Blog Written by Liam Stewart (@stevenstewart54):
The 6th of April 2014, Everton had just beaten Arsenal 3-0 to move a point behind the Gunners in the race for the final place Champions League spot, with a game in hand against bottom of the league Sunderland to come next. The Toffees won that game, narrowly edging past a spirited Black Cats display, which was undone with 15 minutes to go when Wes Brown diverted Gerard Deulofeu's cross into his own net while trying to clear.
After that underwhelming yet crucial win, Roberto Martinez’s side sat two points above a mournful and melancholy Arsenal side, whose title challenge had wilted away and unceremoniously died like a leaf in a vicious Russian winter. After their 3-0 demolition of the Gunners, in which Romelu Lukaku had made Arsenal’s defence, specifically the now imperious Nacho Monreal look as feeble as a twig, the blue half of Merseyside looked favourites to best the slacking Londoners and reach Europe’s most prestigious competition.
There were five games left remaining in the season and the Toffees had a tough run in which they would need to get maximum points to be sure of that venerated fourth spot. They faced a resurgent Crystal Palace side, toughened by Tony Pulis. David Moyes would also return to Goodison Park with Man United and leave without a job. Their remaining games included eventual champions Manchester City, Southampton and Hull City. Reaching Europe, for the first time since their 2005 qualifier against Villarreal, would be a demanding and austere process, but ultimately achievable.
However, it was not to be. The Toffees melted into a mouldy, tin-can caramel, losing to Southampton, Manchester City and Crystal Palace and winning just six points from a possible 15. One felt their collapse was partially that this side was not mentally prepared to be pace-setters in a race for such a revered position.
Yet, more importantly Everton were structurally flawed. Roberto Martinez has always been a coach who preaches the benefits of playing on the front-foot, driving forward attempting to slice and dice opposition defences apart with a Gordon Ramsey-esque ferocity. Yet, this savage, cut-throat style has left Everton criminally exposed defensively and still does now. In their 23 Premier League games this season, The Toffees have already conceded 34 goals, only five less than they conceded in 38 games in 2013-14.
In the Premier League world of constant buying and selling, some may argue that the Merseysiders defenders are the issue. However, I suspect the ‘buy better defenders’ line does not apply to Everton. John Stones though young and occasionally prone to overplaying, as he did at the weekend against Swansea, is still clearly talented. Though I find Jose Mourinho a rather distasteful and bitter man, he is a coach who knows how to coach and identify a quality defender. His career has been built on it. As a result, his much-publicized chase to sign Stones in the summer exhibits the 21-year-old’s quality, as does his performances.
Seamus Coleman is one of the best right-backs in the league and Leighton Baines experience and quality would be welcomed by many a team in Europe. The Argentine Ramiro Funes Mori, though lacking the much-cherished ‘Premier League experience’ by pundits across the land, has ability and athleticism and is thought of extremely highly in his native country.
Admittedly, questions are starting to be raised over 33-year-old captain Phil Jagielka, simply due to the natural process of aging. Despite this however, Everton have a defence capable of being in a top six side, especially in the madhouse that is the Premier League where results such as Liverpool beating Norwich 5-4 seem only slightly out of the ordinary.
Consequently, blame must be turned towards Martinez himself, who for all his advantages in his aim to entertain fans and observers alike; is too dogmatic in his approach and it’s hindering Everton who look set for another season in mid-table mediocrity. For a team, which boasts talents like Lukaku and Deulofeu, who epitomize Martinez’s style with their effervescent skill, flair and finesse, The Toffees could and really should be challenging for a top-four spot once again this season.
The promise of Everton’s first season and their ability to entertain, producing results such as their 6-2 thrashing of Sunderland and their 3-0 win over Southampton, has kept many fans on Martinez’s side so far this season. But they’ve now won just once in their last 10 games, a run of form which surely dictates the Spaniard channel his inner Mourinho (even his arch-nemesis Arsene Wenger has a pragmatic side) and make Everton less open.
I suspect at a club like Newcastle, considering their current predicament, Martinez’s attacking style would be accommodated and enjoyed right now. Yet, at a club with Everton’s history and stature in English football, winning whilst entertaining as opposed to just entertaining, needs to be The Toffees motto.
On Wednesday, Everton play Manchester City in their Capital One Cup semi-final second-leg. After winning the first-leg 2-1, Martinez has to make sure he finds a balance between the artistes he dearly wishes his side to be and the serious club his fans want them to be. If the former Swansea coach fails to do this and Everton once again fail in hearty circumstances, one fears that this may be his last season as leader of The People’s Club.