Finishing 11th in the most competitive top flight in the world is far from a terrible season however it felt like one for us Everton fans given the success of the previous term. Rather than spend this season kicking on and fighting for the coveted Champions League spot, Everton fell backwards and at one point were staring relegation in the face. There is no way that a squad containing experienced internationals Jagielka, Baines, Barry and Howard; exciting youngsters Barkley, Stones and Lukaku as well as the talented Coleman, Mirallas, McCarthy and Naismith should have found themselves in that position. As a result, it feels necessary to assess all the various factors that could have contributed to putting us there.
Was it one factor affecting the rest, a combination of two or three or simply luck not being in? Using fan theories gleaned from twitter, my own experiences and stats provided by the PL website, I shall explore the many possibilities and hopefully reach a conclusion based upon my findings. Usually when a season goes wrong it is based around player form, injuries, burnout and managerial tactics being wrong. There are elements of all of that at Everton this season, as well as one or two extra ingredients that make for an interesting case study.
The first area to explore is our goal difference under Martinez. Basic logic suggests that if you score more goals than you concede you will finish higher up the table. Last season we had a goal difference of 22 while this season that had dropped to -2. Therefore, it’s easy to say the root cause of our poorer season is conceding too many goals and not scoring enough. To have a drop of 24 goals suggests something is wrong at both ends. There’s nothing wrong with argument, certainly there’s a lot of truth in it – it just isn’t in any way detailed enough. That being said, it’s a figure worth keeping in your mind as it’s the consequence of all the other factors. Another figure to keep in mind is the difference in points at the end of the season, 25 – probably a direct result of that goal difference drop.
To start to understand why we have conceded more goals and scored fewer, I think it’s worth taking a look at the summer acquisitions. We avoided letting any first team players leave, secured Barry and Lukaku on permanent deals and added Atsu, Besic and Eto’o. On paper, this was a wonderful summer and one that filled us with hope and optimism for the forthcoming year. Hindsight is a wonderful tool and it’s obvious now that what we failed to do was freshen up the ageing defence. Atsu and Eto’o simply didn’t work with Eto’o leaving in January and Atsu made fewer than 10 appearances in the league with his only start resulting in defeat. Unfortunately, we failed to replace the different skills Deulofeu brought. Aaron Lennon came in in Jan and did just that, playing a major role in our upturn in form. Martinez has to be praised for that.
It’s harder to recover from a bad start than to maintain momentum in football. The usual rule is look at how the first 10 games go, and then adjust expectations based upon that. Everton’s record after 10 games was as follows: 3 wins, 4 draws and 3 defeats. While this is far from disastrous, a comparison to the previous season paints an interesting picture. After 10 games in 2013/14 we had won 5, drawn 4 and lost only 1 (away to the eventual champions). To go beyond the first 10 games, Everton only lost twice between August and December 2013, winning 10. Taking the same time frame in 2014 results in 8 losses with only 5 victories. Overall, that’s a loss of 16 points. It’s simply impossible to recoup that lost ground. Once again, this is simply a consequence rather than a cause.
Most people will point to the Europa League as a reason for downturn in early season form, with some justification. However, it appears to me too simple to blame everything on a European tournament, in which we were performing well above standards, without considering other factors. Let’s first look at the travelling involved. The trip to the dark depths of Russia aside, our fellow group sides were based in France and Germany. Teams playing in the Champions League travel to Russia, France and Germany year upon year without losing form and pundits slating the Champions League for it. The problem with the Europa League is the Thursday-Sunday turnaround; so let’s take a look at the results:
- 13th – 21st Sep: 2-0 v West Brom, 4-1 v Wolfsburg (H), 2-3 v Crystal Palace
- 27th Sep – 5th Oct: 1-1 v Liverpool, 1-1 v Krasnodar (A), 1-2 v Man U
- 18th – 26th Oct: 3-0 v Villa, 0-0 v Lille (A), 3-1 v Burnley
- 1st – 9th Nov: 0-0 v Swansea, 3-0 v Lille (H), 1-1 v Sunderland
- 22nd – 30th Nov: 2-1 v West Ham, 2-0 v Wolfsburg (A), 1-2 v Spurs
- 6th – 15th Dec: 0-1 v Man City, 0-1 v Krasnodar (H), 3-1 v QPR
As much as I like the competition, admittedly, those results aren’t encouraging for a defence of the Europa League. On matches following the Europa League, we lost 3 times, won twice and drew once. Even the victory over QPR came after resting all of our first team for Krasnodar. That being said, of those matches, the only one I remember with any disappointment is the defeat to Crystal Palace at home. It’s totally possible that we weren’t prepared for the quick turnaround at that point, as that was our first match. Narrow defeats away to United and Spurs wouldn’t be a bad thing in any season, in this they were unluckily placed after our two longest away trips (not that that is an excuse!) and so became almost impossible. In fact, the match at Old Trafford was, in my view, one of our better performances of the first half of the season!
