Barkley shines amid tactical misfire
Despite the pre-match and subsequent post-match nonsense, it was clear that this was just another home game for Everton. That the Blues slipped to a 3-2 defeat against Manchester City owed more to a tactical gamble backfiring, rather than a lack of effort (or any other word the conspiracy theorists care to use).
The idea that Everton did not try or that supporters did not care is absurd. Anyone believing otherwise should double-check the reactions of the players and crowd alike after Ross Barkley's outstanding opener, or witness the sense of urgency when Romelu Lukaku headed home a second-half lifeline.
Shorn of the controlling midfield presence of Gareth Barry, the creative talents of Kevin Mirallas and Steven Pienaar, and with Sylvain Distin only fit enough for a place on the bench, Roberto Martinez attempted to compensate by employing a back three.
Unfortunately, for Everton, the defence, so often the reliable constant in this team, became a disjointed shambles thanks to this tactical tweak. For a man easily outfoxing Arsene Wenger and David Moyes in recent weeks, this was a rare misfire for Martinez.
Aside from the excellent Barkley and the dependable James McCarthy, the players rarely looked comfortable in the new system. The three-man defence began well enough, outnumbering City's two-man attack, but the visitors found gaping holes and exposed various flaws as the match wore on.
Although favoured by Martinez at Wigan, the back-three approach does not suit the players currently at his disposal. Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman, the two best attacking full-backs in the league, are wasted as wing-backs, with their workload doubled and their attacking threat diminished.
Their success is built on attacking the space in front of them. At wing-back, they are already in that space, which is one of the reasons Coleman struggled when David Moyes used him as a right-sided midfielder. Furthermore, the pair thrive with a creative player ahead of them, one they can work in tandem with, and this system does not allow for that.
Those two aside, the real problems materialised in the three-man defence. Phil Jagielka, rustier than a ship's nail on his return from injury, was a hapless passenger throughout, in close proximity for each of the City goals but not close enough to prevent them, while Antolin Alcaraz floundered without the security of Baines alongside him.
Sergio Aguero exposed Alcaraz's lack of pace for his first-half equaliser, before departing through injury. However, it was an injury that hurt Everton more than City (in the context of this match, obviously). The visitors' switch to a five-man midfield saw the home side return to a back four, but that created its own problems. John Stones, the only one at ease in the three-man defence, moved to right back, and Seamus Coleman operated as a right-sided midfielder. Stones' poor positional sense at full-back surfaced for the third City goal.
Rising above the malaise by considerable distance, though, was Barkley. From the opening goal, easily the best of the five scored in the match, to the galloping run forward that presented Steven Naismith with a golden chance to level the game in the second half, the World Cup hopeful was a class above in front of the watching Roy Hodgson.
There was an uncanny resemblance to a certain Wayne Rooney goal against Arsenal, yet this strike was better. There was no first touch, no touch to steady himself, this was thundered beyond Joe Hart at the first time of asking.
Suffering of late, with injuries hampering and form evading, this was Barkley at his expressive best, spraying the ball around the pitch, ghosting past those in white, leading a one-man quest for a point or three.
Aiding him in this quest was James McCarthy. If McCarthy does not win one of the club's end-of-season awards, whether it is player of the season or young player of the season, it would be a travesty. There are no superlatives left to describe his performances or impact on the team this season.
Alas, in spite of their efforts and the efforts of their teammates, Everton signed off their home campaign with a defeat, though the blow is softened by other results confirming fifth place and the return of European football next season. This result, though disappointing, does not detract from the impressive work of a manager and squad supposedly undergoing a season of transition.