Perhaps the best indicator of how successful Roberto Martínez’s first season in charge of Everton was is that, despite getting a club record 72 points, three defeats in their final five games meant that not qualifying for the Champions League could almost be seen as a failure in what was initially meant to be regarded as a transition season under the Spaniard. Losing David Moyes to Man Utd could’ve been very damaging, but it practically ended up as a blessing to them.
It was their first 5th place finish since 2008/09, and it would’ve been enough points to get them into the top four in five of the nine seasons since they last got into Europe’s premier competition in 2004/05 – so to miss out was certainly unfortunate. To make it worse, that run at the end of the season was preceded by a seven game winning-streak, showing that they had real momentum before a disappointing 2-3 defeat at home to Crystal Palace with just a few matches left did some real damage to their European aspirations.
So, despite Gerard Deulofeu (due to the expiry of his loan deal) being the only notable departure in the summer, the fact that Everton haven’t even recorded seven league wins in total this season is quite a large shock. With ten games to go last season they were on 51 points, but now they’re on 28 – a staggering and barely believable 23 point difference. To go from contending for the Champions League to fighting for survival up in the space of 12 months takes quite some doing.
As could be expected with such a dramatic decline in their results, there’s a major statistical difference in their general performance on the pitch. The amount of goals they’re scoring has dropped from 1.61 per game to 1.18, whilst they’ve already conceded more goals this season than they did last year; rising from a rate of 1.03 per game to 1.46. Maybe it’s just coincidence that there’s a difference of 0.43 in both of those aspects, but at the same time it’s also somewhat symbolic of how so many aspects of their overall play has declined.
Though the performance drop may be exactly the same for the goals scored and conceded, it’s the offensive side of their game which will be the biggest concern to Martínez, a manager who seems to live and die by his attacking, possession-based philosophy. It was something which brought them such success last season and it certainly can still do so, but he seems to have become even more rigid within it as things have continually grown worse – possibly to an extent where (although it’s admirable to stick with it) it’s become detrimental to their overall performance.
They’re still living up to his beliefs in that respect, and Everton’s ability to maintain possession and pass the ball hasn’t changed, but actually converting that control into anything meaningful has become largely problematic for them. Despite their average possession per game (55.5%) being the fifth highest in the division, it’s only being converted into 12.4 shots – the 11th highest in the league. That’s a significant disparity, but what’s even more of a concern for them is the location where those shots are actually coming from.
Of their shots, a rather huge 52% of them are being attempted from outside the box; and Spurs are the only side to surpass that unwanted proportion. That correspondingly means, of course, that Everton have had the second-lowest percentage of their shots from inside the box, which is clearly a much more favourable location in regards to distance. But where Spurs can at least attribute their similar proportion to them being a high pressing side that opportunistically shoot very early in or after transitions, and can also justify it with their higher number of shots in total, Everton cannot.
For them, it’s a simply a case of being unable to break down the opposition with their high levels of ball control during games. Whilst no possession is ‘meaningless’, as some people like to call it, far too much of Everton’s is sterile and ineffective. That’s something which can easily be reflected in the fact that it takes them a huge 43.7 passes on average in a game to muster a shot at goal, a figure which is topped only by Aston Villa, who are by far the league’s lowest goal-scoring side. So why is that?
Well, a significant part of it appears to be down to the midfield pairing of Gareth Barry and James McCarthy, one which worked so successfully for them last season because of how well they complement each other. The Irishman’s defensive contribution (one which Barry does also possess), energy, and ability to maintain the ball under pressure often meant that his partner would be allowed more time on the ball – something of vital use to both Barry and Everton, with him being the key in transitioning play from back to front at pace with more vertical passes. Between them the ball was always kept ticking and moving at pace.
With McCarthy experiencing a fairly regular hamstring problem however, meaning that he’s not only missed 10 Premier League games but also underperformed when he has been ‘back to fitness’, actually getting the pair out together in the first place has been an issue. Barry’s now getting less time in possession because of that, something which he could particularly do with now that he’s a year older at 34 and on the wane too, limiting his ability to progressively pass the ball in a way which is genuinely productive for Everton.
That’s something which can be demonstrated when comparing the number of key passes he’s averaged over the two seasons; with it dropping from 1.3 per game in 2013/14 to just 0.4 now – and though the number of overall passes he’s making has remained similar, they just aren’t as effective any longer. McCarthy’s experienced the same pattern too, from 1.2 per game to 0.6, and it’s really affected the team as a unit. The slower speed of distribution isn’t allowing Everton to play with the fluidity which was so important for them last season.
That’s then had a knock-on effect to the rest of the team, failing to get the best out of a set of attacking players who thrive with space and the ability to be more direct. Passes are being played into the feet of very vertical players like Ross Barkley, Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku when they’re already being marked, instead of ahead of them when they’re making runs into gaps which would’ve been exploited last season when the ball was being played quicker.
It’s not a problem which they’ve experienced so much in the Europa League (a competition which they’ve been doing extremely well in despite their league performances) due to the extra space that they’re getting – possibly because the teams Everton have faced are similarly used to taking the initiative themselves in their domestic leagues. These performances, in contrast to the games in England, emphasise just how important it is to either have lots of room or to move the ball at pace in a team playing the style which Martínez has them doing. In the league, where teams have increasingly been setting up to stop them playing with the ball properly, neither of those criteria are being met.