It’s my belief that the Europa League isn’t a distraction if you have the squad depth to deal with the travelling. Unfortunately, we lack that and we paid for it later in the season. There is no doubt in my mind that the run of 4 defeats in a row over Christmas was purely due to burnout in our key players. John Stones had been injured since the Old Trafford trip, McCarthy was in and out of the side and as a result Jagielka and Barry had been holding the centre of our side together almost on their own. Besic had done ok, but it was clear Distin was past it and Alcaraz wasn’t good enough. Our lack of replacements in the centre of defence was now hindering any kind of recovery. The slow start, Europa League hangovers and a dismal Christmas period was being caused by injuries, probably brought about by burnout, and a lack of replacements all culminating in a lack of trust between the spine of our team and coherent thought going awry.
Something that has been rumbling on twitter all season is talk of backroom problems. Obviously, as with anything on twitter, it’s worth taking these reports with a pinch of salt because, let’s be honest, very few of us know what is happening on the training field. However, some things have been confirmed. The main worry came when Leon Osman wrote in his autobiography that since Martinez came in, Everton had stopped working on set pieces. Whether this affects us or not doesn’t matter (for the record and not including penalties, under Moyes goals from set pieces were dropping every year and was only 10 during his last year, yet we’ve scored 12 and 11 under Martinez so there is hardly any difference), as not covering an area of major importance is sloppy beyond belief. It’s almost unforgivable.
While they haven’t been confirmed, reports of a bust up between Graeme Jones, Sylvain Distin and Samuel Eto’o saw Eto’o shipped out and Distin left in the reserves until the final match of the season and then released straight away. Furthermore, Kevin Mirallas has talked about broken promises and lack of trust between him and the manager, implying that the atmosphere has been less than pleasant at Goodison this season. Everton lack the financial weight other teams have, so we need the squad harmony to be high to achieve. This hasn’t been the case this season and as a result we’ve suffered. It might not seem a huge factor in our decline but for me, squad harmony is crucial.
It’s not a word I use lightly, and not one I enjoy using when talking about Everton however it’s crossed my mind more than once as to whether the staff, and players, have been far too complacent. The pre-season friendlies were all aimed at playing better against European opposition, rather than looking to improve against domestic ones. Complacency could also be a reason for the lack of set piece training. Adding weight to the argument, the sheer amount of hamstring injuries this season suggests our trainers are below par for this level or that we don’t take physiotherapy seriously enough.
This season has been blighted by basic defensive errors, both in the back four and with the goalkeeper. It’s led many to theorise that with Moyes’ staff now completely gone, the emphasis on defensive training is slim, if at all. Before we look into whether this argument is valid or not, it’s worth knowing the key defensive stats in comparison to last season, taken from http://www.premierleague.com.
