Everton squad review 2014-15: Breakdown of a breakdown

Posted: 29th May 2015 by Chris Smith

Roberto Martinez’s second season at Everton was comparably disastrous after such a compelling first. The Toffees finished in the bottom half for the first time since 2006 and played a brand of football that deterred even Martinez’s greatest supporters – a league high 15 individual errors the motif of an awful season. To pinpoint exactly what went wrong, I’ve tackled each department (which includes a brazen *three* categories for midfield) and given my (generally scathing) assessment. Quick heads up for Tim Howard fans, I’d leave it there if I were you.
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Goalkeepers

Tim Howard, a keeper outdone by only Joe Hart and Petr Cech in 2013-14, has been comfortably one of the league’s worst this year. Basic errors have defined him: diving too low/ early for one-on-ones, punching the ball as if it’s a grenade, failing to cover his near post, dropping crosses, lining up his wall as if he’s pranking his teammates, and most pathetically of all, pretending everybody who scores past him is offside. Howard’s removal from the first team, facilitated by injury, was long overdue and genuinely helpful once Joel Robles shook off his shaky tag with three straight clean sheets.

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Everton’s only such run of the campaign ended immediately when Martinez revealed a side to himself I had no time for by reinstating Howard for Chelsea away: blind favour against supposed instincts to the detriment of the team and a commendable young player. Nine goals conceded (of which most were Howard’s fault) in the subsequent, winless four-game run made a mockery of Martinez’s decision. The Blues need a new no. 1 without doubt and should therefore take advantage of the MLS star player lull and sell Howard to the highest bidder.

Full-backs

Although Four Four Two’s Stats Zone named Leighton Baines ‘Premier League Full-Back of the Year’ (a mantle he reclaimed from Seamus Coleman), both have struggled this year. Early on, understandably, they lost confidence in their centre-backs and goalkeeper and barely ventured from their own halves. When they imposed themselves later in the campaign, the absence of wingers and Martinez’s emphasis on central play robbed both of attacking allies.

Baines and Coleman will be expected to improve next season, but the potential replacement situation is key. Baines leads the left-back pecking order ahead of Bryan Oviedo, soon-to-be out-of-contract Luke Garbutt and soon-to-be-loaned Brendon Galloway (according to the Echo), whilst Coleman is under no pressure from Tony Hibbert who’s made just 19 appearances in three years. Everton need a new right-back to support Coleman and hopefully cause an upturn in his form.

Centre-backs

Martinez spoke regularly about the physical after-effects of the World Cup yet broke up last year’s winning partnership of Sylvain Distin and John Stones, neither of whom went to Brazil, with Phil Jagielka who did. The consequences were disastrous. Distin’s form was bad enough to effectively end his Goodison career, a prospect which soured relations irreparably with the manager, whilst Jagielka was just as bad before hugely improving to become the standout choice for Everton’s Player of the Year and scoring the greatest goal of all time at Anfield.

Image and video hosting by TinyPicStones shored things up both times he was reintegrated but a devastating injury at Old Trafford left Everton relying on Antolin Alcaraz who has been just awful. With Distin/Alcaraz leaving, and Galloway/ Tyias Browning possibly destined for loans, Martinez needs two new centre-backs, preferably a left-side specialist and one capable at right-back, or Virgil van Dijk and Micah Richards to be slightly more formal.

Defensive-midfield

James McCarthy’s lengthy absence and Gareth Barry’s ageing displays made Everton’s deep midfield hugely problematic – an easy target for pressing. The role’s physical demands have stretched Barry too thin – even his natural strengths such as passing have suffered. Barry cannot avoid danger, consistently play his way out, nor recover when dispossessed. His waning has been arguably the standout factor in Everton’s tactical unravelling.

As opponents tightly mark man-for-man, the ball has been contained in the middle third and Everton’s half, invariably forced into the possession of Barry, Jagielka, Stones and Howard – the players least likely to create chances. Martinez will tell you this is to create space by drawing opposition out, but when this doesn’t happen (almost always) and defenders drop as midfielders harass, the tactic is naive and easily conquerable. Potential replacement Bešić has looked inadequate at times, but his game needs the opportunity to develop. Crucially, his physicality, particularly pace, offers something Barry cannot. Replacing Barry with Bešić should be considered a mini-project for Martinez next season.

