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

As long as mental frailties continue to blemish performances, Everton will continue to falter. Given the shelf life of this side, potentially very short if European juggernauts come calling in the the summer, itÂ’s imperative a consistent defensive focus is discovered.

Matt Jones 18/01/2016 23comments  |  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.

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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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Reader Comments (23)

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William Colman
1 Posted 18/01/2016 at 22:34:03
I think we are a not far away from being a very good team, hopefully sooner or later we will really click and go on a good run of victories.

We obviously need to climb the table to have any chance of keeping Barkley Lukaku and Stones... fingers crossed. COYB

Darryl Ritchie
2 Posted 19/01/2016 at 06:31:50
Martinez (and Moyes) has assembled a dynamic, potentially dominant squad, unfortunately I am beginning to have serious doubts in his abilities to lead us to the next level. Is it that we are just missing two or three quality players, or is it deeper than that? Is it the entire Martinez philosophy, tactics and style that keeps biting us on the ass?

I’m certain that Roberto has a vision as to how he would like Everton to play. I just not sure it is possible in the real world.

I like the way we’re scoring goals, but I HATE the way we’re letting them in. I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe all we need are two or three key new players. Maybe Martinez can sort it out and get a first class performance out of the squad at both ends pitch, in the same game. It seems to be either a "Katy bar the door" 0-0 draw, or a "guns blazing, we’ll score more goals than you" 3-3 draw lately. Maybe we will have to show RM the door, and bring a newer, wiser manager.

I wish I knew what the best path is, but I just don’t know. I hope somebody does, because we’re too good to be in the lower half of the table.

Harold Matthews
3 Posted 19/01/2016 at 08:34:11
Darryl. In many matches, it’s been a mistake leaving Barry on for 93 minutes when his legs have clearly gone and the opposition are racing past him.

Pellegrini and Hiddink will pull off YaYa Toure and Matic when this situation arises but Gareth is left to deal with fresh subs like Silva or Oscar. Is it any wonder we concede late on.

Dick Fearon
4 Posted 19/01/2016 at 11:10:17
Mat, OP,

We dropped points in all those games you mention simply because opposing managers made tactical changes to which Martinez failed to respond.

Ken Buckley
5 Posted 19/01/2016 at 11:49:05
On watching our team play superb attacking football and scoring goals only to be pegged back as soon as the opposition realise they have nothing to lose and go all guns blazing at us we seem to develop a mental block and uncertainty and panic ensue.

There are two things that come to my mind that could be done to help this situation. Firstly, for our manager to realise that defending properly is as much of an art as the offensive moves.

Secondly, toward this end, hire an Italian defensive consultant in an effort to knit the whole thing together and create a team that is perfect to watch in its entirety.

Imagine a team delivering Roberto’s flair in attack with a defence as savvy as the days of Berazzi and Maldini.

Who is that shouting ’Dream on’???

David Pearl
6 Posted 19/01/2016 at 13:58:03
I didn’t think Roberto could come back from last season and such ill feeling at Goodison Park... the slow clueless build-ups. But he has. Aided of course in a few maturing youngsters.

I was wrong about Martinez; I didn’t think it would ever work and I wanted him gone. He is, in my opinion, being let down by his players and not the other way around. We went down to 10 men when Coleman came off towards the end of the Man City game. They perhaps settled a bit for the score-line; however, we also proved that we can keep hold of the ball and are actually capable of managing the clock. That’s if the players don’t bottle it. It also doesn’t help when in one game Howard has a blinder and the next... just when all seems to be going well... he has one of his moments.

This team has only got to believe in itself, in each other... and play for the full 90 minutes (or 98). I guess my only criticism of our manager is how slow he is to react sometimes in his substitutions. He didn’t need to wait for Oviedo to go down injured to realise we were getting hammered down that side. All-in-all, however... I am quite optimistic. COYB

Jim Hardin
7 Posted 19/01/2016 at 14:08:08
I don’t think it is as much a lapse in focus (there are individual errors) but rather a deficit in knowledge of defending. Until the players are drilled in defending it is nearly impossible to determine if there are lapses in focus occurring.

Our back four don’t stay linked or even seem to communicate with each other. Stones seemingly is free to do what he wants (but hey, he plays the ball well with his feet) despite the huge gaps it causes in the defense. Barry and now even Besic have to drop in far too often to cover gaps left by our marauding back four. Barcelona (RM’s model) defend as both a back line and as a team. This hasn’t changed even with Puyol gone and they don’t ship goals.

When we do try to defend as a team we don’t have an organized set-up. Lukaku is good at defensive headers but seems to not have a specific role when we are packing it in. Other players don’t appear to know where to go or what to do, when to follow a player making a run, or when to release them. Mainly, it looks like they get in each other’s way. The players still get caught out of position and standing too far from the opposing players and allow too many crosses and shots.

I don’t want players having to think about where to be or what to do, or be directed, when defending because it slows the reaction time down and wipes out any shot at anticipating a run or pass. I want the players to already know what they are doing and to react accordingly.

This requires attention to detail on the practice field. Time for a defensive coach.