|Statistic||2013/14 season||2014/15 season|
|Goals Conceded||39 (1.03 per match)||50 (1.32 pm)|
|Clean Sheets||15 (0.39 pm)||10 (0.26 pm)|
|Saves Made||118 (3.11 pm)||81 (2.13 pm)|
|Blocks||128 (3.37 pm)||162 (4.26 pm)|
|Clearances||1120 (29.47 pm)||1280 (33.68 pm)|
Those statistics actually appear to harm Howard, Barry and McCarthy more than the defence. More blocks and clearances suggest our defenders are doing something right however combining that with a huge increase in goals conceded and a similar level decrease in clean sheets and saves made indicate a defence working over time to cover for it’s midfield and goalkeeper. From now on, I’m assuming the goalkeeping stats are reflected simply on Howard, in reality this isn’t true due to Joel’s 7 appearances, however I can get away with it due to the majority of the stats being from Howard. For me, the most damning stat is saves made, which has decreased 31% from last year. In other words, Howard is saving 3 in 10 shots less then he was last year. The stats make horrible reading for our veteran goalkeeper, and all of them make little sense given how well he played at the World Cup. I suppose it’s definitive proof that age can catch up with you at any time. With all due respect to him, I see him as one of the main reasons we slipped down the table and I, as stated last week, am totally behind looking for a replacement. Just for the record, of the 10 clean sheets, Howard kept 7 from 32 appearances and Robles 3 from 7. The more you see the stats, the more it becomes clear how bad the decision to drop Robles was.
While I see Howard as the main reason for our defence frailties, it would be wrong for me to place all the blame on him. A goalkeeper is meant to inspire confidence and he isn’t however the stats imply to me that the midfield isn’t breaking the play up well enough. I draw this conclusion from the fact we made more blocks yet still conceded more goals.
That graph begins to look at whether that’s true in more detail. Taking the 6 players who play most in the defence and the centre of midfield, I’ve looked at tackles, interceptions and blocks made per match over the course of Martinez’s two seasons. All three are there to look at how we are breaking play up before the opposition reaches the goals. In theory the tackles and interceptions will be lower but blocks higher (we conceded more goals yet made more blocks). These figures seem to suggest that McCarthy and Baines are the biggest defensive disappointments this year. Both made more than 1 tackle a game less this season than last, which isn’t balanced out by the slight rise in interceptions. Jagielka decreased the amounts of tackles and interceptions he made this season however countered that by increasing blocks. Gareth Barry remains remarkably consistent, which is strange given how much people, myself included, have blasted Martinez for continuing to include him. It appears he was made to look worse by the decrease in standard by McCarthy rather than anything he did wrong. Overall, it appears we weren’t as good at breaking the play up and the responsibility for that lies more with the midfield and full backs than defenders, although no one is blameless.
It’s impossible to prove that Everton spend less time training for defence however the evidence I’ve gained seems to suggest it’s the case. Either that or complacency has sunk in amongst experienced defenders and they work on it less themselves. Whatever is the case, Everton’s staff need to improve defensive training and with that I’m sure our results will improve.
It’s clear that we’ve stagnated defensively however that wouldn’t matter if we had been better offensively. Given our dramatic decline, it probably won’t surprise you to hear we’ve been worse in that area too. Martinez prides himself on possession football, believing that keeping the ball is the best chance of scoring. It’s logical, more ball more chance of scoring, however doesn’t always work in practice. You have to have the players who are able to create something out of nothing, who can break clear of the defence at any given moment and race on towards goal. Ross Barkley, Kevin Mirallas, Romelu Lukaku. Everton have those types of players. As a result, it’s worth sticking with Martinez’s strategy in the belief that eventually it has to reap rewards (also the fact that it did exactly that last year).
How has the possession differed in the two Martinez season? Well, the stats are almost identical. Short passes per match stand at 432 this season compared to 431 last season and long balls per match 73 this season, 68 last season. Where the differences come is the possession and pass success rate, which are both slightly lower this year. As shown in Graph 2, the possession has decreased by 1.2% per match and pass success rate by 0.7%. When it comes to possessions and passing, the numbers are huge and therefore small differences can make a huge impact over 38 games. That being said though, even this season Everton had more than half the possession in an average match with pass success up in the 80’s. If the PL table was based on possession only, we would have finished 7th (see below). Clearly, possession isn’t the problem.
