Small margins – that’s what Roberto Martinez reckons are chiefly behind his side’s alarming start to the season.
It’s one of football’s regular stock cliches in times of adversity to point out, correctly in this case, that such tiny factors are often decisive.
Yet small as they are, they are causing big problems for Everton FC .
Normal service was resumed as far as the Blues and Old Trafford are concerned yesterday.
They arrived trying to prove that last season’s historic first victory at Manchester United in 20 years was a corner turned, and departed with nothing but questions.
If Leighton Baines hadn’t failed to score his first Premier League penalty, would they have taken something more?
If referee Kevin Friend had halted play with Steven Pienaar injured in the second half would they have been spared Radamel Falcao’s winner?
And if David de Gea hadn’t made such sensational saves from Leon Osman and Bryan Oviedo near the end, might they have taken something tangible from this contrasting contest?
Small margins. But it’s about time Everton found a way of turning such things in their favour, rather than the increasingly familiar pattern of reflecting on fleeting but game-changing moments and their sizeable impact afterwards.
Last December when Oviedo’s goal secured that stirring triumph it was the second of a three-game fixture in the space of eight days.
The challenge 10 months later, in the midst of another busy glut of games, was to do it all over again.
It’s one thing reaching a certain level but it’s another staying there.
Martinez publicly insists his squad is strong enough to deal with the volume of games they must navigate this term, but the evidence so far suggests otherwise.
Make no mistake, the Blues were considerably disadvantaged by an injury situation which is becoming a crisis with John Stones’s late and costly setback to compound things.
But every club must deal with injuries. United were missing most of their first-choice back four and they still found a way to take the points.
One glance at the Toffees bench suggested precious little in an attacking sense to get very excited about, aside from Samuel Eto’o .
And when Everton needed some extra incision and punch up front, the veteran striker was left kicking his heels.
Is that another case of small margins? Martinez’s first change of the game was forced when he had to replace the injured Pienaar with Oviedo.
Perhaps he had factored in a point when he would use Eto’o and had to tear up the plan when injury flared.
Elsewhere, Tony Hibbert had a solid enough display to suggest he remains a passable option, defensively at least, when Seamus Coleman is out. But in Kevin Mirallas ’s place, Aiden McGeady was charged with providing some penetration and failed to deliver again. McGeady has more to do if he is to start convincing, but what of the man he was meant to be supplying with ammunition?
Romelu Lukaku is desperately short of form, but even with his considerable price tag, he can be forgiven that. What can’t be forgiven is the slightest evidence he is lacking application and desire. The Belgian appeared frustrated at times with the lack of service he received or options when he was on the ball. But there are question marks over his body language when things don’t go his way.
It’s not easy leading the line alone when you’re only 21, but then Lukaku was doing that for Anderlecht when he was 16 and he needs to start taking the fight to opponents.
Consider this – the Blues’ only shot on target in the first half was Baines’s unsuccessful spot-kick in time added on before the break.
When Lukaku did fashion an opening with a neat turn, his subsequent effort was lashed wildly over the bar.
Supporters, and indeed Martinez who pushed so hard for his significant purchase, are entitled to expect more.
Lukaku always seemed to shine that much more last season when Ross Barkley was behind him. The pair have a natural rapport which can’t be resumed quickly enough as far as Everton are concerned.
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At least Steven Naismith showed the way. The Scot’s thumping header from Baines’s perfect cross right in front of the Stretford End offered the chance of salvation and, just as against Krasnodar, Everton began to play their best stuff as the clock ticked down. Before that, their passing had been too benign. Sideways, backwards, neat little triangles but just not enough genuine openings.
Defensively Tim Howard made some strong saves but might have been expected to kick the ball out decisively in the phase of play before Falcao’s pivotal strike,
He didn’t, and it intensified a panic among the Blues back four that pre-empted the Colombian’s opportunist goal from Angel Di Maria’s scuffed attempt.
In Howard’s defence he was likely trying to play the ball in the precise manner his manager demands, and can’t be blamed for the momentary lapse in concentration from Stones that let Falcao in.
For a change, this wasn’t a game defined by Everton’s defensive mishaps. The back five largely did their jobs.
It’s in the final third where they must rediscover the swagger of last year, and fast if they are to start putting points on the board.
The international break will offer much-needed respite for key men to be patched-up and rested.
Then Everton must draw a line under this faltering start and click back into gear to prove they can maintain the arc of progress Martinez began so impressively last year.