Peter McHugh
8 Posted 19/01/2016 at 14:21:21
In the cold light of day we let in the following:

1. Mix up - it happens sometime and can’t do much about it.
2. Deflected shot.
3. Goal in the 8th minute of added time which was clearly offside (although we missed a number of headers and seriously, if you were the keeper, you would be gutted not stopping it despite clever finish by Terry).

I can’t be overly critical of the team; I thought we controlled the game. We’re so close to being a good team, I’m willing to be more patient although must admit it’s wearing thin!

Gareth Lewis
10 Posted 19/01/2016 at 17:05:23
Any team can concede poor goals and/or throw away 2 goal leads and/or last minute equalisers. This happens in football. It doesn’t often happen to the same team in the same season about 7 weeks apart!

If we take out the offside for the 3rd goal and look instead how the chance arrived, it provides more useful evidence going forward. At the moment when they play the ball into the box, we have three players (Lukaku, Deulofeu and Mirallas) up near the half-way line / centre-circle, offering no defensive assistance. We then have Besic in-between our D and the half-way line in an area that should be occupied by Mirallas (who was playing ACM at this point). This would have allowed Besic to be challenging for his header away from our goal.

Over on the right, we have Stones running back, facing his own goal, presumably from a more advanced position. This is where Deulofeu should have been, allowing Stones to be facing the ball tucked in next to Jagielka. At no point have we seen lamentations on players being well out of position or not following instructions. So presumably RM is happy with these players being so far advanced when there is so little time left that defending is the only order of the day.

Again, going back to Bournemouth, we had three players up by the half-way line and a couple more not near the box when they started their move for the last equaliser. Surely if this was against instructions it would have been hammered home here?

So while we were unlucky with the offside call, if we are repeatedly leaving too many men too far forward or in the wrong positions, we are repeatedly going to be exposed to conceding these types of goals. Similarly, we have a real weakness for collapsing for 10-15 minutes when we’ve just conceded.

We make no concessions with regards to the opposition’s change in momentum and continue to play risky passes into the midfield, sometimes blindly, or between the CBs and the keeper. We invite pressure by doing this and give the impression to the opposition that they are really on top. We have to recognise these periods and react accordingly. If that means playing passes into the corner to turn their team round so be it. But we seem to insist on continuing with our way without actually being good enough to employ this tactic.

These are only short term sacrifices to style in a match; a matter of minutes. Surely there has to be this flexibility in approach.

Martin Mason
11 Posted 19/01/2016 at 19:26:54
Everton have a structural/tactical weakness in that they are exceptional with everybody going forward but weak down the spine of the side either by Route One counter attacks like Costa scored from or, inexcusably, for set pieces like corner kicks. The other weakness, although I feel it’s actually part of those above, is that we are very vulnerable when we’ve scored because of an attitude problem that stops us just restarting as though nothing had happened.

The weakness down the middle is due to Howard, Barry’s lack of pace and McCarthy who is nowhere near as good as I first thought and is in fact a weakness that we can solve by dropping him.

The other key thing is that Stones is committing himself too much and getting caught forward, he should either play as a defensive mid or stay back as a sweeper picking up these long counter-attack balls and he has the speed and skill to do it.

We are almost a great side but we will never become one with RM at the helm, he is brilliant at half the required game. Our league position given the squad we have is an indictment on RM and he needs to react.

Harold Matthews
12 Posted 19/01/2016 at 19:55:02
David. When we kept the ball so well late on in the Cup game, we had Barkley, Osman and Kone on the pitch.

Martinez did nothing to alter the situation when the exposed and outnumbered Oviedo was injured. Stones fared no better till Chelsea changed tactics and Fabregas went for long balls over the top.

Barry staying in the centre of the pitch with only one midfield partner, has left us empty on one side or the other for the last 18 months. McCarthy on the right and Besic on the left would give us a perfect balance with cover for both fullbacks but, with both Barkley and Barry in the line-up, we could only manage it with a 12 man team.

Michael Polley
13 Posted 19/01/2016 at 20:03:17
We have the makings of a good team, but need to hold the line and be more solid in defence.

My worry is, if we fail to win a Cup this season and languish in the bottom half of the table we will lose our key talented players, and it’s back to square one again.

Come on, Everton, let's get some balls and finish the season on a high note.

Steven Jones
14 Posted 22/01/2016 at 21:19:30
Martin Mason ... I agree with everything mate!

McCarthy is slower than I thought at first too and less able to do things with the ball such as threading through balls to the forwards and I have noticed him out of position on many occasions... Barry has slow legs... amazing season for his age but still a weakness for several goals. This pedestrian CM is helped by Besic and as you say if we had a new GK, we would be much more solid through the centre.

Although we do look as though we are maturing and battling through... let's hope the trend of improvements takes us to an unbelievable second half and what people remember as a breakthrough season like in 1984!

COYB’s !!!

Dave Abrahams
15 Posted 22/01/2016 at 21:38:02
Martin (#11), a lot of sense there, I don’t agree about McCarthy, I think he is a very good player but we all see players in a different way.

Martin, when you talk football you are always worth listening to. Have you been to Goodison this season? I know you live a good distance away and find it hard to get decent tickets.

