Under David Moyes, Everton were largely solid, uncompromising and organised. This was usually good enough to secure a top ten finish and on occasion a top six, and once even a top four. Which was promptly squandered against a Villareal, of course, in the qualifying stages for the Champion’s League.
But I liked Moyes. I liked the work ethic of his Everton teams and I liked knowing they wouldn’t embarrass themselves or be wasteful. They eked out all they had from the ability they possessed. They were evidence of what I believe is most beautiful about football – in the end, you get what you deserve. But in that security there was also an inherent and somewhat debilitating banality. A depressingly humdrum pragmatism – you never really fancied them against the top teams, or to actually win anything. It was nobody’s fault, though. They all worked their socks off, they just hadn’t got the means.
Roberto Martinez is an altogether different kettle of fish. The swagger of his first season was impressive, as he fused Moyes’ pragmatism with invention and flair. Since then, the pragmatism has waned as Moyes’ spine has shuffled off into retirement or have begun to slide from their peak.
In his defence though, Martinez’s Everton play with creativity and freedom and bravado. And I think any criticism of Martinez should be tempered by the acknowledgement that there are players currently at Everton, players who by anybody’s estimation could be deemed Everton’s most talented players, who wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for him. It is Martinez’s charismatic manner and the brand of football he steadfastly endorses that has secured the services of Lukaku and Deulofeu, for example. I’m not sure these two would be with Everton if David Moyes was in charge. Equally, it’s hard to imagine the ever-cautious Moyes giving Ross Barkley as many minutes and as much responsibility as Martinez has gifted him. Seamus Coleman, too, always seemed to play within himself under Moyes. Moyes seemed not to entirely trust Coleman as a defender, but under Martinez, when fit, Coleman has been as good a full back as you will see in the Premier League.
So where are we then with Martinez, following three 3-0 victories and then a one nil defeat at home to West Brom?
One of the points that Martinez’s cheerleaders used to cite in his defence, while he was at Wigan, was that he didn’t have the necessary quality of player to be judged fairly. They said that he got limited players to play attractive football and if he had at his disposal better players that the rest would fall into place. Ex-Liverpool player, Danny Murphy, was recently heard lamenting the Everton fans' growing impatience with Martinez’s team, citing their comparative youth and their potential as reasons for staying the execution.
I tend to agree with Danny Murphy, as it happens. For now, at least. Although I always wince and sigh the moment I hear anybody defend a footballer on the grounds of potential (to be fair, Murphy may not have used this word but it was intimated, I think). Football is a game almost solely for the precocious. If you’re not a winner, if you’re not playing regularly and performing regularly, if you’re not dedicated and ruthless at 21 or 22, the truth is that you probably won’t ever be more than a journeyman. No mean feat that either, to make a career out of playing a sport you love; not to be scoffed at. But to be blunt, there is a point, and in football it comes earlier than in most walks of life, where potential becomes irrelevant and the only true indicator of your value and your likely achievements is what you have already and are presently delivering. The future is now! This should be the mantra of any young footballer with ideas about himself.
This Everton team is right on the cusp of this critical moment. That’s my view of the situation. Are they too young and is it too early for anybody to be judging them? Yes, probably, but only just. I think that in twelve months if they haven’t delivered some tangible sign of progress, of success, that we may begin to ask the hard questions of the manager. And, equally, the players that are being so lauded.
So, for now, I watch with a degree of scepticism at the defensive frailty that has been a hallmark of any Martinez team I’ve ever watched, while hoping that ultimately the flair and the beauty will mature and evolve, adding a necessary ruthlessness to its swagger. Twelve months, one more season.
Well then, I think it’s simple. Bring back Sylvain Distin.
I once watched Distin warming up and marvelled at the awkwardness of his passing, for a professional footballer. But as a defender he was exceptional. Moyes' best ever signing. He made everyone around him better. Jagielka, Baines, Coleman, Hibbert, Howard. Whenever I watched Everton in those years what I saw was that everyone in the Everton defence, or taking up defensive positions, took their line off Sylvain Distin. He was fast, strong, he read the game well and he kept things tight. He was, in my opinion, pound for pound, Moyes' best signing. And Martinez could use somebody like him right now.