Everton are back in action this weekend after a two week layoff. Much like at this time last year, they find themselves adrift in the table, in a position most fans would consider disappointing. It can sometimes be difficult to watch matches at this stage in the season without an air of cynicism, but there's still plenty to be gained and plenty to be learned during these final two months.
First, though, what's not to gain: in terms of the table, the Premier League is probably a lost cause at this point. Michael Caley's prediction model gives the Toffees just a 2% chance of finishing in the 5-6 range. Here are their remaining fixtures:
|3-Apr||Manchester United A|
|13-Apr||Crystal Palace A|
If Everton were to beat Watford, Palace, Southampton, Sunderland, and Norwich (already asking a lot), and they snuck a point or two from matches against Man United, Liverpool, and Leicester, they'd still be in the 57-58 range. That's maybe good for seventh, but probably more like eighth. A realistic goal for this team would be to finish in the top half.
It would also be encouraging if Everton could grab a win against either United or Leicester. They've managed just 4 points with a -10 goal differential in 10 matches against top-6 sides so far this season, which is not the sign of a team that has any aspirations of being a contender next year.
Everton have plenty of unsettled positions at the moment, and the remaining matches could shed some light on who is part of the club's plans moving forward.
Kevin Mirallas is an intriguing case. He's been quite productive when he's been on the field this year (team-high shots/90 and shots on target/90; third in key passes/90, and second in assists/90). The obvious problem though is sample size--he's played just 22% of league minutes, largely due to two red cards and the seeming unwillingness of Martinez to give him a consistent run of games. With his eligibility returning again, it will be interesting if the Belgian gets to feature again this year. If he is not in Everton's plans moving forward, the team would be left with Steven Pienaar (who is likely to depart anyway) as its only true left winger. Tom Cleverley has been competent but it is not his natural position, while Arouna Koné was largely ineffective in his time there.
Oumar Niasse has managed to fly mostly under the radar despite being Everton's third most expensive player ever. As he gains fitness, one hopes that we will see more of him on the pitch in April and May. While he could help with depth on the wing, he is truly a center forward and should perhaps best be thought of as a replacement for Romelu Lukaku, who increasingly looks like he may not be with Everton next year. Rom has featured for an impressive 96% of the Toffees' league minutes this season, so Martinez may use Niasse to spell him as the fixtures get increasingly congested. Niasse arrived having accrued a solid 0.54 non-penalty goals per 90 in Russia this season, not dramatically far off of Lukaku's 0.61.
Finally, John Stones' continued absence from the starting lineup is story that likely has a few more chapters yet to be written. He certainly didn't help his reputation as error-prone by slipping on the ball playing for England against the Netherlands on Tuesday. With Everton's defense continuing to put in inconsistent performances, whether or not Martinez re-inserts the young Englishmen into the XI could say a lot about his standing in the squad.
Big picture: the FA Cup and Martinez's future
Everton's only shot to make anything of this season is, of course, to win the FA Cup. In addition to granting qualification for European football next year, it would most importantly be the first piece of silverware the club has won since 1995. On April 23 they'll play either Manchester United or West Ham at Wembley. Neither is a particularly inviting matchup--United were imperious at Goodison in October, and West Ham are riding high at fifth in the table at the moment.
Everton's cup run comes at a particularly interesting time. Roberto Martinez's men have been largely disappointing for the second season in a row and the pressure on him is building considerably. For those who would like to see him gone, the unfortunate reality is that it would be it would be unlikely that Martinez delivers a major trophy and also loses his job.
The decision over what to do with Martinez is not an easy one, and now more than ever it is important that the club get it right. Coupled with the onset of the new Premier League television deal, Farhad Moshiri's investment means that both the transfer and wage budgets are set to be increased this summer, possibly significantly. With substantial young talent already in place, Everton have a real chance to take the next step to becoming a club that regularly contends for Europe--in other words, the kind of club that Martinez promised he would make Everton. But if he is not the right man, and if by winning the FA Cup he would keep his job, then there's an argument that the mid- to long- term future of Everton would be benefitted more by not winning the competition.
I'll admit the notion sounds a bit crazy, and it is assuming a lot. As far as I'm aware, there's no indication from Everton itself that Martinez's job is actually in serious danger, save for a shady-looking tweet from this week. Ultimately the need to win trophies probably trumps all other concerns, but it's at least worth thinking about when you consider how we want this club to progress over the next three to five years. Few will need reminding that this particular manager did win an FA Cup in 2013, and today the club he won it with sits in the third tier of English football.
The looming loss of one of the best young strikers in the world this summer can be seen as a direct consequence of Martinez failing to make good on his initial promise. If Lukaku does go, the club will undoubtedly make a substantial profit that can be reinvested towards the goal of European football. The question is whether or not Roberto is the man to take Everton through that process, or if under him the club is likely to end up in the same position three years down the road: selling their best players, investing in young talent, but rarely actually improving results. In the eyes of the board, that crucial question may be answered, at least partially, by how the FA Cup unfolds.