Leave it to Everton to make a 2-2 draw with supposedly title-chasing Arsenal feel like an absolutely soul-destroying defeat. The Toffees once again cost themselves a win by letting a lead slip late on, and while there were certainly positives to take from the performance, a number of issues have already presented themselves at this early point in the season.
Time to break up the band?
Call it a knee-jerk reaction, but after conceding four poorly defended goals in their first two games, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the Everton back line could do with some revision. Two of those goals came directly from Sylvain Distin errors, and while the Frenchman remains a frankly astonishing athlete at nearly 37 years old, there have been signs over the last 6 months of a steady decline in his level of performance, while the number of errors he makes has continued to rise. The quality and inexperience Roberto Martinez’s alternative options mean that Distin will likely keep his place for now, but it might be for the best if this season were his last as a regular.
Phil Jagielka, meanwhile, has problems of his own. Though undoubtedly an excellent leader and ever a tireless servant at the back, the Everton captain has never been the natural ball-playing centre back that Martinez so clearly desires. Jagielka has an heir apparent in John Stones, for whom the left-sided Brendan Galloway has ostensibly been brought to partner in the long-term, but it seems unlikely that either youngster will be promoted above their veteran teammates any time soon. A change is needed at the back, but we’ll have to wait until next season to see it.
Even with disruptions, 4-3-3 works.
There were no surprises on Saturday when Everton opted for the same 4-3-3 that devastated Arsenal last season, but while it’s one thing to know what a team is going to do, it’s quite another to actually stop them doing it. Even carrying an injury, Romelu Lukaku provided a potent threat on the right-hand side of the forward line, and though quiet for much of the game, he perfectly exposed Arsenal’s weakness on the left flank to create Everton’s second goal.
Leon Osman replaced Steven Pienaar in the central trio early on due to injury, but the impact on the system was minimal. Indeed, Osman (or Muhamed Besic) should have been the natural choice for the position, but it’s likely that Martinez felt unable to drop Pienaar after his superb performance last week. Everton’s 4-3-3 still isn’t perfect, but with a fully fit Lukaku, a more dynamic central midfield and the return of Ross Barkley, it could ultimately prove the team’s most effective set up.
Is fitness the problem, or fear?
Fitness, or a lack thereof, has certainly played a part in Everton’s two recent collapses. The World Cup and a lacklustre pre-season both appear to have contributed to the current state of affairs, but while Jaime has written that we shouldn’t worry about the side’s lack of fitness, it’s an issue that should be remedied as soon as possible, especially with the spate of September fixtures on the horizon.
Moreover, against Arsenal there also seemed to be an element of fear to Everton’s play late on. Unfit or not, the Toffees’ steady retreat into their own half as the clock wound down brought back memories of the Moyes-era inferiority complex that Martinez has done so well to dispel during his time here. Everton showed in the first half that they’re more than a match for Arsenal. They just need to remember it.
Martinez’s hesitancy is worrying.
Though it didn’t impact the result directly as it did against Leicester last week, Roberto Martinez was disconcertingly timid with his substitutions once again on Saturday. Leon Osman and Aiden McGeady were both introduced due to injuries to Pienaar and Lukaku respectively, but then it was left until the 84th minute, after Arsenal had scored their first goal, for Christian Atsu to be given his Everton debut.
Kevin Mirallas was ready to come off at least ten minutes prior to that, and while Atsu is another attacking option, useful on the counter, Martinez had Besic available had he wished to inject some much needed midfield energy. Last season, Everton won games based on their manager’s decisiveness. So far this campaign, the opposite is true.
What a difference a year makes. Written off after a difficult first season under David Moyes, Steven Naismith now enjoys deserved cult hero status at Goodison Park. Not only is his running industrious, it’s intelligent, and while his touch and passing are still very rough around the edges, his finishing and overall nuisance value are pristine.
Against Arsenal, the diminutive Scot won more aerial duels than anyone on the pitch (4), drew more fouls than any other player (6), and slotted home his 5th goal in 10 Everton appearances. At present, there are few more important Everton players.