As a half empty Goodison Park waited to burst into a chorus of boos as Everton nudged towards an FA Cup exit at the hands of West Ham last night, Romelu Lukaku pounced in the final minute of the game to hand the Toffees a replay and provide Evertonians with a much-needed boost.
That boost would have ideally been a victory against Sam Allardyce’s men, but as the evening panned out a last-gasp leveller from the Belgian striker was the least he deserved as he earned the home side a draw, keeping Roberto Martinez’ men in the competition for at least another week. The fact that a late equaliser from Lukaku against a West Ham side at Goodison Park is seen as something to celebrate these days just goes to show how bad it’s been at times this season.
Last night was hardly a vintage performance from the Blues, but compared to some of the stuff we have seen in recent weeks and months it was a slight improvement. It was a ‘bit better’ you could say, but there is no denying there was a continuation of many of the problems we have witnessed throughout the current campaign. However, Everton thankfully ended a run of four straight defeats and keep themselves in the hat for the Fourth Round of the FA Cup for the time being.
Below I have picked out my five things to discuss from the draw last night.
Let me start with a positive – I’m grateful that I can actually pick a couple because in recent weeks it’s been a struggle to even write about the Club, never mind look for plusses from our woeful performances. Lukaku looked back to the Lukaku of last season against West Ham, a side who he loves to play against with four goals in his last four games against the Hammers. The Belgian was hungry from the off, he looked the most likely to score and he made it difficult for the visitors all night long. I thought his link up play with Naismith was a notable positive throughout last night, and Lukaku did what we expect him to do on numerous occasions. His first touch was better, as was his hold up play which improved, but it was his driving at West Ham, turning, creating space and firing efforts on goal that drew praise from the home crowd. He also cut in from the left and right of the area, using his strength, forging opportunities for his side and coming close on a number of occasions. He drew saves from United’s ‘keeper Adrian in the first half and the second and it was he who deserved to get Everton’s leveller late on – cooly hammering home after excellent control inside the box from an Oviedo centre.
Now Rom hasn’t really helped himself this season, often looking a bit lethargic in his approach and therefore being criticised by certain sections of our support – but for me he thrives on service and link up play and last night we saw how dangerous he can actually be going forward with the right players around him. Strikers thrive on confidence, and he, like many of his team mates haven’t had any this season, so hopefully that last-minute strike will give him that edge to kick on and hit a run of form in front of goal. His celebration after his equaliser showed real passion and relief and this is something we also need to see as fans – there’s certainly not been enough emotion and heart on like that on display during this campaign. So it was a big well done to Rom for his performance and attitude last night, but that is just one game, it is vital he takes it into the next against Manchester City on Saturday.
The Two Ronnie’s
With the Everton positives come the inevitable Everton negatives and as I said, against West Ham there was still a continuation of worries that have hampered us so far this season. Our defence isn’t the only area of the side to come in for criticism in recent weeks and the manager chopping and changing personnel and formation hasn’t really helped matters, but last night the performances of Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin did nothing more than further confirm suspicions that a change at the back is very much needed, and soon.
Those two were simply not good enough. I’ve titled this ‘The Two Ronnies’ because they were like a comedy double act against West Ham. I was watching through my hands whenever each of them went near the ball it was that bad. With age should come level headedness, a calming assurance and a composure that is passed on to your younger peers, however in this scenario, it has gone completely the other way. Jagielka looks shattered after ten minutes, and his head seems to always be down. There is no composure, a nervousness and panic every time they are in or near possession. When the cameras pan on him and Distin this season the two of them seem to always be catching their breath, looking like they are trying to reassure each other every time a side comes at them. Yes they are older, so fitness does become an issue, and to be fair to Distin he is the oldest outfield player in the EPL this campaign at 37, but we can’t put up with this anymore. No time for sentiment, yes they’ve served Everton well and yes Phil Jagielka is the Captain, but for me it is time to hand over the baton to someone else. They both need to step aside but until Martinez delves into the defensive transfer market they will continue to play in our side, well, at least one of them will anyway, and how long will we have to put up with more of this? With John Stones returning and Distin coming off with what looked like yet another hamstring problem last night, the signs point to Jagielka or Alcaraz starting alongside former Barnsley man Stones when City visit on Saturday. Distin won’t be missed, as harsh as it might sound, and for me if we are to see an improvement at the back we need to be looking for a long-term central defensive partner for Stones, who at times looks like the only one who knows what he is doing in that back line.
Mo ‘he likes a tackle’ Besic and the midfield conundrum
A month ago you might have described Everton midfielder Mo Besic as someone who ‘likes a tackle’ or label him as being ‘a bit rusty, but you can see he’s got quality’ – well now, that ‘being new to the Premier League rust’ has had a squirt of WD40, and the Bosnian midfielder certainly does not look out of place in this Everton side. Besic missed a couple of festive fixtures and this was disappointing; originally I thought Martinez was just chopping and changing but apparently the midfielder was ill for a spell, resulting in him being absent from the starting XI just when we thought he was going to get a consistent run. But with James McCarthy still struggling for fitness and Gareth Barry struggling for form, I am hoping the former Ferencvaros man can seize his opportunity and cement his role in the middle for the second half of the campaign.
