Everton's positivity combined with lack of results is starting to wear thin
Roberto Martinez oversaw an exciting 2-2 draw at Norwich in his first match as Everton manager in 2013-14. The visitors dominated possession and controlled the match for long periods, young midfielder Ross Barkley scored his first goal for the club and full-back Seamus Coleman netted to put the visitors ahead.
A new dawn had arrived, so it seemed, with Martinez and his players breaking several Premier League club records en route to an impressive fifth place finish. In a season of supposed transition, the new manager had confounded the doubters, but the current outlook is not so glowing.
Everton still see plenty of possession, but control in matches is more illusionary these days. Full-backs still offer an attacking threat, although the output is not as effective as it used to be. Barkley has bucked the trend, excelling after a shaky second season, but the standout from the Carrow Road draw in Martinez's opening game is the concession of a late goal and a team dropping points. Even in a much heralded debut campaign, there were 12 points lost from winning positions, which was the difference between the Blues in fifth and neighbours Liverpool in second.
Expectations raised by the progress made in Martinez's first season are gradually being stomped into the dirt as a disappointing third season follows a turgid second. Starting with another 2-2 draw, this time at Leicester, the first match of his second season followed the same pattern as the Norwich stalemate 12 months previously. This repetition extended to the visit of Arsenal the following week, when a two-goal lead became a 2-2 draw in the last 10 minutes. Four points gifted in two games evolved into a league-high 19 points dropped when ahead in matches.
Instead of a deflating season ending in 11th place, those 19 points would have been enough to see a dejected squad repeat their fifth place finish from the preceding season.
When 10-man Everton crumbled against West Ham on Saturday, conceding three times in the final 12 minutes, the tally of points tossed away from winning positions reached 14 for the current season. Once the visitors scored their first, goals two and three felt almost inevitable as the vulnerable hosts buckled under pressure and saw their aerial weakness exposed once more.
After 104 league games under Martinez, the number of points dropped when leading in those matches stands at 45. Such figures underline why Everton are often deemed a soft touch.
This knack for squandering leads surfaced when Everton and Chelsea played out a 3-3 draw in the league at Stamford Bridge in January. It cannot derail Saturday's FA Cup quarterfinal against the same opponents.
While Martinez moved to mute the importance of this cup clash, insisting he did not see it as "make-or-break," this match and progress in the competition is effectively the last remaining hope this season. Other clubs may not hold this famous trophy with the esteem of yesteryear -- with teams increasingly prioritising European and Premier League fixtures and fielding weakened teams -- but it has never been more important for Everton. Seven home defeats in 15 matches have snuffed out a domestic campaign that has only occasionally threatened something more.
This is the second successive league season fizzling out long before the end, a stream of false starts, near misses and surrendered leads, under the guidance of a manager facing increasing pressure. Relentless positivity is the Martinez hallmark, but when results dip this rhetoric feels hollow and merely agitates supporters.
"When you see the work of the players and then you don't get the rewards you deserve, it is painful," said Martinez. "I just feel this is where we really need to take all the pain and experiences we had this campaign in a good way and get the rewards our performances have deserved."
This insistence that performances deserve better than the results greeting them is fooling nobody. You could argue a case for the number of goals scored warranting a higher league placing but defensive frailty has cancelled out attacking quality. There is every chance this season could end with Everton in the bottom half and Romelu Lukaku as the league's top scorer.
A season of underachievement has materialised because, among other things, defending is not good enough amid a failure to close out matches. It is not misfortune, more mismanagement and a team prone to individual errors, not to mention ongoing concerns over tactics and style of play.
Some players have joined their manager in banging the positivity drum. Midfielder Tom Cleverley is back in the matchday squad after illness and recently discussed how victory could revitalise the season, while top scorer Lukaku has talked up a potential first trip to Wembley as a player.
Sound bites, the kind delivered by players and their manager between the West Ham defeat and this FA Cup tie, offer little comfort when results turn sour. Words as the only response to poor form quickly become tiresome. Everton supporters need action and improvement on the pitch rather than platitudes off it.