When you’re in a situation, you don’t have time to think. So I thought to myself, “Don’t think”.
A little over 12 months ago, I wrote an article in a state of confusion (as is often the case when writing about Everton), trying to figure out what exactly was the plan for Roberto Martinez’s side. Where were we going? How long would it take for the Martinez philosophy to shine through? I bemoaned the absence of Osman and Pienaar, entreating Roberto to sign a similar type to fill the gaping hole of our left hand side with a new injection of creativity. Since then we’ve had Naismith, Kone, and now Cleverley. Naismith and Kone in particular weren’t exactly, let’s say, enjoyed by the fans during their respective stints in the wide left berth, but you can see the logic in their inclusion. Both intelligent players, both good at finding space and receiving the ball with their back to goal – qualities we were lacking elsewhere on the pitch at the time. Both also, though, with obvious weaknesses: Naismith’s propensity to give the ball away under little pressure; Kone’s distinct lack of mobility. Nor were either capable defensively, as you might expect from strikers playing out wide. They were stop gap solutions for a long-term problem, not the answer. (As an aside here, I think you have to give credit to Martinez for finding a way to score goals with this team – it could very easily have become impotent, even allowing for his gung-ho style)
So in comes Tom Cleverley, the all-rounder, the Manchester United-schooled pass-turn-pass master of the simple. A decent player, no doubt, and one who made an immediate difference with his capacity for teamwork and genuine link play, along with – who knew – pinpoint accurate diagonal balls and a strange corner-taking technique that seems to work well on occasion. But he’s not Steven Pienaar. He doesn’t provide inspiration, or ideas. He doesn’t force opponents to stand off him, knowing that if they don’t he’ll spin them and open up the game. He doesn’t feebly collapse from an arm in the back to win freekicks. We don’t have anyone like Pienaar in the squad – Roberto said so himself. Yet now he’s fit he can’t get in the side. Maybe it’s just age, maybe it’s a new direction for the team. Maybe the plan’s always been to eventually have three out-and-out forwards and Niasse will be the one on the left. Or maybe Cleverley’s there to stay and we’ve just been unlucky in three quarters of our games this season.
Watching us play West Brom away earlier in the season – the first game Stones was out injured – I remember thinking we’d do well to get through the next few games without completely crumbling, and I was fearing the worst at two-nil down. We had no set way of playing whatsoever; Jagielka and Funes Mori would get the ball and spoon it upfield to no one in particular and wait for it to come back. We were being dominated by West Brom. Then Rom rolled in with support from Kone and Deulofeu and we won the game. It was reminiscent of Martinez’s first season: no one really seems to know what’s going on but somehow we’ve scored some goals and won the game. Since then we’ve seem some excellent away performances, sans Stones, and kept a few clean sheets to boot. But then we had some excellent away performances last season too, with Stones playing a vital part. What we haven’t had though are the away-style counter-attack games at home. Whether that’s a deliberate change of tactics on our part or simply opposition sides coming to Goodison and letting us have the ball is difficult to say with any certainty, but I’d lean towards the latter. Swansea, Leicester, West Brom – all have set up to allow us to have possession, confident in the expectation that we’ll give it away and concede chances. That’s the problem with having a side built to play on the counter try to play possession: the players don’t know what to do when they can’t just run forwards. Pienaar knew what to do, so did Osman, but they’re not in the side. Stones is made to look even worse than his admittedly poor performances suggest, so he’s out too.
In short, we’re no nearer knowing exactly what sort of team Martinez is trying to create. He says he wants possession and control, but selects players that aren’t good in possession and relieves them of positional responsibility. He says he wants to play on the front foot, yet we don’t press until the opposition get to the halfway line. Managers saying one thing and doing another is nothing new, far from it, but I don’t think I’ve come across one that’s quite so mystifyingly contradictory as Roberto. He’s supposed to have an identity, a philosophy, a set of values from which he never wavers. A clear, definite style of play is the aim, married with a tactical flexibility that allows you to change your approach mid-game. Right now I’d struggle to tell you what our style of play is, and most of the times we’ve made a tactical change during a game it’s been for the worse. Against Arsenal most recently, we looked clueless, ending the game with no recognisable structure at all. The players look lost.
If I could look into a crystal ball and see the progress we’d make in the next three years, with Roberto proudly leading the best possession-football side in the league to glory in 2019, of course I’d happily suffer in the short term for the long term gain. But the signs just aren’t there. We look like a side in need of an overhaul, when we’re supposed to be on the cusp of greatness. Even with the prospect of investment and a cup semi on the horizon, the mood amongst the fans is subdued. We just don’t know what to make of it. There’s no conviction, no direction; nothing, really, to get behind. It could be that that’s a symptom of modern football – apathy seems to be quite normal for much of the Premier League – but when you see other clubs making history, with fans fully immersed in the adventure, it’s harder to accept the flat-line dullness of mediocrity.
What we need, more than anything, is some fire. A booming voice to unite the club, with a message of where we are going, and how we’re going to get there. Some real leadership. Has Roberto got that in him? If he hasn’t, we could be in for a big summer.