Besic offers bite, desire, a willingness to take the ball but to win it back too, he isn’t just a midfield general who is heavy in the tackle. I believe there is a lot more to come from him and judging from his display last night and before he was ruled out over Christmas, I feel us Evertonians could soon see a young, hungry-to-impress player come into his own at Goodison Park and really establish himself as a no-nonsense, quick-thinking, influencial midfielder at the Club. He has an element of McCarthy who also doesn’t hesitate in the challenge, but I think Besic has a bit more technical ability than his Irish midfield compatriot and with fellow middle-man Gareth Barry’s floundering form – now is the perfect time to fight for a permanent spot in Martinez’ side.
Besic and Lukaku were the two players who stood out for me most last night, but Ross Barkley also had a good game too. A decision needs to be made as to where all of our midfielders are going to be starting games, because we often look wooden, vary narrow and out of sorts. Barkley cannot be pushed out wide, it just doesn’t work, and last night when he was deployed in more of a central role he showed how useful he can be – more of a focal point to building our attacks. As for Barry, he’s been in defence and just in front as he was against West Ham, but he’s lost what seems like three yards of pace, goes flying into tackles ten minutes too late, and looks very leggy against Premier League opposition who will continue to exploit his recent weaknesses. Something needs to give. Barry either steps aside or continues to struggle through games, that is a major decision for Martinez and with McCarthy in and out of the side this hardly helps Barry’s cause too, because as we saw last season those two just clicked when they played alongside each other.
Out of Shape
I looked at the shape of our team last night and our options on the bench and it reconfirmed my view that it is essential we try and strengthen this month. I don’t mean a deadline day deal, I mean we need a fresh body or two in soon, even if it does mean exploring the loan market again – why not? Apart from McGeady we have no natural wingers or width, the wing back idea has failed to really impress, and looking at the substitutes we had last night and the players who are currently out injured, we look very one dimensional. Somehow we’ve ended up with numerous central players – Barkley, Naismith, Osman, Pienaar, you could even throw in Mirallas too. I know Pienaar and Mirallas are usually deployed on either flank but let’s be honest, are they in their natural positions out there? Just who knows where they are most effective? Martinez has experiemented with Eto’o in a number 10 role and it back fired, Barkley has suffered because of this problem by being played out wide at times, and even Steven Naismith has found himself out on the wings too during periods this season.
Positionally we have been all over the show and yes we’ve been dealt numerous injury blows which obviously disrupts consistency and progress but even when fully fit you could still argue that many of our players find themselves in areas where they are not at their best. The Atsu deal fell flat on its face, and it is time for Evertonians to move on from their love affair with Gerard Deulofeu – for me Martinez has to look for an out and out left winger. Someone with a left foot, someone exciting, someone young and someone who can get a ball over in to the box (we did it last night, look what happened), and someone who doesn’t always look to cut in or play a sideways ball, taking the easy option. I’m not asking for much, am I?! Who that player would be is anyone’s guess, but surely that is an area where Martinez must see we are lacking. Through the spine of the team I’ve touched on my concerns about the ageing Jags and Distin, and further forward Gareth Barry too. If you pair these issues with two dodgy ‘keepers, different players being tried and tested in different final third positions and a distinct lack of confidence in the side, then no wonder we’ve suffered this season. The January transfer window might be a difficult time to bring players in, but if we can manage to get a few fresh faces through the door then in goal, central defence and on the wing are to me the positions where new blood is vital.
As critical as I and many others sound in this piece and on the terraces, there is a part of me that still harbours hope we can turn things round this season. Going into the West Ham game all of the talk was about potentially ‘getting ourselves back on track’ or giving ourselves a boost going into the City game and although we never managed to win last night the fact we scored in such dramatic fashion and saw a reaction from our players has to give us that little bit of optimism back. I said before the game on Twitter, it might just take a nasty tackle (like Neville’s on Ronaldo, all those years ago) and although we didn’t see any heavy challenges against West Ham we have to take the Lukaku goal and all-round performance as a positive. I am not naïve enough to think everything is rosey again because we scored a last-minute equaliser against the Hammers, but I firmly believe we just needed a bit of a boost that can hopefully see an upturn in fortunes for this Football Club.
We ended the run of four defeats last night which is also massive too. Just think how much worse we would all be feeling today if we would have gone out the Cup last night? I know, it would be horrible. The thought of City on Saturday is daunting as it is, never mind on the back of five defeats, so to stop that awful run of losses was crucial and we’ve managed to do it, albeit with a draw against West Ham. I know, I’m not getting too carried away or too ahead of myself, I just needed a glimmer of hope, something to work with.
I’ve been asking for a reaction from the Toffees in recent weeks, seeing if they will fight for the shirt and turn things around and my requests have fallen on deaf ears. Nothing has changed. But I’ll persist, I’ll continue to keep asking those questions and I will do until the real Everton stand up again. Martinez’ side have to now try and build on that equaliser, make it the turning point of the season and find their spirit again. Man City at Goodison in front of a packed house would be the perfect time to do it, let’s watch this space…