Everton get good news off the pitch, but need results on it vs. Villa
It promised to be a quiet weekend for Everton: one of only two Premier League teams, along with Newcastle, handed a vacant fixture list. But nobody counted on such a fruitful football-less 48 hours.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard nearing an MLS return preceded news of a new major shareholder in Farhad Moshiri, with the former Arsenal stakeholder selling his stake in the London club and acquiring 49.9 percent of Everton shares, a figure he looks set to increase to majority ownership over time.
These two significant stories filled the football void. It is 18 days since the last league game, a galling, season-defining 1-0 home defeat to West Brom, and a trip to Aston Villa on Tuesday.
There is no excusing anything less than three points from this midweek fixture. Everton have their issues but they are minimal compared to a seemingly doomed home team. Rock-bottom Villa possess the division's worst attack, worst goal difference, and are one of only two teams (the other being Bournemouth) with fewer home wins than Everton this season.
The gloom at Villa Park is something the visitors and top scorer Romelu Lukaku must capitalise on, with Lukaku thriving in this fixture, scoring five goals in four matches against Villa as an Everton player. Assisting Lukaku will be the ever-improving Ross Barkley, who has had a hand in 15 goals in 26 league games this season (eight goals, seven assists.)
With those two players settled in the main attacking positions -- albeit with Lukaku's performances dipping in recent weeks -- the ongoing search for balance and consistency throughout the side is something Martinez must consider, despite naming an unchanged starting XI for four successive matches.
An unthinkable prospect at the beginning of the season, John Stones continues to warm the bench, but the impressive form of Phil Jagielka and Ramiro Funes Mori is why the expected clamour for Stones' return has yet to materialise. With the two adopting a less flamboyant approach to defending -- Everton average 0.5 goals conceded per game in eight matches without Stones this season, winning six of them, compared to 1.48 goals conceded per game in 27 matches with Stones -- this is one area change is not required, at least not yet.
However, one consideration is the left flank, namely the left-back position. Left-back Bryan Oviedo and the versatile Tom Cleverley are impressing with their work ethic, determination and all-round play on that side, but there is a sense this team is missing out the longer it goes without Leighton Baines -- that extra quality in possession, ability to create chances and astute defensive play. Martinez also needs to make better use of the creative talents offered by Steven Pienaar and Kevin Mirallas.
For all the excitement and hope attached to the investment news, with the club seemingly finding much-needed direction, ambition and a plan moving forward, this remains a league campaign in need of rescuing and Everton are gradually running out of time and matches. Champions League hopes faded months ago, and it is only foolish optimism and the inconsistency of others entertaining the nine-point gap to a Europa League place -- Everton also have a game in hand on the teams above.
Moshiri will understandably want Everton to be a winning team. The final months of this season are an ideal time for manager and players to start laying such foundations and demonstrate necessary qualities to their new backer. Current form showing three wins and four clean sheets in the last 13 league games defines this season and last: too few wins, too many draws, not enough quality or application in defence.
A league-high 11 draws and a mere eight wins is an unacceptable return from 26 games, particularly for a team with undoubted quality in the final third, ranking as the division's fourth highest scorers and outscoring Tuesday's opponents (21) by more than double (46). A beleaguered and battered Villa side nine points from safety are closer to Everton than the Toffees are to table-toppers Leicester.
The constant lows experienced at Goodison have led to Roberto Martinez talking up away form in his familiar hyperbolic style, when the reality is that Everton are only marginally better on than road than at home, winning the same number of games home as away (four each.)
One defeat in the last 13 away league games distracts from the winning positions squandered in these matches, with the seven draws from these 13 games reflecting the nagging failure to hold onto leads. This trip to Villa Park is the type of away fixture Everton must negotiate convincingly if they are to inject belated life into a season spent increasingly in the bottom half.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.