An early goal can put me on edge – and maybe it has the same effect on the players. There’s so much time for opponents to re-assess, draw breath and then come again with a freedom that might be lacking when there’s the point with which every team starts every match still in the bank.
I felt this unease just before Burnley scored, so the goal came as no surprise. Thinking harder about the source of my that unease (why worry one-nil up to Burnley?), I thought of Jose Mourinho’s reported unease about the merits of possession football. Attributed to him is a view that crystallises my anxiety with an early lead. If goals come from mistakes, then mistakes come when in possession. So the best way to avoid mistakes is to let the opposition have the ball in their own half where they can make the mistakes. Turnover ball, as in rugby and American Football, is a mighty weapon against drilled defences.
After Samuel Eto’o’s brilliantly conceived and executed opener, Everton fell into ten minutes of the nice possession football that we all know Roberto Martinez admires. Triangles formed, one-touch (maximum two-touch) passes beat out a rhythm and neutrals will have enjoyed a style seldom seen in England until ten or so years ago. But, but, but…
Everton’s terrible defensive record this season has many causes with individual errors high on the list. Sure enough, one popped up when Romelu Lukaku misplaced a pass (back into the defensive third) and three Burnley touches later, the scores were level. That sparked some unfair Twitter jibes at the big Belgian, but, well, you know… Twitter…
At his best, Lukaku suits the Martinez way. He’s available for short and long passes from midfield, can get on the end of a move and score (as he did, a little fortunately, to restore the lead he had to some extent squandered) and he is willing to learn. On the downside, he can look very raw, even now, the first touch more flaxen than silken, the ball seldom instantly tamed.
If that’s a technical shortcoming, his error at Turf Moor was, perhaps, rooted in the other challenge possession football sets – maintaining concentration. Creating those triangles in one and two touch combination play demands players run into the right areas and then know what their options are as the ball comes towards them. Smaller players, on the half-turn with a glance or two sideways as the ball arrives, don’t find this so difficult – Leighton Baines gave a fine demonstration of what I mean for 90 minutes and Steven Naismith’s blossoming “in the hole” is partly accounted for by his ability to pick the right options under pressure. Big Rom didn’t do that, passing the ball infield when he had 30 yards space into which to pass the ball towards the left touchline. His concentration had lapsed and he chose a risky rather than risk-free pass.
He is still 21 and he has played a lot of football, particularly since returning from his January injury -so it’s no surprise to see evidence that he’s not absolutely “on it” twice a week, 40 or so weeks a year. Of course, it would help if he had a naturally easy first touch to fall back on, but he hasn’t, something that Jose Mourinho will have noticed in agreeing to the summer sale.
All this is not intended to lay blame at Lukaku’s door (though plenty will, and their fingers will twitch over their Twitter accounts the next time Lukaku makes a mistake). It is a plea that we accept that with possession comes risk and that players are fallible, especially young players on whom big demands are made. Everton enjoyed almost twice as much of the ball as Burnley: twice as many chances to launch attacks and make those three lovely goals; and twice as many chances to cock it up and hand opponents the chances they crave.