It never rains but it pours. A new year but the same old problems for Roberto Martinez. Defeat in Humbershire against a well-organised Hull consigned his Everton side to their fourth consecutive Premier League defeat – their fifth on the bounce on the road – leaving the Toffees four points off the relegation zone.
Steve Bruce had been under similar pressure entering the game – the home defeat to rock-bottom Leicester far from ideal in light of the growing rumours linking him to the imminently vacant job at Newcastle United, his boyhood club.
Yet the former Sunderland manager quashed speculation yesterday, and his Tigers came out fighting – having won only three home league games in 2014 – to avoid an increasing air of crisis at the KC Stadium; a state of affairs that now very much engulfs the blue half of Merseyside.
For Everton, it is fairly obvious where the problem lies. The Blues have now gone 10 games without a clean sheet in the league, and have now conceded only six less than in the entire of last season.
Tim Howard, Sylvain Distin, Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka have been mainstays in the defence Martinez inherited from predecessor David Moyes, but for the quartet to turn from experienced to aged so drastically has now come home to roost.
Evergreen Everton this is not. With another over-30 Antolin Alcaraz now suspended, the return of John Stones cannot come soon enough. Looking to the injury-prone 20-year-old as the saviour tells its own story.
Following the first of the festive substandard showings at Southampton, Martinez vowed to stick to his principles of playing expansive football, only to admit after defeat at Newcastle that he needed his side to ‘go back to basics’.
Yet the Spaniard then chose to play a three-man defence in the dismal opening 45 minutes at the KC Stadium, as Hull opened up an unassailable two-goal lead. Indeed, the first-half saw the side regress further from the Everton of last season, and closer to the soft-centered Wigan Athletic which continue to drop like a stone in English football.
To some that isn’t surprising, given that injuries have left the core of the side comprising of the Latics players Martinez took with him up the M58 18 months ago, all four of whom started in the equally disappointing 3-2 reverse at St James’ Park last Sunday.
The festive period sees games come thick and fast, and the negative momentum that can accumulate from one defeat to the next can turn the task of management into a living nightmare for even the most positive of motivators.
Both Leicester and Sunderland showed their battling spirit in coming from two goals behind to level in their respective 2015 bows, but the jury is out on whether the current group of players at Goodison have the same appetite for an increasingly plausible relegation scrap.
There is little indication that Martinez will have cash to spend in the January transfer window, having parted with £28m to secure the services of Romelu Lukaku, and Ross Barkley, Seamus Coleman and Gareth Barry penning lavish contracts last summer.
With each passing setback, the column inches devoted to the usual suspects being linked with a move away from Finch Farm shall grow. Kevin Mirallas has already admitted his dream of playing in the Champions League, and both Coleman and the absent James McCarthy may well start to question their long-term futures at a club which is currently not befitting of their ambition and undoubted potential.
On the terraces and among the Twitterati, there is growing despair. For a loyal, studious fan base, the current predicament is beyond the pale. The notorious challenge of combining a successful Europa League campaign with a quest for Champions League qualification simply doesn’t wash over the Christmas period.
All sides are in the same boat with the relentless waves of matches, but as the current plight of the club testifies, the strength in depth to cater for the latest bout of soft-tissue injuries runs thin.
It is nine years since Everton supporters have experienced such an unhealthy run of form, as an ailing squad continues to struggle through a winter of discontent. When players from other leagues on the continent enjoy time away with their families, this appears precisely what Martinez requires from his staff – sick of the sight of them, sick of feeling blue.
In the season of board games, he has never looked like winning this round of Cluedo; never looked like finding whodunnit, with what, and where.
However much Martinez has shuffled his starting line-up, he is yet to find the winning combination of players in the attacking third, seemingly oblivious to the continual decline of Barry, stumped by where best to deploy Barkley, out of his depth with managing a fallen star such as Samuel Eto’o.
When Barkley was played alongside Muhammad Besic in midfield against QPR at the start of last month, there appeared the start of a glistening relationship – which has yet to be replicated – and the unexplained omission of Luke Garbutt after a promising performance against Newcastle will be another bone of contention for 3,000 Evertonians on their return across the Pennines this evening.
The Toffees need to regroup at a time when there is little time to regroup; a stroke of fortune when it would seem that Lady Luck has deserted them. Attention now turns to appeasing home supporters with another good FA Cup run, with West Ham travelling to Merseyside on Tuesday night for the Third Round fixture.
But a combination of the growing fear that the R word has now crept into the manager’s thoughts, and the sheer lack of options away from the treatment table at his disposal, may see Martinez prioritize the league.
The feel-good atmosphere around Goodison during the summer months, when a tilt at the top four was expected is now replaced with a desperate need to consolidate top-flight status.
Nil Satis Nisi Optimum, the club’s Latin motto, is certainly ringing hollow currently, and to be satisfied now with a good run in Thursday night football is undoubtedly not enough for proud Everton supporters, nor the best that this historic club can muster.