Everton have lost their ‘top six’ status… whatever this is isn’t good enough

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There will be few Everton supporters who could argue they didn’t see a result like this coming. Swansea brought the perfect game plan, they will say, but the battle to stifle the Goodison Park crowd is becoming less of an issue with each passing wayward performance, and if there’s one place you’ll be given chances to score it’s at Everton.

Twelve months ago, the Toffees were 12th after 22 games. While six points better off, the side occupies the same position in the league at the same stage this term. But the concerns have been widely discussed for well over a year now.

The fears of losing the likes of John Stones and Romelu Lukaku, while wildly and rather crassly speculated by newspapers each passing Sunday, would seem an inevitability. The need to sugarcoat these stories will become redundant.

The saddest thing, as Anthony Taylor generously gave Everton the chance to redeem themselves with an additional ‘last play’ in the 2-1 defeat by Swansea, was that many of those in attendance had accepted their fate.

It is something of a Toffees trait to score late on, especially over the years at Goodison while more recently on the road, but the sense of despondency that will have eaten away at home fans in the second-half was due to an overwhelming feeling that this was quite simply a ‘must win’.

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There will be those who will not care for the Premier League this season – who’ll be wetting their whistle for the club’s biggest game in four years against Manchester City on Wednesday night – but that’s not good enough for a side who have chronically under-achieved; it’s never been good enough to snub the bread and butter of league points.

After a brief response from the hosts that lasted all of five minutes at the start of the second period, Swansea rediscovered their poise, with two white sheets of four brilliantly marshalled by captain Ashley Williams.

The grit and desire shown by the players out to impress new head coach Francesco Guidolin was every bit as stark as the growing apathy among Evertonians towards joining the rump of teams fighting for Europe through the league.

There were boos at half-time. There was a brief cry of urgency midway through the second-half. And at full-time, there were groans. The point was made several times over in the matchday programme notes how the side ought to have won last week at Stamford Bridge, and how much rosier the situation should be.

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But it’s time a bigger point was made of those Everton supporters who attend home games. Too many add nothing positive. They are a burden on the team rather than the twelfth man. They have no right to expect victory over a Swansea side battling for their lives. In contrast, the decibel levels at the Emirates, of all places, on Sunday was alarming.

Neutrals welcome Everton in this disorderly season. They provide wonderful lessons to aspiring young footballers on how not to see out games, but equally they have always fought until the end.

Fans of the club, however, would say watching their side comes with a major health warning, and in this most open of Premier League seasons, with any one of the current top 10 capable of putting a run together that could lead to Champions League qualification, languishing in the bottom half is an abomination.

It is not that Everton have collectively under-performed. There have been stellar seasons for the returning Gerard Deulofeu, for the maturing Ross Barkley and for 19-goal top scorer Romelu Lukaku. His performance against Swansea was his worst of the season, though he wasn’t alone.

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Given the Belgian’s uncharacteristic lack of fluidity and appetite to give Williams a more troublesome afternoon, you wonder whether he has fully recovered from that ankle injury in the first leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final with City.

Roberto Martinez may feel inclined to see the result as one to draw a line under and swiftly move on. He may point to the handball from Williams in the build-up to Andre Ayew’s winning goal which ought to have been spotted. Then there were the two injuries to Muhamed Besic and Kevin Mirallas in the first-half.

But muscular injuries – which had resulted in the manager not taking any risks with Phil Jagielka on Sunday – have regularly interrupted Everton this term.

Few excuses could be made last season from the point of selection, but the number of innocuous injuries is mounting at Finch Farm. Baines and Coleman – the side’s first choice full-backs have only just become available, while James McCarthy has played 26 minutes in the last two months.

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At 33, Jagielka is showing signs of his age, but while the level of caution is something you would expect from Martinez given his bachelor’s degree in physiotherapy, questions must be asked about how the squad is being trained.

With Besic and Mirallas hobbling off and subsequently ruled out for the game on Wednesday, Martinez had limited options to change the dimension of the match after Swansea had stemmed the flow of attacks on the Gwladys Street goal.

Given one of the few similarities he shares with his predecessor is his inability to change things from the sidelines, he will have pondered his final substitution for an additional 10 minutes with little or no extra insight gained.

Whereas before he could look to Steven Naismith, one of the finest examples of how to observe games intelligently from the bench, there was only the out-of-form Arouna Kone as a forward option.

The sale of Naismith, much like Nikica Jelavic despite the pair’s need for more first-team opportunities, has come at the detriment of the club. No replacement has been lined up. Evertonians just know that a deadline day South American unknown is readying his suitcase.

