One of this season’s most intriguing derbies took place on Sunday. I’m not referring to the London derby in the League Cup final, because no one cares about that. The real showdown this weekend was in the “Chronically Disappointed Fanbase That Is Sick Of Its Manager’s Stubbornness” derby between Arsenal and Everton. After Arsenal got its ass handed to it midweek by the fourth best team in France, Everton was in danger of falling behind in the race to sadness. Luckily for fans of blue-clad Scousers screaming obscenities at pub television screens, Everton stormed back into the lead as frontrunner for “Biggest Letdown 2014-15” with a limp 2-0 loss at the Emirates.
After Everton hit the dizzy heights of fifth place last season, while also playing a progressive brand of soccer, fans entered this season full of hope. If that hope isn’t dead at this point, a priest has been called. Everton has only one league win in 2015 and has slipped to 14th place. That’s still in a “This Could Go Either Way” space but dangerously close to “We Should Have Inserted Relegation Clauses In Those New Contract” zone. The Blues may well be “too good to go down,” but in any other season this would be relegation form. The only reason that Everton’s awfulness doesn’t translate into a full-blown catastrophe is thanks to the turgid mess at the bottom of the Premier League. Roberto Martínez arguably owes his job to the six dog shit teams that are somehow managing to make Everton look competent.
Did Everton miss its chance? With almost three quarters of the season gone, it’s safe to say that the overall quality of the league has declined. The fact that The Race for Fourth Place™ is so close is really a damning indictment of what are supposed to be the top teams in the country. Both Manchester clubs, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Tottenham have all been mediocre compared to what should be expected, and the standard for a top four finish is as low as it has been in recent memory. With the bar sufficiently lowered, Everton should have been right in the mix. Instead, it’s not even close, and realistically haven’t been in the picture for European qualification all season.
The match-going Everton fans have long been letting their feelings be known. Booing your own players is still a dick move of the highest order, but as their team continues to show little sign of being able to arrest this slide, it’s becoming easier to sympathize with that displeasure. Martínez was supposed to deliver slick, attacking soccer, but instead the product on the field has been consistently dire. That Everton has been giving up cheap goals should be a concern, but is perhaps not a huge surprise to anyone that watched Martínez’ Wigan teams. What is more disappointing is that Everton cannot seem to get it together on the other end either, as its attack has generally been toothless.
One of the biggest gripes that fans have with Martínez is his refusal to vary his system – the deployment of three holding midfielders, in particular – and his lack of a Plan B. Self-assurance is no weakness, especially under the microscope that comes with managing a top flight team. But results, as always, dictate the narrative. A winning coach’s unshakeable self-confidence is a losing coach’s maddening stubbornness.
On top of that, questions remain about the manager’s recruitment strategy. A lack of creativity in midfield and a thin attack are issues Martínez has failed to address in consecutive transfer windows. Despite the feeling that he’s been around forever, Romelu Lukaku is still only 21 years old. Unevenness in his game is understandable; a failure to compensate for that by having a viable alternative is not. Gareth Barry, James McCarthy and Muhamed Bešić are all fine players, but playing them all together and expecting any kind of creativity is absurd.
As weak as the Premier League appears to be this season, it is still printing money. With all the new TV deal cash burning holes in pockets across the league, the top teams are likely to improve in the near future. If Everton is serious about wanting to play with the big boys, it cannot afford another season of missed opportunities like this one.