nod to the Scot's more defensive bent to Barkley but it was out-weighed somewhat by the deployment of what was effectively, at times, a 4-2-4 formation. One that, in combination with an overly high defensive line, left them too open in the middle. It's not the first time that the Catalan has failed to show sufficient respect to an opposing side and it resulted in a 2-0 deficit by half time.
Clearly revved up by Tim Sherwood, Villa exhibited energy from the first whistle and they took the lead after 10 minutes. Afforded room by Naismith, Fabian Delph � a standout performer in an excellent al-round display by the home side � swung in a deep cross with the aid of a deflection off the Scot's out-stretched leg and Christian Benteke easily out-jumped the out-matched Leighton Baines in the centre to thump a header well beyond Tim Howard's reach.
The American goalkeeper had to beat away Charles N'Zogbia's direct free kick five minutes later before Baines escaped without a booking for scything down Delph and Ron Vlaar planted a free header wide of goal as Everton struggled to deal with either Villa's intensity or their set-pieces. Their cause was not helped by sloppy distribution in their own half and a failure to establish any rhythm or link play going foward but they did have a couple of promising moments: first when Aaron Lennon moved the ball forward for Lukaku to run through the Villa defence but he was crowded out as he tried to get the ball out from between his feet; and then when Phil Jagielka threaded a superb pass for Mirallas to spring the offside trap but his cross flicked up into the air and Naismith's attempted volley was charged down.
No doubt hoping to get to the break and regroup, Everton fell further behind on the stroke of half time thanks to more shoddy defending at a set piece. John Stones and Gareth Barry got in each other's way as the ball was swung in leaving Benteke free to peel off and convert completely unmarked at the back post.
Needing a response and an early goal, Everton came out from the interval with a bit more fire in their bellies which was epitomised by Lukaku's first genuinely threatening charge on the opposition defence of the afternoon which took him to the edge of the box before Given finger-tipped his low shot past the post.
The Belgian's second marauding run caused the panic in the Villa back line that led to the Blues' first goal. Perhaps guilty of releasing the ball too late in the direction of Mirallas, Lukaku's prod forward wasn't cleared and when Naismith nipped in ahead of Vlaar to claim it, the Dutchman tripped him and prompted referee Mark Clattenburg to point to the spot. Lukaku stepped up to take the kick, stutter-stepped to draw Given into diving early and then rolled the ball past with just enough pace to take it inside the post.
The narrowed deficit would remain at one for just five minutes though. Lukaku's failure to enter into a routine aerial duel with Vlaar allowed the defender to find Delph and when Leandro Bacuna received his pass and spotted Tom Cleverley accelerating through a yawning gap behind Barry, the Dutch full back picked him out with a perfectly-weighted pass. One touch and a sweeping finish later from the former Manchester United midfielder and it was 3-1 and game over.
Barry hammered a half-volley straight at Given before Martinez belatedly made his first substitutions when he sent on Barkley and Osman. The latter immediately provided more guile to the Blues in the final third and his tricky footwork opened up space for a shot but he too put it straight down the 'keeper's throat. Vlaar's cynical drag back on James McCarthy as the Irish international smartly tried to nip around him along the byline then earned a free kick in a dangerous area with five minutes left but the set-piece chance was wasted.
Everton did finally make
another breakthrough in injury time when McCarthy got a head to a corner from the left that bounced off bar and Jagielka rose highest to meet the rebound and headed it home via the underside of the bar but it was too little too late to salvage what would have been an undeserved point.
Their six-match unbeaten run over, this defeat combined with results elsewhere removed an eighth place from the equation of the Blues' run-in. They could have few complaints. Their need much the greater, Villa were hungrier, faster more intense and more productive with their use of the ball throughout. Everton were flat, uninspired and a shadow of the side that ripped United to shreds six days ago.
While many will point to Everton's recent unbeaten run as evidence that Martinez and his team have rediscovered their winning habit and a formula for success next season, the poverty of this display and the way it echoed the low points of the season at Hull and Stoke was highly disconcerting. It also reframes the discussion over what level of rebuilding is required in the summer to make this Blues team competitive in the right half of the table.
More than anything, the team needs a reliable source of leadership and inspiration in the attacking third of the field. Mirallas's inconsistency continues to frustrate. Barkley's relative immaturity shows he is not ready to take up the mantle of playmaker. Osman has neither the pace or stamina in his advancing years. Pienaar, with his inability to stay fit, is effectively a spent force. "Glamourous" name or hidden gem, the solution to that problem surely lies in the transfer market.
Barkley and Osman started on the bench as Martinexz made what would be crucial changes to a winning side, with Naismith getting the call to play up front with Lukaku and Mirallas started on the left wing with Aaron Lennon continuing on the right.
Everton were on the back foot from the kick-off, Benteke heading wide before he plundered an early goal, well headed in past Howard off a good cross from Delph that Jagielka could not defend against. 1-0 to the Villa.
