Another year, another crushing FA Cup quarter-final defeat that leaves more questions than answers.
Managers, mentalities and styles of play change but somehow Everton’s inability to rise to the occasion when it counts remains the same.
Twelve months ago it was Roberto Martinez’s Wigan which left Evertonians reeling. On Saturday the Catalan received an unpalatable taste of his own medicine.
Afterwards, he admitted that defeat in this famous old competition, especially as Wembley shimmered on the horizon, was a new and unwelcome feeling. How Bluenoses wish they could say the same.
Football – FA Cup – Quarter-Final – Arsenal FC v Everton FC
Instead they were scratching their heads and wondering where a 4-1 reverse at The Emirates leaves their season.
One defeat does not unravel all the positives of an exciting new era, but coming at the same stage as the last eight set-back last year, with so many parallels, it does present something of a conundrum.
Will Everton ever be able to break the glass ceiling which now seems to extend to the FA Cup as well as the Premier League’s top four promised land?
And have supporters been too swept along with the immediate charms of this exciting campaign to dwell on the reality that it will take time for Everton to fully adapt to the cultural change of a new manager who is building a systematic new way of playing which he will not compromise regardless of bumps in the road?
That, at least, is clear. No matter how often the Blues’ attacking commitment on the field leaves them vulnerable to coruscating counter attacks, as it did again in North London, Martinez won’t change. He will simply insist they become better at implementing his methods.
So much has altered for the Blue half of Merseyside over the last year, yet the bitterness of defeat does not feel too different from last season and the aftermath of that 3-0 shock by Wigan at Goodison.
Football – FA Cup – Quarter-Final – Arsenal FC v Everton FC
But hopefully this short-term pain of paying so costly a price for their adventure will eventually result in gain for the Blues.
They may have been torn apart in the Anfield derby, and now sent packing by the Gunners, but the solace is that they should learn from such galling lessons and by next season prove to have adapted.
Martinez’s idealistic approach is hopefully more likely to bear fruit than the pragmatism and aversion to risk of the David Moyes’ era.
But what of the lingering question marks that straddle both reigns?
They must still solve the persistent problem of dysfunction in the final third. They must still prove they won’t always choke on the grand stage.
Once again there were missed chances at the Emirates, although in truth not a litany of them – more like a handful of decisive moments which went begging.
The old Alan Hansen assertion that you can’t win anything with kids may have been comprehensively disproved over the years, but in Everton’s case it has contained a germ of truth this season.
Relying on a 20-year-old centre forward often seems futile. Romelu Lukaku’s comeback strike made the difference against West Ham last weekend and he was in the right place to equalise on Saturday, but otherwise the Belgian’s immature decision-making was damaging.
LONDON, ENGLAND – Saturday, March 8, 2014: Everton’s Romelu Lukaku scores the first equalising goal against Arsenal during the FA Cup Quarter-Final match at the Emirates Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)
Twice he could have provided Ross Barkley with a gilt-edged opportunity to net when the score was level, but each time he got it wrong.
In the first half, as the interval loomed, the Blues broke and Lukaku ignored the lung-busting supporting run of Barkley who was better placed and selfishly went alone as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain got back to make the block.
Then in the second he broke again and although he eventually passed too a better-placed Barkley, it was a split second too late and the midfielder had to snatch at his resulting chance.
Lukaku was not the sole culprit that time, Barkley should have at least got his strike on target – but either way crucial moments involved young men still learning the subtle nuances of the game at this level, and both were wasted.
John Stones too, at 19, will learn from the moment of confusion which saw him abandon Olivier Giroud just before the third goal, but that learning curve offered little solace at approximately 2.30pm on Saturday.
The problem, though, in sifting through the embers of this defeat is that there are no clear-cut conclusions. Few obvious answers.
As much as youth can be blamed for those flawed decisions, it’s also right to acknowledge that it was Barkley and Lukaku who combined to get the Toffees level in the first place.
Barkley, far better than he has been in recent weeks, delivered a delectable cross after a wonderful surging run, and Lukaku had the presence of mind to hover in case Kevin Mirallas missed.
And then, after all it was a veteran of 33 – an FA Cup winner no less in Gareth Barry – who made the defining misjudgement of the contest. Who knows what possessed him to hang out the trailing leg over which Oxlade-Chamberlain toppled for the penalty that got Arsenal in front again?
The abundance of questions and talking points will at least have made the slog back up North go that little faster for the Blues who were able to be at the Emirates.
The lack of answers might keep them awake at night for a while however.
Credit where it is due to Arsenal. It was undoubtedly a tough draw from the out-set. Arsene Wenger’s outfit were impressive, on the whole the better side, and there was no sense of footballing injustice which has pervaded recent league defeats in the capital. At least that was different.
Everton remain, as for almost 20 years now, the nearly-men.
Some things never seem to change.
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