A much changed Everton side recorded their third consecutive Premier League draw at home to Southampton.
Ramiro Funes Mori put the hosts ahead at Goodison Park with a second half strike from a corner. The Toffees took the lead against the run of play, surviving Southampton onslaughts till Sadio Mane levelled from close range after 76 minutes.
Roberto Martinez rang the changes before the game, with the likes of Leon Osman, Darron Gibson Kevin Mirallas and Arouna Kone getting a rare opportunity in the starting XI.
Youngsters Callum Connolly and Tom Davies were given first team debuts in the second half, a partial solution to stemming Everton’s increasing injury crisis with Seamus Coleman forced off through injury.
Defence making progress
Everton have conceded 44 goals this season, the 8th worst defensive record in the Premier League. The 29 conceded at L4 sees the Blues rank 18th for goals against at home and without a win in six attempts at Goodison.
But the case put forward for the defence has been more convincing as the weeks have gone on. Let’s not pretend there haven’t been moments to put the hearts in the mouths of every Evertonian each week. That element of risk will always be a feature of Everton’s play as long as Martinez is in the hot seat.
But the general structure of the back four is looking better than earlier in the season. John Stones is showing once again why he was the most coveted defender in English football last summer, with more mature displays and a more focussed attitude (note the bollocking he sought to thrust on his team mates after Mane equalised; whether he was in the right or not, the passion shown not to mildly accept incompetence was pleasing).
Meanwhile Funes Mori has put his personal disappointment of being dropped in Stones’ favour, to take advantage of Phil Jagielka’s hamstring injury. Together with an increasingly confident Joel Robles, the centre of defence is showing signs of improvement ahead of two of the biggest games in Everton’s calendar.
The full-back dilemma
Playing their part in one of English football’s worst defences, Everton’s full-backs have not been quite as effective as they were in Martinez’s first season. While Leighton Baines is doubtful for Wednesday’s Merseyside derby and Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final, Coleman is the latest casualty having pulled up with a hamstring problem against Southampton.
It might be a blessing that Jagielka’s lack of fitness won’t force Martinez to employ Stones as a right back (a position he’s struggled to fit into on the occasions he’s deputised). But it does beg the question: who will occupy the full-back slots in a crucial week for the club?
Connolly impressed as a débutante on Saturday, but an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley against Manchester United is a potentially daunting prospect for your second or third senior appearance. The other option is for Bryan Oviedo to switch sides but for some reason the out-and-out left back has struggled to impress on the opposite flank; and the Costa-Rican looked a haunted man coming off after a terrorising afternoon at the hands of Dusan Tadic.
With no news of an injury to Brendan Galloway, could the youngster be brought back from his first team exodus after a promising first half of the season?
Youngsters could help Martinez win favour
Galloway is one player who has flourished under Martinez and academy graduates Connolly and Davies could follow in the defender’s foot steps.
While 25 and 10 minutes, respectively, are hardly an indicator of things to come, the first signs from the duo have been encouraging, and neither let themselves down in their approach and application to life as senior pros at Everton.
Goodison is hardly the most intimidating place for visiting players lately but amazingly for those in Blue it can be a hostile and unfriendly arena. However the L4 faithful love to see one of their own given a chance to become a Gwladys Street darling, and the support for the two -and subsequently the team- was notable.
While both substitutions may have been forced, Martinez could do worse than to keep the pair, or at least one as a feature of his squad for the remainder of the season. Young scousers will always get the right backing, and in a season where support has quickly turned to abuse, the entire team are in need of encouragement.
Players aren’t enjoying themselves
When things aren’t quite going to plan at Goodison, tension on the terraces is quick to translate to anxiety on the pitch. Since the defeat to Arsenal at the start of March, it’s been obvious that the players are simply not enjoying playing football.
That’s not just at home, draws to Watford and Crystal Palace saw a team looking disinterested in playing the kind of attacking football that has made the Toffees the fifth highest scorers in the league.
For Martinez to turn Everton’s fortunes round, the smiles need to return to the players. The worry for Martinez is that he is the source of the frowns that have turned the Blues into a joyless side.
Why not 4-4-2?
Southampton enjoyed the majority of possession on Saturday, enough to muster 18 shots to Everton’s seven. And the positioning of the visiting players saw them pen the Blues into their own half, if not their own penalty area for much of the game.
In a game where Martinez’s side were playing much like the away team, would 4-4-2 have been a more effective formation? Two holding midfielders would give the protection as usual, but by pushing Kevin Mirallas up as the furthest man forward to play on the shoulders of Jose Fonte and Virgil van Dyke, would Everton not have had a quick outlet to relieve pressure?
With Gibson’s range of passing and ability to get his head up quickly, the pace of Mirallas would have caused real worry to the visitors’ high line. Could we do worse than try a striker partnership of Romelu Lukaku and Mirallas on Wednesday with a more direct approach?