Nature is pleased by balance. Sometimes we don’t even know it’s there – think of a snowflake revealed under a microscope – and sometimes it’s bleedin’ obvious – think Ross Barkley or John Stones striding through a midfield, able to go off either foot. But balance in football is about more than the physical qualities of the players – it’s also about the make-up of the side.
Even with the Manchester City game looming – for which Gareth Barry is ineligible – it was a surprise to see Roberto Martinez leave James McCarthy on the bench to try Ross Barkley as the veteran’s partner in the DM screening role. It was even more surprising to see Gerard Deulofeu, Kevin Mirallas and Aiden McGeady together in the starting XI. Everton looked unbalanced between natural attackers and natural defenders on paper and, come the match itself, on the lush Goodison turf too.
Barry looked a little fatigued – mentally as much as physically – and he missed his hard-running Irish scrapper alongside him. Barkley had time on the ball, but his deeper starting position made his hip-swivelling dribbles less dangerous and exposed the weakest element of his game – picking a pass. When McCarthy did get a go as a substitute on the hour, he looked hungry for action and immediately bolstered Everton’s short-handed defensive effort.
But the real problems were up front. You can understand the reasoning – Everton were always going to have plenty of possession against a Tony Pulis team, so why not max out the number of players most likely to break down the wall of yellow shirts? Somehow – as Carlos Tevez, currently out of favour for Argentina (who have options up the field), is finding out – it doesn’t quite work that way. Chase the game, send the big fella up front for the last five minutes, go 4-2-4 – however it comes about, it seldom pays off to have men trying to jink past defenders right, left and centre. For all the flair players scattered across the pitch, Everton had just one more shot on target than their opponents, despite cornering 70% of the possession.
Yes, yes, but had you offered Roberto Martinez two goals at the start of the match, he would have taken them, backing his hitherto outstanding back four and keeper to keep Palace to two goals or fewer and thus seize back fourth place. To their manager’s credit, when they did get the ball, Palace were direct in attack and finished with no little skill “doing a job” on Everton in – dare I say – Moyesian style. Everton – for once abandoning the balance that has served them so well for the season’s 33 previous games – have their work cut out now the sequence of seven straight wins has been halted and momentum dissipated. Fourth is still on, but Martinez needs snookers from here.