But back to Sunday, and as he stood there arms crossed, two thoughts will have filled his mind: the Spaniard could have brought on Kone for the tiring and out-of-sorts Ross Barkley, and moved the Ivorian closer to Lukaku, allowing Steven Pienaar to operate as is his preference with Leighton Baines.

Or the option he chose, which he no doubt will have had designs of enforcing before kick-off given Bryan Oviedo’s fitness levels and the need for Seamus Coleman to head into the City clash with minutes under his belt following his own injury troubles.

It very almost rescued a point, with Coleman guilty of missing two glaring opportunities – the first horribly dragged after a beautifully disguised pass from Stones, and then the same combination saw the defender flick on Baines’ corner leaving the unmarked Coleman with a simple tap-in. But he skied his shot, and the game was up.

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Martinez was impressive in his first year. A record 21 wins from a 38-game season, a fifth-place finish, a strong identity based on possession football with a recruitment strategy focused on developing the stars of tomorrow to boot.

The club was sold the promise of being taken ‘back to where it belongs’ – with Champions League football – in his very first press conference in June 2013, but with him hell-bent on sticking to his principles, there is a feeling now that Everton’s status as a top six or seven side is ebbing away.

There have been other cases in recent times. Just ask fans of Leeds United and Nottingham Forest, who have suffered relegation, the likes of Sunderland, Newcastle and Aston Villa whose situations are perilous.

However bad Manchester United have become since the end of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign, they will never lose their status as one of the big clubs. Of course, they will look on enviously at the goings-on at their neighbours and try to emulate their youth development project. But Everton’s status in the top echelons of the top flight, is in real danger.

If the club were to sign a new goalkeeper, to put Tim Howard out of his misery, of what calibre would he exactly be? What’s the expectation of fans? Jack Butland? Do me a favour. Even Liverpool just offered Simon Mignolet a new five-year deal.

With the scores level on Sunday, Howard’s catch from a routine cross was greeted with sarcastic cheers. It was not the first time the American has been subjected to such lowbrow irony from his own supporters.

Any crumb of momentum that had been built after Gareth Barry’s deflected equaliser was lost with those jeers. It transcended onto the pitch and into the minds of the players.

But solving the goalkeeping issue at Goodison is just one of the problems. Goodison simply just isn’t up to scratch, as a home ground in a league where creating a bear-pit for clubs less economically privileged is essential. It’s lost any sense of fear-factor carried over from the David Moyes years.

Fortress Goodison was a thing under Moyes. Under the lights, there were big victories over United in 2005, in the FA Cup against Liverpool in 2009 and several times against City and Chelsea. But since the start of last season, Everton have won 10 out of 31 games at the famous old ground.

You sense visiting the place that the residents are just waiting for something to happen, not only on the pitch, but also in the boardroom.

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Then there’s John Stones. The type of error that nearly came from over-playing against Tottenham in his own six-yard box manifested itself leading up to Swansea’s first goal. A sloppy, under-cooked back-pass had Howard flinging a foot at Ayew.

There was only one outcome, Gylfi Sigurdsson dispatching a fourth penalty for a visiting side to Goodison in the last four League games – with all of them having a direct impact on the result. While Howard perhaps ought to have used his footballing intelligence to withdraw his leg, this was Stones’ doing.

It is not the first time he has been punished for a lackadaisical piece of defending in his own area. While he was slightly unfortunate with the crucial penalty awarded against him in the 4-3 defeat to Stoke last month, it was a risky challenge, and his form has undoubtedly dipped with speculation over his future.

Stones handed in a transfer request last summer, but the club stood firm resolutely believing him to be the jewel in the crown, and the player around which the side could be built. But now he appears to have had his head turned.

His body language, and call to home fans to ‘calm down’, are suggestive of a man who is counting down the days to his departure. Stones is now a luxury item that is in danger of becoming academic to the club’s future, and rather a pathway to the kind of investment Martinez has done little to warrant, given that this is no longer a squad he can say he’s inherited.

The issue of quite what Everton would do with £60million for either Stones or Lukaku, or for both, would fill Blues supporters with a sense of foreboding rather than excitement. It is not a subject for today, but given the predictability of this defeat at home to Swansea, it is a prospect that is looming larger than ever.

