Of course it was a curious match – no Everton team in history has had the drive and success of Howard Kendall’s mid-80s nonpareils, but, with the Title secured, the last two games of 1984-85 were lost (though the corresponding games in the same situation were won in 1986-87). For all Martin Tyler’s and Gary Neville’s constant references to the crowd’s ambivalence, if anything, City’s performance was the more baffling – such lauded players seemingly so unsure of whether to attack or defend, perhaps showing Pellegrini’s lack of experience come squeeky bum time, Everton, in everything except the result, offered a miniature of our season as a whole.
How so? Naturally, there was plenty of what will be the dominant narrative when Roberto Martinez’s first term in charge is written up – attacking, skilful, aesthetically pleasing football. There were threats all over the pitch, with pace out wide and through the middle; possession was retained well and used well – mainly; and goals came through patience and planning, rather than through shoving it in the mixer and seeing what turned up. Ross Barkley found the space he needed to play (sometimes it seems he needs that space for his morale as much as anything else) and scored another eye-catching goal and the Martinez inflected tiki-taka saw lots of movement to create triangles, with Lukaku and Naismith sometimes pulling wide and Coleman and Baines often ducking inside.
But the limitations of the side showed too. Jags was selected but not fit (again) and Alcaraz and Osman (when starting) looked off the pace; corners were simply looped in and cleared easily with free kicks not offering much more; the youngsters (Stones and Lukaku this time) looked tired, mentally as well as physically, the intense, intellectually demanding training telling now it’s May. And – this the crucial conundrum to solve to take the team to the next level – Everton’s final ball was often inaccurate; hurried or closed out: but our opponents seemed to have options when they looked for the killer pass. That back door (against top attackers) needs to be shut a little more tightly and the front door needs to be wedged a little more ajar.
Of course, Everton aren’t alone in needing to solve football’s hardest puzzles, but it rankles to see how good we can be between the boxes and how things can go a little flat in those last twenty yards of grass at either end. Harsh? Possibly, but City’s crucial third goal looked so easy – especially compared to Deulofeu’s one shot on goal, that needed him to channel the spirit of Messi before being denied by Hart’s fine save.
It’s impossible to know what will happen in the summer, particularly with the loans of Lukaku and Deulofeu, but Naismith and Barkley look very good as a pair floating between the lines and Mirallas’ late season surge has shown that he can be as direct as ever. What’s needed is a replacement for Lukaku who has the skills and intelligence of a Naismith with his back to goal and the thrust of an Aguero when facing up defenders. Yeah – and who doesn’t? But Lukaku might yet stay and might yet develop into his full potential – but if he doesn’t, I’d like Wilfried Bony, who might be prised away from Swansea if the price is right and if they feel Michu can repeat his last season next time round.
But let’s be very clear about it – an improvement on Martinez’ first season come 2014-15 will require a fourth place finish in the Premier League (very, very, very tough); a Europa League win (very, very tough); or a Cup win propelled by what will surely be weakened teams in the first few rounds. Let’s enjoy the football and let’s keep hoping, but let’s not fool ourselves that this season is a springboard to greater things.