The age-old problem Everton must address
Everton have 11 first-team squad members over the age of 30, all of whom have appeared in a Roberto Martinez 2014/15 Premier League matchday squad.
The Gwladys Street Dad's Army platoon includes Tim Howard (35), Phil Jagielka (32), Sylvain Distin (37), Leighton Baines (30), Gareth Barry (33), Samuel Eto’o (33), Arouna Koné (31), Steven Pienaar (32), Antolin Alcaraz (32), Tony Hibbert (33) and Leon Osman (33).
The average age of Everton starters is apparently the Premier League's sixth highest, a figure influenced by the youngsters Martinez has called upon. When fit, John Stones (20) has been a regular starter, as have Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley (both 21) and to a lesser extent Muhamed Besic (22).
However, Martinez has largely overlooked other promising young talents. Luke Garbutt (21), Tyas Browning (20) and Conor McAleny (22) have a mere handful of appearances and rarely make the 18-man matchday squad.
To some extent, Martinez has had his hand forced by mid-to-long-term injuries to Stones, Barkley, Bryan Oviedo (24), James McCarthy (24) and Kevin Mirallas (27). Even so, particularly in the Europa League, the manager has usually overlooked the youngsters and selected a team packed with ageing players. Has it been the best choice?
Age before beauty
Questioned during the summer on the depth of his squad, Martinez claimed a number of Everton’s youngest players were not only ready to step up and claim a place in the senior squad, but also to challenge for a place in the starting line-up.
Perhaps the manager hasn't seen the necessary development required from his young players in order for them to mount a serious challenge at the club. Or was the former Wigan boss batting off concerns over the club's never outlandish transfer budget? In either case, his reluctance to look no further than the tried and tested members of his squad may be coming back to bite the Catalan.
In Everton’s December defeat at Manchester City at the Etihad, Martinez’ first XI included seven thirtysomethings – including the keeper, the whole back four and the holding midfielder. With Osman coming on for Mirallas, of the 11 who finished the game eight were in their thirties: Howard, Hibbert, Jagielka, Distin, Baines, Barry, Osman and Eto’o.
True, some might argue a team needs experience to travel to the champions. But Everton were barely more youthful in their final game before Christmas, an abysmal 3-0 reverse to an out-of-form and injury-hit Southampton. The average age of the back six was reduced marginally by replacing Hibbert with Seamus Coleman (26), but Saints ended a run of five straight defeats as Martinez watched on without making a change.
Many Evertonians were none too pleased as the Catalan became the first Toffees manager not to use a substitute since David Moyes kept his powder dry in a 1-1 draw at Anfield in 2009. Perhaps he was uninspired by the options on his bench: the half-fit Stones, the seldom-used Garbutt, the seemingly redundant Joel Robles (24) and the inconsistent Aiden McGeady (28), plus thirtysomethings Koné, Pienaar and Alcaraz.
Attack vs defence
All is not lost: there is more than half the season left to play. But Everton sit in a disheartening 11th place with an ageing and underperforming squad 13 points worse off than last season, 10 points off the Champions League pace and just six clear of the drop zone.
Why is this? Many Evertonians have bemoaned an apparent lack of width and an often pedestrian attack – but a comparison with last season’s stats reveal a very different story. After 16 games of 2013/14, Everton had scored 27 goals, more than all but four Premier League teams. After 17 games this term, Everton have again scored 27 – but it is the goals-against column that has changed.
At the same stage last season, no Premier League team had conceded fewer goals than Everton's 15. This time round, the Toffees have shipped 27: only QPR (32) and Leicester (29) have conceded more.
Incredibly, the susceptible Tim Howard and his out-of-form and ageing defence have conceded those 27 goals from just 61 shots on target. A remarkable 48% of shots on Everton’s goal have ended up in the back of the net; their per-game average of opposition shots allowed, 13.1, is resolutely mid-table (and better than, for example, West Ham). In addition, no Premier League side has conceded more goals leading from defensive errors than Everton this season.
The school of science's new curriculum
Martinez was welcomed to Merseyside with an idealistic philosophy of possession football. It is a doctrine from which the Catalan will not be swayed, and one he seemingly believes can be embraced by all players at the club – whatever their quality or age. Unfortunately for a number of his ageing defenders, and first-choice keeper, embracing an idea doesn’t always lead to mastering it.
Of the six defensive players over the age of 30 who are available to Martinez, only Alcaraz hadn’t previously been tutored by the arch pragmatist Moyes – not a man who encouraged his defenders to patiently retain possession.
While the technical gifts and talent of Baines can not be questioned, players like Jagielka, Distin and Hibbert – the solid-and-steady types – have, to varying degrees, struggled to come to terms with the Martinez philosophy. The Catalan may be attempting to teach old dogs new tricks.
There are two big hopes for Evertonians. Firstly, the return of John Stones. A cultured young player with the ability to defend and reflect the manager’s ethos, the 20-year-old England international is set to start the Boxing Day visit of Stoke – with Mirallas and McCarthy also expected to rejuvenate the first XI.
Secondly, and perhaps even more crucially, the January transfer window is about to be opened. The manager recently claimed there will be no major movements at Goodison Park, but given Everton’s calamitous defensive record this term, it is impossible to believe he would wilfully miss an opportunity to reinforce his team's defensive capabilities – and continue to reshape a squad into the footballing style he desires.
Ringing in the new
If, for whatever reason, Martinez defies logic in this transfer window by ignoring the old grey elephants in the room, he won't be able to shirk the responsibility next summer.
Ageing centre-backs Distin and Alcaraz, as well as young England U21 left-back Luke Garbutt, are in the last six months of their contracts. Martinez could be let with very few defenders to choose from, and surely must be considering signing someone who can play in his preferred style – whether now or next season, just as Stones, signed from Barnsley in January 2013, was ready for the first team by the time Martinez took control that summer.
If Everton’s 2014/15 Premier League campaign is not to go down in the annals as having been tainted by second-season syndrome, the burning question concerning an underperforming and ageing Everton squad must be addressed and tackled swiftly by the manager.
Martinez is one of management's bright young things. An analytical deep thinker, he is obviously intelligent enough to realise just how critical January will be for his and his team’s season. Ringing in the New Year is traditionally a symbol of renewal. What better time for Roberto Martinez to discard the old and bring in the new?