It isn’t the problem because you can have all the possession you want, it won’t mean diddly squat if you can’t score goals. We scored 61 goals last season, by this season that had dropped to 48. Like I did with the defensive stats, it may be worth having a table with all the key figures on:
|Statistic||2012/13 season||2013/14 season||2014/15 season|
|Goals Scored||55 (1.48 per match)||61 (1.61 pm)||48 (1.26 pm)|
|Shots||462 (12.16 pm)||409 (10.76 pm)||348 (9.16 pm)|
|Crosses||773 (20.34 pm)||637 (16.76 pm)||523 (13.76 pm)|
I’ve included David Moyes’ last season on this table for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Moyes had got Everton playing in a style similar to Martinez while retaining the pragmatism of old, hence the stats should be similar but slightly higher for shots and crosses under Moyes. Secondly, I was intrigued by the goal scored stat. Admittedly one season isn’t a justification of an idea however Moyes’ last and Martinez’ first suggest that in the long run, possession based football will win out. Indeed, only in 09/10 did we come close to scoring 61 goals, with 60.
Back to this season, and it’s clear our problems lie in the shots and crosses. In truth, I didn’t need the stats to come to this conclusion, as when watching Everton it becomes painfully clear that our players appear afraid to shoot or take on opponents. If you don’t shoot, you won’t score, probably the most clichéd expression in sport but one that rings true every time.
Furthermore, the graphs above indicate that our effectiveness in the last 10 minutes of a match has waned dramatically this year. For me, this is the main reason why we aren’t winning as many matches as we were, why we aren’t turning 1 point into 3. While scoring in the last 10 minutes isn’t a guarantor of points, it does make it more likely you’ll pick up some.
A more revealing stat would be a look at the importance of those late goals, which unfortunately I don’t possess – so instead I’ll work it out. The criteria for this rough maths was as follows: I gave 1 point for any goal which turned a loss into a win, 2 points for any that turned a draw into a win and 3 for the rare occasion when a couple of goals turned a loss into a win. I didn’t give any points for scoring the second in a 2-0 win or for scoring if we then conceded and lost a win or draw. Further, the graphs include 90+ minutes as an extra bar, so any goals in stoppage time affecting the result were removed. As I expected, last season we picked up much, much more points through the ability to score late. Using my maths, we picked up 12 last season compared to only 1 this. Not scoring late would appear to dramatically hinder you. Also, the difference there is 11, adding 11 to 16 (the points difference between August – December) gives 27, which is close to the difference of points over the course of the season. It’s not a coincidence but there will be a certain level of overlap so it’s not the only two places we’ve lost points.
There doesn’t appear to be one single reason why Everton have had a, by their standards, poor season. I’ve talked about summer acquisitions which didn’t meet the mark, possible training deficiencies hindering more than fitness, unusual defensive and offensive glitches and a slow start hindering the rest of the campaign and I’m sure that there are many more reasons I haven’t began to explore. For example, it’s hard to measure whether clubs have simply worked Martinez out yet there will be a certain element of that. The one possibility that keeps coming to my mind is a lack of confidence brought about following the poor start and behind the scene problems. It would explain the fear to shoot, Howard’s lapses in concentration and McCarthy’s loss of effectiveness. Lack of confidence can be brought about by complacency and can be amplified by poor results. It is a cause that seems to fit every reason I can find yet I still feel it’s too simple to explain this season.
Truth be told, I don’t think we will truly understand the meaning of this season until this time next year. If we perform much better then we can write it off as a blip, if it stays similar then there are clearly some underlying causes affecting our side. Nobody is blameless for this slump, even the fans who can make Goodison a graveyard when we aren’t doing what they expect or are too hasty to expect success. Fans can’t expect every season to be swashbuckling our way to fourth or fifth with a record points total, that doesn’t happen all the time. At the same time, we shouldn’t stumble to 11th place, we are a bigger side than that and the manager needs to take responsibility. Quite frankly, Martinez needs to grow up and realise you can’t be a great manager without working on every aspect of the game. However, he’s worth another season to see where we are and the direction the club is heading in. If nothing has changed by this time next year then get rid of him, if it has then it shows this season was simply a blip. I hope for the latter.
Raw table data for graph 1:
|Player (2014/15)||Tackles per match||Interceptions per match||Blocks per match|
|Player (2013/14)||Tackles per match||Interceptions per match||Blocks per match|