The last mile is always the hardest

You'll find me sitting there

You’ll find me sitting over there

Can a team throw away four points in ten minutes of football and still reach its season’s potential? What was a hypothetical question just over a week ago, is now on the point, as victories became draws with late, late equalisers from Leicester City and Arsenal. Just ten minutes more effective football in the opening two fixtures and Everton would sit at the top of the table – but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is whether anyone can possibly make the case that Everton had four points in hand to toss away in pursuit of fourth place – the objective come May. I fear that place has gone – yes, already.

Before the season started, I feared the challenge of closing out games, but I forecast that the last quarters of games would hurt us once the Europa League games and Thursday – Sunday football kicked in – I didn’t expect to be “I told you soing” before August is out. So what went wrong?

I believe the defence unit is too old. Everton’s key players when opponents attack are are Tim Howard (35), Phil Jagielka (32), Sylvain Distin (36) and Gareth Barry (33) (and the one younger player, James McCarthy). They all have a lot of miles on the clock, which might just be catching up with them having chased, harried and (most of all) concentrated for more than 85 minutes of a Premier League match. It’s not that they are not fit, nor that their experience isn’t valuable – it’s just hard to concentrate when fatigue, aches and pains are gnawing away at the mind.

So what is the answer? It’s never good to take a defender off with team coming at you with nothing to lose, but John Stones was left sitting on the bench as Arsenal poured forward and he is a player universally expected to play for England this season. It’s not a good idea to change defensive shape either, so what should be done? When Kevin Mirallas was substituted late on (as he so often is) I’d have ignored Christian Atsu’s claims and brought Stones on to play at right back and moved Coleman a little forward into midfield, but still with a defensive brief. That is surely a wiser use of resources than having McGeady and Atsu on the field with a Champions League club in full flow desperate for an equaliser?

Fans despise managers who sit back and concede late goals, but all the matches closed out successfully are forgotten, described as routine wins or as games that drifted away, opponents fashioning just the one half-chance. It’s never good to sit too deep as the clock runs down (though sitting deep is often the result of being forced deep) but being able to retain possession in midfield is crucial, more crucial than five seconds with the ball at the corner flag – lots of triangles are the order of the day.

Four goals scored in two matches speaks of the potency of attacking options carefully acquired and coached, but they count for little if there’s four going in at the other end, especially those morale-destroying late equalisers. Closing out games in most sports is seen as a specialist’s role – in football, that specialism may come through specific tactics. It’s an argument that will need little making at Finch Farm next week.

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