In the aftermath of his side's utterly demoralizing loss against West Ham, Roberto Martinez said amongst other things the following [emphasis mine]:
"On Saturday, to be so good for seventy-eight minutes, half of which was with ten men, and then concede three goals in twelve minutes, it makes no sense."
It's usually not a fruitful endeavor to put too much stock into press conference sound bytes, but for supporters of a team desperately seeking answers, hearing the manager at such a loss for explanation will bring a degree of further agitation.
At this point the story of the team is familiar: Everton play well for much of the game, Everton concede late, Everton drop points. For Martinez, of course none of this makes sense. How can the team lose when they play such beautiful football?
The Toffees do remain one of the better attacking sides in England. With regard to expected goals, Michael Caley's total shots-based model has them at sixth in the league, whereas Paul Riley's shots on target-based model has them at fifth. They've taken the sixth and fifth most total shots and shots on target in the league, respectively. Notably, Everton's finishing has been extremely clinical--they lead the league in scoring percentage (goals/shots on target), and they are outperforming their expected goals at a rate that is highest in the league.
Defensively, suffice it to say that they have been average at best, and probably more like below average. Caley's model ranks them eighth in expected goals allowed, but Riley has them at fifteenth. Furthermore, they rank twelfth in total shots against but seventeenth in shots on target against. These two nuggets seem to suggest that while Everton are perhaps okay at preventing shots in general, the shots they do concede tend to be on target, and those shots tend to be of a high quality. Thus, we get to bear witness to a team with self-proclaimed aspirations of European football conceding goals at a rate better only than the likes of Bournemouth, Norwich, Sunderland, Newcastle, and Aston Villa. Everton would have to somehow keep clean sheets for each of the remaining ten fixtures if they were to equal their defensive record of two seasons ago.
With this in mind, one would reasonably expect Everton to be involved in a lot of high-scoring end-to-end matches. Surely Martinez is aware that his style of play invites these sorts of contests (right?). He has always seemed to be somewhat in denial during press conferences, but the hope has been that it is just his style to be positive in public, while working on the team's issues in training.
There comes a time though when you just wish he would give an honest assessment of what happened on the pitch, if only to acknowledge that yes, he's seeing what we're seeing. As an example, it was fairly obvious that West Ham had a plan to focus attacks down the flanks and then try to play dangerous crosses into the box. And why not? Everton's last three conceded goals all involved a center back losing an aerial duel close to his goal.
Sure enough, Slaven Bilic brought on former £35 million man/Everton-tormentor Andy Carroll in the second half, and the frequency of crossing picked up. West Ham's first two goals came from crosses, and Funes Mori was beaten in the air for all three tallies (sound familiar?). West Ham forward Michail Antonio even said plainly in his post-match comments that Bilic specifically instructed the side to cross as much as possible.
As for Martinez? Predictably he brushed aside concerns of any systemic issues: "It was just in the last twelve minutes. We played against the same team earlier and defended crosses well."
In this context, one begins to understand why he is so perplexed by matches such as Saturday's--it's possible that he actually doesn't believe that the team is poor at defending crosses, or that there are any intrinsic defensive issues at all. Unfortunately it's beginning to feel more and more like there is a disconnect between the reality on the pitch and what the manager sees in his head.
In fairness to the Roberto, I do want to point to two potential sources for his frustration. One is the team's inability to hold a lead. Technically Dimitri Payet's match-winning effort came in the 89th minute, but had it been a few moments later it would have marked the fourth(!) time this season that Everton have dropped points in stoppage time. Looking more broadly, almost a quarter of all of Everton's conceded goals have come after the eightieth minute of play, creating this rather grisly sight:
If you were ever curious as to how a team that has has spent the fifth most time in the league in a winning position can sit at twelfth in the table, there is your answer.
Everton are also fifth in the league in goal differential. This is my second point: as James Yorke pointed out two and a half months ago, they are winning big and losing small. Of Everton's nine wins, seven have been by a two goals or more; of their eight losses, six have been by just one goal.
In short, Everton have the twofold problem of not being able to win close games and not being able to win games where they have the lead. At the risk of stating the obvious, this probably more than anything else is why the Toffees remain a point behind West Brom and a point above Watford.
Martinez has always been, or claimed to be, a possession- and attack-oriented manager. Recalling his days under Martinez at Swansea, Garry Monk once recalled that "there was an emphasis on what [the team] did rather than what happened when the opposition had the ball." This season though, it's precisely what is happening when the opposition has the ball that is killing Everton. When does an emphasis on one aspect of the game turn into a complete neglect of all others? Put a bit differently, when does a forward-thinking outlook just turn into tunnel vision?
It's difficult to pin Everton's late-game woes on entirely Roberto. "Mentality" and "psychological toughness" are surely real but also slippery concepts. Margins are small, and lady luck often doesn't get the credit she deserves. What you want from the manager, then, is a clear head and an inclination towards honest assessment. In the absence of that, there can be no confidence that current trends will not continue.