As has become commonplace this season – let’s call it the Swansea Effect – Everton gather praise from the pundits and the public as the pretty passes and pleasing possession fill 90 minutes of screen time painlessly. Painlessly if you are tuning in for a bootleg Barcelona that is. But if the grim accumulation of points, the kind that wins trophies (or, at least, in Moyesesque “style” trumps Liverpool’s apparently finally buried “flattery to deceive”) is what you want – it’s getting to be a bit of a horror show. The Gooodison faithful have patiently gained the same education as the players about the primacy of the ball and the admissibility of error in pursuit of ambition, but bizarrely, just two thirds of the way through his first season, Martinez may already be suffering second season syndrome, his team worked out, his tactics easily praised but easily neutralised.
The Chelsea winner was coming. And it was no surprise that it was two of Everton’s most impressive players this season – two who impressed throughout the previous 90 minutes – who were at fault. A tiring Phil Jagielka hung a leg out for Ramires to topple over and a distracted Tim Howard could not clean out his six yard box as John Terry attacked the free kick fearlessly. Long before that, the fatigue attendant on the pressing game was exacting a price on Gareth Barry, Steven Naismith and James McCarthy.
That may be expected towards the end of an away fixture at the League leaders, but the impact of the three substitutes – who should be taking the pressure off the eight men there from the start – was more of a surprise. Ross Barkley seems bereft of confidence, almost a parody of the player who thrilled everyone in the first three months of the season. He has all his old errors but none of his successes. He needs game time and a little something – maybe just one sidestep and shot on target – to lift his game and, it must be said, his spirits. Aiden McGeady flits in and out of matches and looks ill-suited to hitting the game hard in the last ten minutes as an impact substitute. Gerard Deulofeu, like Barkley, needs game time and a chance to ease into a game, rather than be asked to rescue or win one.
As Roberto Martinez’s tricks of the trade are worked out by opponents and as the treats start to be handed out not just to neutrals enjoying the passing game, but to opponents who know that Everton goals are scarce and errors less so, the season looks like it may turn on a trip to Arsenal for the FA Cup. Since Ross Barkley’s wonder goal at Swansea, Everton have scored 8 goals and taken 10 points from 9 league games. After so much hope in the Autumn, the fans need a treat or two in the Spring to rescue a season in danger of fizzling out.