Underwhelming, woeful, abject, hopeless; following- and indeed commenting on- Everton this season has felt like an increasingly depressing game of (negative) adjective bingo.
At the time of writing, under-fire Blues boss Roberto Martinez’s three-year tenure has just come to an abrupt end. For months, the Catalan had been teetering on the brink; staring into the abyss from which he may never return. Put simply, lower mid-table isn’t good enough for this crop of players. Sure, the Goodison board- with Bill Kenwright still nominally at the helm despite new billionaire backer Farhard Moshiri’s recent investment- hasn’t helped, but it’s hard not to arrive at the conclusion that Martinez’s dismissal was almost entirely of his own making.
Indeed, this Everton side is entirely in his image and its failings are manifold. In a season in which high-intensity pressing, swift counterattacking football and defensive solidity have come to the foreground, Martinez largely failed to change with the times. Obstinate in his belief that dominating ball possession is nine-tenths of the law, the former Wigan manager set up his team in more or less the same manner week in, week out and they became entirely predictable as a result.
My half-season assessment was typically upbeat (perhaps to a fault) but contained the proviso that changes needed to be made- particularly defensively- if the Blues were to fulfill the promise evidenced by early wins against Southampton and Chelsea.
This, unfortunately, did not materialise. Originally, Martinez’s men were full of dynamism and attacking verve- undermined by a series of avoidable individual errors and systemic flaws that seemed to go against the general pattern of play but otherwise hinting at clear promise. Results suffered, but some signs were encouraging. So where did it all go wrong?
After Christmas, and a dire run over the festive period (bah humbug, Everton) Martinez tried to arrest the alarming slump in results by introducing a more conservative brand of football that relied on the work-rate and defensive nous of players like Lennon and Cleverley in wide areas. Significant failings remained, however, and with Deulofeu, Kone and Mirallas taken out of the side, the goals consequently dried up.
As well as the obvious lack of tactical innovation (4-2-3-1 every week- how wonderful), Martinez also failed to address recurrent flaws in Everton’s game. Almost inevitably, defence was a particular area of weakness- especially when failing to hold onto two-goal leads against Bournemouth, Chelsea, West Ham and, most gallingly, Manchester City in the Capital One Cup semi-final- with an overall vulnerability from crosses rearing its head to such an extent that the Blues conceded the most headed goals in the league over the course of the campaign.
It’s clear to most regular observers that for all their gifted individuals, Everton simply didn’t work hard enough off the ball. Concerted attempts at pressing the opposition were evident in one-off occasions like the FA Cup quarter-final victory over Chelsea, but typically, the approach to transitional play and ball recuperation was scattergun at best; something Martinez openly admits he does not prioritise in training.
Elsewhere, key players either bought out (Romelu Lukaku) or lost form due to a general lack of conditioning/direction from Martinez’s distinctly average coaching staff (Ross Barkley) with the team forced to tread water as non-decisions about the Catalan’s future were made off the pitch. It had long been clear that things had gone stale and Martinez wasn’t the man to put them right, however some supporters have also questioned the mentality of a group of players widely deemed to be the best in Everton’s recent history.
What next, then? Last summer, it seemed like evolution, not revolution, was the order of the day as far as Everton were concerned, but now you’d argue that the opposite is the case. Revolution; wide-scale changes at board and managerial level, is now a must, and the club’s very progress depends on it.
The toxic atmosphere engulfing Everton could, of course, change in an instant. It may well be hard for the Blues- in their current capacity- to convince key players such as Lukaku and Stones to stay as Champions League sides loiter in the shadows, but Everton should be a different proposition this summer if Moshiri comes good on his promise to retain star players, invest heavily in top talent and make progress on a new stadium that could well prove catalytic in the long-term.
As far as the new stadium is concerned, a proposed move to the long-touted Walton Hall Park site fell through earlier this week following (justifiable) concerns over the further loss of park space in the city. Attention has now turned to two sites, with the club believed to be interested on the council-owned Stonebridge Cross expanse in the Croxteth part of north Liverpool and the entirely more appealing Stanley Dock/Clarence Dock area currently owned by Peel Holdings. Given the choice, more than 90% of Evertonians would plump for the latter, as a new waterfront stadium could make a huge difference to Everton’s image.
Below the first team, Everton’s Finch Farm academy is also giving Blues cause for optimism, with a whole host of excellent young players ready to leap off the Goodison conveyor belt. Keep an eye out for Kieran Dowell, Tom Davies, Liam Walsh and Ryan Ledson next season, with veteran dead wood such as Howard, Hibbert, Osman, Pienaar and Gibson to be shuffled off during the summer.
This season has been close to disastrous- certainly it felt that way when leads were squandered in two semi-finals and the Blues were unceremoniously dismantled by Liverpool and Leicester in recent weeks- but once the 2015-16 finishes, the hard work starts in earnest for Everton and their new backer. Get things right this summer, and a place at the Premier League’s top table may finally be theirs once again.