As someone once famously said: the more something changes, the more it stays the same. It was probably Huey Lewis.
So, let’s get one thing straight, playing badly against lower league opposition has been a recurring theme for Everton for longer than any of us really care to remember. For the last decade or so though, the Blues have been a ‘pressure team’ who unashamedly thrived on forcing the opposition into making mistakes and there was a feeling that under David Moyes the players bought into that approach when playing against Premier League sides but found it hard to give the same respect to Brentford or Shrewsbury. Very often then, with a ‘rotated’ team, they would give performances in cup ties that fell into a strange no-man’s land where they never outpassed nor outfought their opponents, with grim results.
The difference on Wednesday night, against a Stevenage side presently struggling in League One, is that the new Everton comfortably replicated their league approach from the weekend but still found themselves minutes away from a penalty shoot-out when substitute Marouane Fellaini scored and removed a modicum of pressure from his manager. Because the idea of Roberto Martinez chewing and sweating Quadrant Park-style while finding the positives from a cup exit so early in his Everton career really doesn’t bear thinking about.
When Martinez arrived at Goodison the perception was that he would encourage a more fluent, attacking style that would result in a higher goals tally, almost certainly at the expense of conceding more. And after years of a more pragmatic approach the general consensus was that represented an acceptable trade-off.
After three games though – and let’s remember, it is only three – the worries are not about the defence, although we haven’t played anyone really good yet, but the manner in which the Blues go forward. On the whole it’s slow and staggered, allowing the opposition to easily drop back and occupy the valuable territory on the pitch while we construct these long, lazy letter Ws along the halfway line before looping a crossfield ball onto the chest of a winger who still has two men to beat. Thus far it is very much like the style employed by Swansea City at Goodison last season – one that attracted a certain amount of derision at the time.
That’s what has people a little bit concerned, and over the course of this season it appears that we are set to be debating the merits of this new ‘philosophy’ after every game, especially at home where all the emphasis is on Everton to ‘force the issue’.
That’s something to look forward to, isn’t it?
For all the reservations, Everton certainly controlled the majority of the game, despite the number of regular first-teamers missing from the starting eleven, and if they had scored early on when Gerard Deulofeu was ragging the Stevenage left-back all over the place then the evening may have taken a far different shape. However, with Arouna Kone still looking distinctly peckish and doubts just beginning to creep in, the away side scored the classic League Cup giantkillers’ goal 10 minutes before half time.
A lost cause chased into the corner, the hopeful cutback, a massively miscued shot and the next minute someone – in this case Luke Freeman – finds himself unmarked in the box and lashing the ball into the roof of the net.
Thankfully, a rare injection of pace into the Everton game saw Steven Naismith feed a through-ball to Deulofeu for the last kick of the half, and what a lovely boot it proved. The young Spaniard, who looks really similar in style to Kevin Mirallas, opened up his body – whatever that really means – and curled a delicious low effort around a knot of players and into the bottom corner of the Park End goal.
After the break Everton briefly looked like they had learned from their scare but after another little flurry of action they again got bogged down in their own passing drills. Mercifully Fellaini got lashed on in extra-time though and his sheer presence gave the Blues something tangible to work with up front. He had already been denied by one good low save when an unseemly succession of scuffs and mis-controls in the away team’s area eventually saw the ball carom drunkenly off Naismith’s shins for ‘the big Belgian’ to spare everyone the ignominy of penalties.
Other positives on the night were the performances of John Stones and Ross Barkley who were not quite as eye-catching as Deulofeu but still outshone many of their senior colleagues. Barkley’s ‘Mr Grimsdale!’ routine where he drops his shoulder about three times before shooting wildly can be a bit frustrating but is as much a product of the Blues’ inability to open up a packed defence as his own youthful over-enthusiasm.
Going back to Fellaini, the stories continue linking him with Manchester United, with some papers now suggesting that not only is his move something of a formality, but that Leighton Baines is trying to force his proposed transfer through as well. Martinez is clearly getting fed up with being constantly quizzed on the subject, describing the present transfer window as a circus. The fact remains though, if we are genuinely unwilling to sell then it’s not an issue.
We’ve stated previously that it’s at home where Martinez and his team will set the whole tone for the season, and let’s be honest it’s not been exactly a blazing opening so far. After dropping four points against Norwich City and West Bromwich Albion though it’s important that the Blues simply start picking up points and have to be looking at anything less than three at the Cardiff City Stadium as unacceptable.
The slightly wacky Welsh club – come on, just get on Vincent Tan’s chain-smoking-in-Sayers chic and that story about the fella driving up from Luton in his slippers walking around the away dressing room – played so well in their home game against Manchester City that they won the prestigious League Managers’ Association performance of the week award. Don’t scoff, according to the Cardiff website it’s decided by Howard Wilkinson, Joe Royle, Sir Alex Ferguson, Dave Basset and Barry Fry. You can only imagine that this group (the collective noun is in fact a bung of former managers) all get together at a Midlands hotel each week and chew the decision over for hours on end, like a boozier, more arl arse 12 Angry Men.
How else could it be decided?
Seriously though, we were all appalled at the thought of getting a manager like Malky Mackay when he was linked heavily with the Everton job, so we really shouldn’t have any fear about facing his newly promoted side containing the likes of Craig Bellamy, Frasier Campbell and Tommy fucking Smith. That weird Denis Stracqualarsi-looking fella in midfield can frig off as well – the one who seems to have got a transfer on the strength of a Youtube video where he concedes scores of fouls against Barcelona – If he’s allowed to look like some sort of hard case against us then it’s time to wrap up and go home.
Them’s just the facts.