Spurs and Palace and That

Tony Pulis, who has been linked with Middlesbrough, was sacked by Stoke City in May

After the frustration of the Tottenham game you couldn’t really ask for more than a match at home straight away against one of the Premier League’s strugglers.

Familiar failings undid the Toffees at White Hart Lane – they enjoyed loads of possession but after the first half an hour or so, when they had a handful of chances, they really struggled to turn that sense of ‘control’ into something more threatening. We do 80% of the work brilliantly, arguably as good as anyone, but without any genuine centre-forward, never mind the hugely expensive ones leading the line of our nearest competitors, it often feels like we’re dependent on either a bit of luck or an incredible team effort to get the ball in the back of the net.

Leon Osman, teed up by the hardworking and intelligent Steven Naismith, drew a great save from Hugo Lloris in the early stages, but after that, as the Blues worked the ball to the wings with ease, you never felt any great conviction that the eventual ball into the box was going to really hurt the Spurs defence.

When you are struggling to score, lapses of concentration at the other end will often prove doubly punishing, and the winning goal, scored on 64 minutes, only served to underline that. Kyle Walker took a quick free-kick on the halfway line, chipping the ball to Emmanuel Adebayor as the Everton defence all turned their back on the play. Before they could fully recover the spindly striker had already beaten Tim Howard low at his near post.

Not great.

Roberto Martinez tried to force an equaliser by subjecting Spurs to ‘death by jinky winger’, throwing Gerard Deulofeu and Aiden McGeady on alongside Kevin Mirallas, but despite one great slaloming run by the Belgian that was always going to end up with a mad shot into the crowd, the home side always looked capable of defending their 18-yard box in the face of Everton’s constant probing and wing-switching.

It wasn’t a terrible performance, but perhaps it was an indicator of the limitations of the squad that we couldn’t even get a point against an ordinary-looking Spurs side that, despite the upturn in fortunes under Tim Sherwood, hasn’t fully recovered from the sale of Gareth Bale and the dubious spending of André Villas Boas.

Meanwhile Liverpool were smashing the granny out of Arsenal and moving five points clear of us. There is still ‘a lot of football to play’ as they say, but at the moment it’s hard to envisage us winning two more games than them during the remainder of the season. They seem to be through on goal with two or three passes every time they attack at the moment where we must surely have more touches in the opponents’ area without troubling the keeper than any other side in the division.

There’s talk of the massive Lacina Traore of the Jacomo fire sale cardigan making his first appearance against Palace as Martinez at least has more players of indeterminate fitness to choose from. Perhaps he can provide a bit of focus and some end product to compliment all the neat and tidy approach play.

One of Everton’s most hair-pulling performances of the season came in the corresponding fixture at Selhurst Park, when their passing game was undone by a packed defence and a number of breakaways that fortunately had Jerome Thomas and Yannick Bolasie on the end of them and not Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez. That was the old relegation-doomed Palace as well, before they parted ways with Ian Holloway and appointed surprise package Tony Pulis as manager.

You have to hand it to him, he had become something of a joke figure at Stoke City – his name sort of shorthand for a particular brand of unsophisticated football – and it’s probably fair to assume that a lot of Crystal Palace supporters were dubious about him getting the job, especially with exotic figures like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer out there being touted at the time. In a short space of time though Pulis has made Palace a much tougher proposition to face. Not only that, he brought in a couple of decent attacking players during the transfer window, Tom Ince and Joe Ledley, adding more goal threat and improving their chances of survival no end.

Fair play like.

For Everton it’s really a question of carrying on as we have been, hoping that Traore does adapt quickly, Romelu Lukaku recovers from his injury and reproduces his early-season form, and that as the likes of Deulofeu and Ross Barkley get fitter we can pick up a bit more momentum, picking up points and hopefully progress in the increasingly important-looking FA Cup.

Because even though it was just a narrow defeat at Tottenham, when the stakes are so high the margins for error become increasingly fine. You can’t help wonder now if we require a consistent run of wins for the remainder of the season that is just a little bit beyond this present squad.

Crystal Palace 0 Everton 0

pienaar palace

You have probably gathered already that the lack of a preview for this game was in fact an achingly post-post-modern comment on a match in which almost nothing of any significance actually happened. That’s right, it was so post-modern that we slagged the game off before it even took place.