Tony Hill
16 Posted 22/01/2016 at 21:54:07
Harold is right that the peculiar figure is Barkley because he is brilliant but not obviously suited to a particular position.

I think McCarthy is defensively superb, at his best, but I prefer Besic at the moment. The problem with playing them both is that you effectively have to leave Barkley as a number 10 and you still have the two defensive midfielder set up. I think Barkley is less effective at 10 than coming from deep.

As I’ve suggested before, I would try 4-1-3-2 (the England 1966 formation), with Barkley as the flexible centre of the 3 and Besic behind him. I would have Mirallas behind Lukaku for the moment.

The formation demands hard work from the defensive midfielder and from the attacking 5 tracking back which, I accept, is a big ask for us, but I think it might balance us out. In any event the formation is easily convertible into a more defensive shape and is probably much the same as Leicester’s 4-4-2 in truth.

If Barkley doesn’t come up to scratch then move Besic forward and bring in McCarthy as the defensive mid. The other man to make way in all this is Barry who, though really good this season, is a brake on our play as Steven (14) says. We have to shake things up. By the way, I would play Cleverly on the left or move Baines ahead of Galloway.

Jamie Crowley
17 Posted 22/01/2016 at 22:19:06
I'd prefer the same 4-2-3-1, but with player tweaks.

The back four picks itself.

I'd have McCarthy and Besic as the two holding mids. Harold is spot on (again) - Barry late in games is fading. I'd use him, fresh, off the bench when a change is needed with either of Besic or McCarthy.

The front four of Barkley flanked by Mirallas and Delo, with Lukaku up top would literally frighten the shit out of any opposition. Lennon and Kone would be capable subs (yes, even Kone...).

Cleverley could substitute on either wing or in one of the two holding positions, such is his versatility and talent.

Two young aggressive defensive mids with batteries that simply don't quit would help us lock down the defensive side of the equation. All the while with Mirallas, Delo, Barkley, and Lukaku running at the opposing defense scaring the life out of them.

I think if Roberto does this we'll be gold. He just hasn't gotten the mix right yet. Part of me thinks he's still putting out Kone to link with Lukaku (they did that well early in the season for a few games) and Lennon out there for defensive cover. It's got to change. Injuries have played a part in all of this as well.

Barry's been awesome this season, but unfortunately he's got to find a sub's role to see us push on to the next level.

And... Robles please.

How much have we missed James McCarthy? A hell of a lot. And Besic was also hurt for a long run - those two may be the missing piece to our defensive woes.

Long post with apologies...

Oliver Molloy
18 Posted 22/01/2016 at 22:44:09
Right now, Besic doesn’t look like he can go full throttle for 90 mins, he seems to lose a little and fade around 70-75 minutes. The more games he plays the quicker we will see the true potential of this guy and what a player we should have on our hands!

Of course, this will be down to The Incredible One, but definitely a more skilful player than McCarthy.

Harold Matthews
19 Posted 23/01/2016 at 08:41:33
Oliver. He's suffering the same problem as many young midfielders. We're also asking him to play a role he has never played before. With a bit more experience he'll learn to pace himself for 93 minutes.
Dave Abrahams
20 Posted 23/01/2016 at 09:31:36
Tony Hill (#16),

I think you will see a lot more of Cleverley in the wide left position when he is fit again, he brought a bit of balance to the team in the games against Spurs and Man City, a good player who improves Everton when he plays wide, he also keeps the shape of the team.

Laurie Hartley
21 Posted 23/01/2016 at 10:23:05
If I was an opposition manager this is the Everton 11 I would hate to see starting:

Coleman, Stones, Funes Mori, Baines
McCarthy, Barry, Besic
Barkley, Mirallas

If we are going to step up a level unfortunately Barry (who I think has been great for Everton and a model professional) will have to make way for Besic with Cleverley coming into the side in front to Baines.

Similarly if we are to keep Stones, Phil Jagielka is going to have make way for Funes Mori – the best header of a ball we have in defense.

It's a bit of a shame really but, as the Cat once said, "that's football".

Colin Davidson
22 Posted 23/01/2016 at 12:35:43
I wondered about a back 3 that could become a back 5 away from home against the stronger teams or just when we are under pressure eg v Man City on Wednesday night:

Stones, Jagielka, Funes Mori;
Coleman, Barry, Barkley, Besic, Baines;
Mirallas, Lukaku.

If Barry fades, depending on how the game is going, and injuries, I would even consider pushing Stones further forward into his position and going to a standard back 4. Deulofeu could come on for Mirallas if required.

Mike Allison
23 Posted 23/01/2016 at 14:05:27
Our players and formation don't need changing. We need a 'get the result' mentality. With that we would be challenging not just for 4th but for the title.
Daniel Joseph
24 Posted 24/01/2016 at 01:25:25
In a loosely competitive league this season, I'm fuming that we are not amongst the mix at the top.

On any day, we can beat any side in the league and should be miles in front of Leicester, yet we are languishing mid table. So frustrating being an Evertonian. Mind you, after 55 years, I don't think I'll change.

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