Central midfield

Ross Barkley’s struggles have characterised this department. High pass completion (87.9%) but just two goals and two assists describes the problem precisely: Barkley, like Everton, is seeing plenty of the ball and doing very little with it. In general, the Blues are passing in a safe, fearful manner, often doing little more than edging slowly backwards, inevitably finding those players you don’t want in possession, those who set off opposition pressing triggers. Darron Gibson’s fleeting presence offered Everton the incisive passing required to find space but his injury record forbids building around him.

Image and video hosting by TinyPicThe latter part of the season offered promise with Leon Osman returning in outstanding form, and Martinez’s tactical rigidity finally relenting as McCarthy was developed in an attacking capacity. Osman’s calmness in possession set him apart, his high percentage creativity was vital, whilst McCarthy scored two and assisted one in 11 central midfield displays compared to none of either further back. A reliable, savvy no. 10 is, for my money, the Toffees’ main priority this summer, especially with Barkley seemingly more suited to a central midfield role.

Wingers/ wide players

Steven Pienaar’s absence with injury was the origin of so much discomfort for Everton in the wide areas, exposing both the Blues’ over-reliance on his partnership with Baines and the creative void he left. Aiden McGeady faltered his way through the campaign, loanee Christian Atsu offered nothing. It wasn’t until Aaron Lennon arrived, at roughly the time of the Kevin Mirallas’ penalty debacle, that Everton played with width and improved.

Lack of wingers and Martinez’s 4-2-3-1 tendencies saw centrally-suited Barkley and Steven Naismith forced into uncomfortable, ineffective ‘wide’ roles. It was a clumsy, scruffy tactic which completely failed. The deficiencies of the squad forced Martinez’s hand but during the summer, he must address that. Everton’s wide department is two quality players short. Gerard Deulofeu seems like a viable option, but even then, I’d still hope for a left-footer to forge an understanding with Baines.

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Strikers

This year, Evertonians have seen their second post-Cottee, first post-Yakubu 20-goal striker yet savaged every aspect of his game, and shown depressing impatience with a 32-year-old getting over a 14-month injury. We’ve been d*cks, basically, but there are legitimate anxieties.

Lukaku’s goal return masked many weak, ineffective performances – his all-round game must improve, and it will. Until then, regular goals make it easy to argue his case. And though Kone is unfortunate, Everton can’t merely accept the burden. Everton need a new striker to insure against Kone’s injury trouble and stop Martinez over-playing Lukaku as he dauntingly did last season. Naismith should be relegated to the role of sub striker, and a loan addition sought, simply to score 5/6 goals and facilitate more rest for Lukaku.

Manager

Everton’s pre-season which appeared to be sponsored by jet-lag and hangovers prepared the squad terribly for a testing season, but I do have some sympathy with Martinez. It was his first ever European campaign. His firm belief in developing long-term fitness caused him to lessen the short-term workload, gambling that residual confidence and quality would keep the Blues ticking over until fitness properly kicked in. This backfired spectacularly to leave Martinez looking incredibly naive. Players were forced to work harder from lower levels of fitness under far more pressure. It was disastrous but it is unlikely to be repeated.

By the time of Everton’s second win, after eight games, the Toffees had already dropped 15 points, effectively ending hopes of bettering 2014’s fifth-place finish. From that point, everything Martinez did or said or tried or didn’t try was in the context of failure: nothing would have been sufficient, even victories became bland and tedious. The overall standard has been abysmal. I’d even argue the Toffees’ paltry total of 47 is more points than they deserve. In the Premier League, Everton played well against Aston Villa, Newcastle and Man Utd at Goodison (and beat them all 3-0) but failed to live up to last year’s impressive standards for the other 35.

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Unfortunately for Martinez, Everton’s league form was so bad it overshadowed a really decent Europa League campaign. The Blues were comfortably one of the competition’s most exciting sides having qualified before anyone else from the toughest group, and boasted the joint top scorer in Lukaku (8). But a knock-out mauling always seemed the likely end and so it proved in the Kiev rain where Everton were easily dispatched 5-2 by Dynamo. With the European distraction over, the frightening prospect of Premier League relegation was very real for a while. The Blues quickly found form to allay those fears but 15 league defeats, one more than Sunderland who secured safety on the penultimate day shows just how desperate it was.

Despite a decent late run of form, Everton finished in the bottom half for the first time in nine years.  No European football next year makes a return to the top six essential. 20 years on from the Toffees’ last trophy and after such a shoddy domestic cup performance this year however, Martinez could well go all out for the League/ FA Cup. A manager who has struggled in five of six Premier League campaigns is perhaps more suited to that type of challenge.
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Click here to read ‘Five European number 10s who could fill Everton’s creative void’.
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By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789.

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