Everton’s poor season is coming to an end, and they’re really in the best form of the year just now. It’s a case of too little, too late, but at least they’re showing signs of finding the light at the end of the tunnel.
It could be that their Europa League foray was their downfall. They had more games than they did last season, and these extra games have been against tougher teams. Everton found themselves in a tough group, alongside Lille, who came down from the Champions League qualifiers and Wolfsburg, who are one of the most dangerous teams in Germany. It certainly wasn’t easy for them, and maybe these games are to blame.
Everton won just two of their Premier League games on the weekends after the group games in the Europa League and both these wins came against sides who are currently in the bottom three, Queens Park Rangers and Burnley.
It might also be a case of Europa League syndrome – teams who didn’t play in Europe the previous season who now find themselves with more games and long flights often do poorly. The Thursday-Sunday turnover seems to do strange things to teams, and perhaps this is what happened to the Toffees.
But I’m not sure that this explains just how badly they’ve been performing this season. Their defeats in the league haven’t come only after European games. They didn’t win in six games in and around the Christmas period, from late December to early January, including four Premier League defeats in a row. And not a Europa League game in sight. So the Europa League might be one reason, but surely their problem has deeper roots than that.
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If you look for other themes in Everton’s season, you’ll probably find that mistakes have been a common one. Especially poor defending, and it’s led quite simply to poor results. Why this has happened this season and didn’t happen last season is a tough one to answer, and the Europa League may partly be to blame, but something else must explain the rest.
One thing could be injuries. Roberto Martinez has had some trouble fielding a first choice back four for a lot of the campaign. John Stones is probably the first choice to start alongside Phil Jagielka and although Jagielka has made the most starts for Everton this season, Stones has only made half his appearances. The other half he’s been paired with Alcaraz or Distin.
Sylvain Distin, at 37, is now too old to be a first choice central defender in the Premier League and seems to be fading enough to make Martinez question whether or not Distin should even be cover. Antolin Alcaraz, for his part, has simply looked out of his depth at the back for Everton. The away leg of the Europa League tie against Kiev illustrates that, where he looked like making a mistake every time he touched the ball, even looking wobbly every time a Kiev player even got to within a few feet from him.
Admittedly injuries are hard to cope with, but Martinez needs backup in these key areas. Injuries and suspensions are part and parcel of modern football – the game is so fast and they play so many matches. And if Everton want to be a top club playing European football year in year out, then they need to be able to deal with that. Not just fade away for a season while they struggle to cope with the demands of fixture juggling.
And top Premier League clubs have enough resources to have strength in depth. That’s no excuse – they spent £28m on Romelu Lukaku, so they certainly have the resources to do better with their squad depth.
To be fair, though, with Stones, Jagielka, Baines and Coleman fit and playing in front of a fit Tim Howard, Everton have started to play well and go on a little bit of a run. They’re only six points behind Swansea, who are in the sort of ‘best of the rest’ position behind the European chasing teams above. If Everton can track them down and finish eighth it would start to look a little more respectable.
It’s too late to threaten the European positions, and also too late to turn a bad season into a good one, or even an okay one. It’s still a bad season. But good form and a higher league position to finish the season could be a catalyst for a good start to next season. If they can manage that, plus add some more depth to the squad, especially at the back, then Everton might be able to come good again next time around.
It shouldn’t be all doom and gloom. It hasn’t been a great season, but it’s about building for next season now. A good finish is the first step to that, and they’re heading in the right direction now.