Roberto Martinez's stubborn faith in Tim Howard a major issue for Everton
Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard will reach a landmark appearance when Everton play part two of their January trilogy against Manchester City at the Etihad on Wednesday night.
The American goalkeeper, who is three appearances ahead of teammate Leon Osman, will become the first Everton player to make 350 Premier League appearances for the club. Retired defender David Unsworth is the only other to pass 300 Premier League appearances for Everton, while Leighton Baines, with 267, is next best within the current squad.
Buoyed by victory in the first leg of the League Cup semifinal on Wednesday, Roberto Martinez chases a first league win against City as Everton manager -- the Blues are amid a five-match winless run against Manuel Pellegrini's team in the league, losing four of them -- but all eyes will be on his recalled goalkeeper.
Appearance milestones cannot distract from the scrutiny placed on Howard's No. 1 status. While many supporters dared to hope Joel Robles would retain his place after successive starts in recent cup matches, nobody can claim surprise at Howard's reinstatement for this midweek fixture.
Martinez has placed Robles in a seemingly impossible position. Robles could have singlehandedly won Everton the two cup matches and would still begin this trip to City on the substitutes' bench.
Recent tetchy exchanges between Howard and the supporters in the Gwladys Street Stand in home games against Stoke and Tottenham did little to help matters, but much of the anger at this now farcical goalkeeping situation has shifted from Howard to Martinez.
This increasingly maddening precedent was set in the last campaign when Howard was injured. With Aiden McGeady dismissed and 10-man Everton trailing 1-0 at West Ham in the FA Cup, Robles excelled to keep the visitors alive in the tie before his own unfortunate penalty miss in the shootout saw the Blues eliminated. Three successive clean sheets in the league followed as Robles displayed considerable improvement during his extended run in the side.
Presented with a chance to place form above reputation, Martinez showed zero flexibility and restored Howard as soon as he returned to fitness, with the American marking his comeback with questionable goalkeeping in a late defeat to Chelsea. This stubborn faith has persisted.
Howard's flaws are in plain sight: near post concerns, defending balls into the penalty area and overall command of his goalmouth, to name but a few. But there is a point when action is required from the sidelines.
Rather than drop Howard, Martinez continues to stretch credibility with his reasons for standing by the 36-year-old. "I value his experience a lot, even more than the moment of form you can have on the pitch sometimes," said the Everton boss.
The basic notion borders on absurd, even for a manager as outlandishly positive as Martinez. Experience counts for nothing if delivered by a player costing more points than he saves. This "experience" and "know-how" that Howard offers is Martinez's standard defence when questioned about his goalkeeper, yet it is difficult to view this as anything more than a cheap excuse, a weak justification for the blind faith shown.
Martinez views Howard as the old stager shepherding a young defence through matches, but the back line looks calmer and more comfortable with Robles behind them. Howard regularly displays none of the authority, composure and leadership expected of a player with more than 400 Everton appearances in all competitions.
The most baffling aspect of this goalkeeping saga is the lack of ruthlessness shown toward an ailing player, especially with Martinez showing a clinical approach toward outfield players during his time on Merseyside. This cutthroat management is absent when Howard is the topic of discussion.
Once veteran defenders Antolin Alcaraz and Sylvain Distin became liabilities, the duo fell sharply from the first-team picture last season. With the exception of a token substitute appearance in the final game, Distin ended his time at Everton playing for the Under-21 side.
This has carried into the current campaign. Steven Naismith scored a hat-trick in a 3-1 win against Chelsea in September but soon returned to the fringes of the squad when formed dipped in subsequent matches. McGeady made one disappointing 45-minute League Cup appearance and has not played a single minute since. Arouna Kone has struggled of late and returned to the bench once Muhamed Besic stated his case; Kevin Mirallas is another casualty of a manager seemingly untrusting of a player's consistency, while Osman has featured sparingly as his influence decreases.
This blind spot casts a shadow over the excellent form shown by the team in the opposing third of the pitch. Everton sit in the bottom half despite having the joint-top scorer, Romelu Lukaku, and two of the division's most creative players in Ross Barkley and Gerard Deulofeu.
While Howard attracts criticism for his ongoing lack of form, Martinez's failure to act is becoming the bigger problem.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.