Everton responded trying to get the ball forward early and playing a high line defensively, which compressed much of the play into midfield as the Blues, playing in their change strip, struggled to impose any level of control on the game. Howard had to be alert to push a deflected free-kick around the post.
Villa should have had a second off a Grealish corner, Vlaar with a point-blank header as Howard stood rooted, but the ball flashed wide as Jagielka completely missed the ball. At the other end, Coleman could only put his cross onto the roof of the net.
Everton were not themselves, McCarthy losing the ball too easily as Villa kept the pressure on, Everton's passing letting them down all over the park. Grealish put in another good corner and a simple header on from Vlaar with Benteke running in at the far post to score with ease as the Everton defence looked bewildered. 2-0 to the Villa. Not a single shot on Villa's goal from Everton.
Everton kicked off the second half and immediately looked better, Lukaku running at the home defence and taking a half-decent shot that Given touched wide. From the corner, Lukaku should have at least found the target but allowed Benteke to put him off. Everton had a couple more corners but the deliveries from Baines were lacking, and Aston Villa were soon in the ascendancy again.
Lukaku went on another great run but seemed to loose the ball in a poor pass toward Naismith who somehow managed to get fouled by Vlaar and Everton had a penalty that Lukaku stutter-stepped and then rolled beyond Given and just inside the post to give Everton something of a lifeline.
A better move from Everton saw Lennon play in Coleman who played a decent ball forward to Lukaku but he had pulled too far wide to worry Given with a rather lame chip vaguely in the direction of the Villa goal.
At the other end, an excellent throughball from Bacuna beat Barry easily and Tom Cleverley produced an excellent finish under pressure from Howard to restore the two-goal lead
Barry had a chance to shoot but powered the ball straight at Given. Martinez finally reverted to the line-up that had performed so well against Manchester United last week, Barkley and Osman replacing Osman and Naismith entering the final quarter.
Osman and Barkley were both involved in a lively attacking move but no-one could get a shot until Barkley's effort was blocked. Osman was next to fashion a shot but it was weak and straight at Given.
Vlaar fouled McCarthy on the side of the penalty area, giving Baines a chance to set something up: a rollback to Lennon who improvised a chip weakly to the far post, a little too obvious and far too easy for Villa to defend.
Everton got a rather flattering second goal off a corner at the death, Jagielka heading in off the crossbar after Coleman had blocked Given on the line.
Everton were a little better in the second half, after a really abysmal display in the first half that could easily have seen a much greater half-time deficit. A lot of the bad habits that were seemingly banished during the excellent run of results that had seen Everton top the Premier League form table had returned by the end, in a worrying turn of events that will only reignite the questions hanging over Roberto Martinez as Everton manager.
With 16 points from the last 18, punctuated by an emphatic 3-0 win over Manchester United at Goodison Park last Sunday, Everton's late-season recovery – and the hope it inspires for a better 2015-16 campaign – continues.
Top of the form table for the past six matches, the Blues travel to an Aston Villa side that has been rejuvenated somewhat by new manager Tim Sherwood but still remains in significant relegation danger coming into the weekend. The Villains sit just two points above 18th-placed Sunderland, who have a game in hand, and one point above Leicester City who have won four of their last five to give themselves a great chance of beating the drop themselves.
Perhaps in part due to the distraction of their FA Cup run, which has led them to a date in the Final with Arsenal later this month, the Midlanders have only won one of their last four at home and that, combined with Everton's excellent recent record at Villa Park, could mean they approach this meeting with the Blues with a good deal of trepidation.
Roberto Martinez's team have been playing with a renewed vigour in r recent weeks and were it not for a sloppy last half hour against Swansea three weeks ago, they might have won six on the bounce. A combination of the pressure having been lifted by their move away from the drop zone and a better mix of possession and direct passing has lifted the mood and improved results since the awful 2-0 defeat at Stoke in early March.
The Blues have also benefited from a consistent line-up in recent weeks and with eighth place still a possibility with four matches to go, the manager might not feel moved to make too many changes to the side that started against United.
If there are to be any changes, they're more likely to made in midfield where Kevin Mirallas and Leon Osman have rotated in recent games and the likes of Steven Naismith, Arouna Kone and Aiden McGeady are waiting in the wings.
Romelu Lukaku is likely to continue up front after making his first start in a month last weekend Martinez's apparent desire to give Ross Barkley an extended run in the line-up to rebuild some of his confidence, it's probable that he will keep his place, too.
Everton are unbeaten in their last three games on Villa's soil and though Sherwood's defence remains porous at times, this promises to be a sterner test for the Blues than their last two visits where they won by a comfortable two-goal margin.
They demonstrated against Liverpool in the cup semi-final that they can cause problems when they're up for it, particularly if they can provide striker Christian Benteke with service, but Martinez will travel in confidence given his defence's excellent performances in recent weeks.
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