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The night Muhamed Besic provided his Marouane Fellaini moment for Everton

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There is renewed optimism around the famous old ground. The sense of panic was snowballing in the terraces following back-to-back home defeats either side of Christmas, but after an encouraging draw against an in-form Tottenham, here was the huge win the fans have so desperately craved.

Goodison under the lights is known for its aura, but the locals have become restless in recent times. For all Romelu Lukaku’s brilliance in leading the line this term, so few of his team-mates have followed his example and so few of his goals have led to tangible success.

Lukaku was again relied upon to hand Everton the advantage in the Capital One Cup semi-final with Manchester City, getting on the end of Gareth Barry’s cross to nod past Willy Caballero despite having already picked up an ankle knock.

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But it was a night when the good side of Goodison shone, as Barry had hoped for with his pre-match call to arms.

The decision to stick with Joel Robles in goal for the first leg may have had something to do with this, but the selection of Muhamed Besic provided the side with an inner steel that has been lacking.

There has been frustrations over the fitness of James McCarthy, who was rushed back too soon from a hip injury, and Tom Cleverley – whose calf problems reared themselves again in the first-half – but Besic has taken his opportunity.

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The midfielder made twice as many tackles as the rest of Everton combined in the first-half, helping disrupt City’s creative powerhouse Yaya Toure and launch counter-attacks with possession won.

Evertonians are knowledgable watchers of their side, and the appreciation for Besic – whose stats of six tackles, five dribbles, two shots and 58 passes reflect the completeness of his performance – was shown in him winning 60 per cent of the vote for man of the match on social media.

There was a sense among Everton fans against Stoke, with the side 3-2 in front heading into the final 15 minutes, that had David Moyes still been in charge the Blues would’ve seen out the game having tightened up the midfield.

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Besic remained on the bench as he watched Mark Hughes’ side stage a dramatic late comeback, with Steven Naismith, Romelu Lukaku, Arouna Kone and Gerard Deulofeu all remaining on the pitch.

In the week leading up to Spurs last Sunday, I was convinced the Bosnian should’ve started. He has been made to bide his time since his £4million arrival from Hungarian side Ferencvaros in July 2014, but with the side leaking more goals at home than anyone else, this was his time.

The opening 45 minutes against Mauricio Pochettino’s side was every bit as one-sided as Everton’s dominant display before the interval against Norwich a few weeks’ ago, but Martinez didn’t address this at half-time regardless of Dele Alli’s equaliser so close to the interval.

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Just as Besic ought to have been introduced for either McCarthy or Cleverley against Stoke, his energetic and tenacious playing style was what the Blues were devoid of against Spurs until his introduction on the hour-mark.

Besic hasn’t looked back. Whether by accident or design, Martinez has opened up a can of tattoo clad frustration.

Hugo Lloris made a flying save to deny an exquisite volley that would’ve raised the roof of the Gwladys Street, but the manner he helped take the game away from a rampant Spurs was every bit as impressive.

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Besic’s skill in the centre-circle to move away from David Silva last night would not have been out of place on the training fields of Real Madrid under Zinedine Zidane these days, but it brought back memories of another fine midweek victory over City.

The drag-back to set up another Everton attack was reminiscent of Marouane Fellaini’s pirouette on Craig Bellamy in the 2-0 win over the Citizens six years ago, and comparisons can be made between the two midfielders.

Fellaini became a fans’ favourite for his curly hair and impassioned goal celebrations, but it was that moment of skill that many Evertonians remember as an act that demonstrated a point had been turned for the Belgian on Merseyside after questions had previously been asked over the £15million signing.

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Besic was brought to Finch Farm for considerably less but with a reputation for having performed so well against Lionel Messi at the World Cup, despite being unable to prevent the Barcelona player from scoring a wondrous goal in the group stage game at the Maracana.

The 23-year-old made the worst possible start to life at Goodison when he tried to be too clever in a dangerous part of the pitch, minutes into his debut against Chelsea at the start of last season.

His costly mistake led to Diego’s Costa wrapping up a heavy 6-3 defeat – a jolt to the Blues’ pre-season objective of a top-four finish which in truth Everton never really recovered from.

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Despite the error, Evertonians have taken to the German-born Bosnian, and the manner in which he operated in the three with Barry and the brilliant Ross Barkley – most crucially in the final six minutes with the side reduced to 10 men – was quite superb.

Martinez’s desperation to rush McCarthy back from injury is understandable given the side have won once in seven league games in his absence, but after the Spaniard’s glowing assessment of Barry’s renaissance this season, the opportunity is there for Besic to stake a claim for a regular place. He’s made the best possible start.