As a result there have been clamours from fans and pundits (and even the players, according to some comments from Lukaku) for them to switch to a more direct style, but – despite the evident decline in their passing game from a progressive perspective – Martínez has been as firm as ever with his philosophy. It’s hardly a surprise, especially given his time at Wigan, though how they’re playing at the moment with a lower tempo certainly isn’t bringing the best out of the set of players he has at his disposal.
Lukaku is possibly the best example of that. A player with incredible physique and pace, as well as what is frankly a rather awful first-touch for someone with his current and potential talent, it makes sense to get him running at or in behind defenders; not attempting (and often failing) to hold up the ball with his back to goal. But by the time the ball is getting to him, the former isn’t an option regularly enough.
It can be reflected in his goal tally too, dropping from 15 in 31 appearances (29 starts) to just seven in 28 appearances (25 starts) so far this season in the league. Part of that is related to his shot-to-goal conversion rate too, a dreadful 8.6% compared to a reasonably solid 15.3% in 2013/14, as well as him growing tired due to the lack of a quality back-up option, but the slower tempo of play and lack of space to attack has noticeably affected his performances.
Something that’s similarly representative of their lack of directness can be seen in the type of service provided by their wide players, particularly Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman, their two full-backs who truly flourished under Martínez last season with an enormous degree of attacking freedom. Despite having these two bombing up the line and a striker of Lukaku’s build in the middle, they’ve rather strangely attempt the third-lowest number of crosses per game (17.8) in the Premier League.
It should be granted that the pair (particularly Baines) often underlap instead of overlap, going infield and so crossing may not be a suitable option from a number of the positions they venture into, though their lack of putting the ball into the box – even though crossing is the most inconsistent method of scoring from open play – is a nice and accurate representation of their reluctance to ‘mix things up’. That’s certainly not to make irrational implications that Martínez should abandon his principles, but to not fully exploit the weapons they have at their disposal (despite how he managed to exactly that last season) when it visibly isn’t working as it is already is bizarre.
The attacking style of their full-backs, in an offensive set-up which necessitates them to push forward in possession, links smoothly onto the faults of their defensive system this season; with there often being a load of space left behind them on both sides whilst they attack. As a result, Everton are especially vulnerable in transitions and place a huge reliance on being able to slow the play down in order to regain at least some resemblance of a solid shape after giving the ball away.
In other words, that means pressing – something which has drastically declined in their play this season. Not closing down with a high line (which is needed for them to play their possession game and provide a higher starting position for their full-backs) is almost suicidal, and so it’s no wonder that they’re conceding so many more goals without it. Quite where the pressing has disappeared to is an odd thing – a Europa League or tiredness related issue, perhaps – and particularly so when they did it pretty efficiently last season with practically the same personnel (who aren’t hugely suited to it, it must be said, but they coped well), but the issue is there now without a doubt.
Whilst looking at defensive statistics can be somewhat misleading, at least without proper contextualisation behind them anyway, there’s a very worrying pattern behind Everton’s; especially for a side who are set up in a manner which requires pressing to make it sustainable. For the number of tackles, interceptions and fouls committed per game, Everton make the 18th, 19th and 20th amount in the league respectively. Unsurprisingly, if you add up the numbers involved to make a total of the ‘defensive actions’ they average per game, they make the lowest in the division with 38.8.
The fact that Everton are a possession-orientated side must be taken into account when looking at these figures, because obviously you can’t make any of those three defensive actions (except weird, unnecessary fouls) when you have the ball, but it’s possible to somewhat remove the importance of that factor when you throw in how many shots they allow against them.
By dividing the number of defensive actions they average per game (38.8) by the number of shots they concede on average per game (13.5), you get a result of 2.87 – a number which equates to the amount of defensive actions they make per shot that they allow. Only West Ham and Sunderland have a lower figure for that, making for pretty horrific reading for Martínez’s side. In Tim Howard they also have a goalkeeper who’s massively underperformed (in the first half of the season in particular) after an excellent World Cup during the summer, and so to give away so many opportunities to test him is bound to end in trouble.
As well as showing how easily they are cut open without much pressing, that’s also indicative of the risks that they take as a side when playing out from the back. A decent number of those efforts against them will be as a result of the high number of individual errors which they’ve committed: something which similarly happened at Wigan when the Spaniard was there.
Considering how quickly the players adapted to Martínez’s system last season makes this particularly strange, but it appears that teams either sitting deep or (particularly for the mistakes factor) pressing very high against them has seriously affected their rhythm as a side. The declined speed of ball circulation isn’t enough to break teams down, whilst the composure to maintain possession under pressure seems to have similarly disappeared with the problems that have emerged for Barry and McCarthy.
Except for the salvation that the Europa League has offered them, it’s really just been a bit of a calamitous season all round for Everton. Their league results and performances certainly aren’t indicative of the quality of their squad and manager, and they’ve shown in Europe that they’re a far better side than the one that’s currently 14th in the table, though there’s a lot of work that needs to be done for them to solve the issues that have seriously damaged their campaign thus far.
After such an excellent first season in charge, Martínez deserves the chance to be the one to turn it around again – he’s already proved that he can be the one to get the best out of this set of players. He’s also deserved the criticism he’s received too, and it would be foolish to suggest otherwise, but there’s no chance that the Spaniard is going to move away from his philosophy no matter how much is said to him.
He shouldn’t even consider overhauling it either, but he does need to learn from the criticisms coming his way and recognise the tweaks which need to be made. Do that, and Everton will be just fine. Martínez is a part of the problem now, but there’s more than enough proof from last season and their European performances that, assuming he shows a greater willingness to adapt and make those adjustments again, he’s also the solution too.