The Appeal to Coincidence

By Lyndon Lloyd 18/02/2016  0 Comments  [Jump to last]
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As the Roman philosopher Seneca is reputed to have opined, luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

When you've exhausted all other explanations – or, perhaps more accurately, are unwilling to publicly acknowledge them – blaming bad luck is also the easiest way out and it's a crutch that Roberto Martinez is relying on to an increasing degree these days as the inquests into a season of stark under-achievement build.

It was a recurring theme of his press conference this morning, ahead of this weekend's FA Cup Fifth Round tie at Bournemouth, where he reiterated his belief that his team is "very close" to achieving its aim, one that has up to now been as nebulous as it has become hollow. Martinez has deftly avoided setting targets this season – or, at least, voicing them to the media – but with just 12 Premier League games left, the goals are now easy to define: finish in the top six and go as far as possible in the FA Cup, preferably all the way to two trips to Wembley.

To do either or both, his Everton team is going to have to start winning matches consistently against top-flight opposition, something they have categorically failed to do so far. The Toffees have won back-to-back Premier League games just once all season, that despite looking the "real deal" on occasions during the campaign.

That they haven't got the results they have often deserved and that they won't be travelling down to the Capital for an all-Merseyside Capital One Cup final next weekend is partly down to mis-fortune, partly down to rank officiating and, to a measure that Martinez would find it difficult to admit, partly down to Everton themselves – players and manager alike.

To these eyes, gaining consistently good results in football and to mitigate the fickle hand of Lady Luck has always been about making your own fortune; putting enough preparation in place beforehand, bringing as much effort to bear on the pitch on the day, and making the right in-game choices to influence the outcome. If Martinez and Everton are doing this, it's not being reflected where it matters – on the field and in results.

Luck will inevitably play a role in isolated incidents, as will refereeing incompetence, but over the course of a 38-game season, a good team with the right approach will be able to ride out those bumps in the road. Everton are, quite obviously, not that kind of outfit at the moment and appear to be reliant on slender margins to carry them through.

Martinez pointed to those small margins again in his "presser" this morning, saying that he "wouldn't be able to explain three out of six" of his side's home defeats this season – you would wager that many supporters could explain them! – and describing last Saturday's defeat to West Bromwich Albion as, "a freak result that didn't reflect what happened on the pitch." In many respects he is right about that particular game – Everton had 76% of the possession and recorded a season-high 34 shots at goal – but the statistics that the manager used in his post-match interview to back up his contention that there was no explanation for how the Blues didn't win are misleading.

As Evertonians have discovered to a mind-numbing extent at times over Martinez's 32-month tenure, dominating possession is meaningless if you can't do anything meaningful with it; if you can't find the tempo in your game or the guile in your approach play to break an opposition defence down.

And of those myriad attempts towards goal against the Baggies, only six were on target, only one of them really tested goalkeeper Ben Foster – namely, Aaron Lennon's deflected volley that had to be tipped over the bar – and, crucially, only two of them came from the team's leading goalscorer, Romelu Lukaku, neither one of which made it to goal.

Against Manchester City in the League Cup semi-final second leg, a match in which they were handed a two-goal advantage courtesy of a wonderful solo effort from Ross Barkley, Everton managed just four shots in the entire match, only two on target and none from Lukaku.

Martinez's solution in both instances was to introduce the shot-shy and goal-shy Arouna Kone from the bench, a player who has occasionally provided a decent foil for Lukaku but who has – a couple of FA Cup goals aside – looked woefully inadequate as a striking solution for a squad that many believe is otherwise top-five standard.

The Ivorian's tally of just six League goals in his Everton career pales in comparison to that of Kevin Mirallas, who has a demonstrated ability to score late goals, and to date he has half as many assists as Gerard Deulofeu. And yet the Belgian watched on from the sidelines against West Brom as the Blues continued to bang their collective heads against the wall using the same unchanged formula of one winger and two defensive midfielders against a team that had left almost all of their attacking intent back in the Midlands for the day. And the Spaniard was the one withdrawn at the Etihad Stadium last month despite it being painfully obvious that he was the only one offering an outlet for a team under the cosh defensively.

Those are just two examples of frustrating matches that have gone against Everton this season. In others, their failure to either press home their superiority or see a game out from a winning position has cost them dearly and ensures that 2015-16 will remembered as another season of unfulfilled promise. By relying on or requiring small margins, Martinez and his men have exposed themselves to the cruel hand of fate and the discriminant tendencies of match referees. Put simply, if you leave things to chance, you can't moan when luck deserts you.

In that sense, Seneca's observation is painfully apt to Everton at the moment. It's probably a little more so than another spin you could put on it – namely, the notion that fortune favours the brave. There has been plenty of buccaneering spirit and adventure about the Toffees this season, both in attack and in defence, but where a lack of preparation has been exposed at the back in terms of organisation and repelling set-pieces, there has also been a rigid team formation.

That has left the team fighting with one metaphorical arm tied behind its back for much of the season – the resistance to deploying two wingers in certain situations and the preference instead to play players out of position as wide men has restricted Everton to doing most of their attacking down the right flank – and made them painfully predictable at times, something that played right into Tony Pulis's miserly hands last weekend.

Ultimately, if luck is deemed to be against you, you need to change your luck and, in football terms, that means changing up your methods, your approach and, during matches, your strategy. It also means taking a consistently holistic approach to the entire team from front to back. Martinez has slowly shown an acknowledgement of his side's defensive frailties this season – albeit only after it became so marked that it was impossible to ignore as the 800-lb gorilla in the room; now he needs to exhibit the same kind of awareness to his players' collective mentality and the different tactics that it takes to beat the Premier League's varying opposition.

Thus far, the changes have been glacial and, after last season's train-wreck of a campaign, a gilt-edged opportunity to follow the likes of Leicester and Tottenham into the top four has been spurned. It's not too late to put a belated run of results together to finish in the top six or to land a trophy, but the nagging feeling will remain that it might not be evidence enough to show that Everton have the right managerial team in place to achieve the consistency to mount a top-four challenge in 2016-17.

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