The fact that most of the papers focused on Sylvain Distin’s contretemps with a disgruntled Evertonian after the final whistle is an indication of what a disappointing encounter it was, from Everton’s perspective at least.

It’s hard to tell whether the mournful-looking Frenchman genuinely cares about the Blues’ following or is simply a bit over-sensitive. Footballers are always criticised for being too aloof from the people who pay their wages – or as Carlos Tevez once pointed out ‘a portion of my wages’ – but you can’t help feeling that he was on a hiding to nothing there. If someone’s been stood there in the cold after travelling down to London, there’s every chance that they are not really going to be that receptive to nuanced debate, especially in front of all their mates. They want to vent a bit after watching a frustrating 90 minutes of football – it would make more sense to just give a half-hearted clap and maybe a Gallic shrug before fucking off down the tunnel and letting them get it out of their system.
It did seem a strange game to get quite that irate over though – the lad in all the pictures has a twisted grid of Tranmere proportions.

We said during preseason that the debates over Roberto Martinez’s style had the potential to get a bit dull and thankfully the favourable results have actually kept them to a minimum. This game though was probably the first where for the whole 90 minutes we did all the bad things associated with this particular ‘philosophy’. It positively reeked of that horrible Real Betis friendly at times as Everton endlessly shuttled the ball between the defensive six before losing it the moment they tried to play anything like a positive pass into an area where Palace didn’t want us to be.

The statistics said that Everton had 72% of possession, and that gives an impression of some degree of ‘control’, but in truth the home side could argue that their game-plan was the more successful. They were happy with a draw for a start, and they also had the better chances to take all three points. They were very rarely drawn out of their comfort zone as Everton’s glacial passing around the centre circle allowed them to simply get into position, with their backs to their own goal, challenging the Toffees to take the initiative.

Whether it’s a fault with the system itself or the personnel – perhaps a combination of both – it does seem to demand a great deal from the front four, especially when sides like Palace are happy to sit deep. Steven Pienaar, Leon Osman, Romelu Lukaku, and in the second half Ross Barkley, could find very little space to work in through the centre – there was more joy down the wings but a combination of poor crossing, unconvincing movement in the box and some decent defending meant that it was an unusually quiet afternoon for Julian Speroni.

People are increasingly starting to understand perhaps why Lukaku is not a regular starter for Jose Mourinho yet as his form has dipped in the last few games. He could perhaps do with simplifying his game a bit, especially when things aren’t going our way. Instead of constantly playing on the half-turn and demanding sometimes impossible through-balls from the midfielders he could do with just sticking his arse into the centre-half, getting the ball into his feet and winning some free kicks. For someone so strong and powerful he makes the defenders’ job very easy at times.

Pienaar and Osman are constantly trying to spin and wrestle past defenders too, in order to try and make some space, and you can see it wearing them out as the game progresses. Someone more physically imposing like Barkley is probably better suited to that role, but one long range shot apart he made almost no impact either when he was introduced. Deulofeu was disappointing too, especially as he appeared to wilt under the glare of the Everton support after his second McFadden-esque attempt to dribble straight through a defender saw him dispossessed by nothing more than the laws of physics.

It’s that transition from the defence to the forwards that seems to be the key. Perhaps James McCarthy needs to carry the ball forward a bit more and commit the opposition before trying to play the forwards in, or maybe drop Osman a bit deeper so he’s picking the ball up in more space and facing the right way. Having McCarthy and Gareth Barry tripping over each other in front of the defence just seems like overkill though, especially against a team like Palace.

Ultimately though, the problem Martinez has is that when it’s not working for his team it’s going to look like it did on Saturday, a bit anaemic and downright infuriating because when you have so much possession you always appear to be the architect of your own downfall. Under the last fella a disappointing result like this one would have involved a lot more percentage football and long balls towards Marouane Fellaini – a degree of that perceived control would be sacrificed but it would arguably be more exciting as the ball would at least be in the opponent’s area forcing them and the referee to make some decisions.

Phil Jagielka did hit the bar with a header but Palace wasted some great chances – you could hardly begrudge them at least one point.

Still, a draw away from home, even if it was against relegation certainties, is at worst irritating. A performance like that has been on the cards, simply because of the way we play now. When it works it looks great, when it doesn’t it is grim and looks almost as if the players aren’t that arsed as they fiddle about with the ball and suck the enthusiasm and sense of momentum from the game.

What are you gonna do?