What’s holding Everton back from being contenders?

Since Roberto Martinez arrived and pushed Everton to a 5th place finish in the Premier League during the 2013/2014 season, we’ve come to expect more from the Merseyside club.

Instead, despite being a side that often looks dangerous, they fell to an 11th place finish last season, and currently sit at 12th place, just over halfway through the current Premier League campaign at the time of writing. A lot of the pieces are there for Everton, so what’s stopping them from going further?

Everton have a solid core of leadership with skipper Phil Jagielka and longtime defender Leighton Baines. They have one of the hottest strikers in European football right now in Romelu Lukaku, and he is supported by one of the best young English stars in a while in Ross Barkley, a player who frustrates this writer so much just for having come up with “the other Liverpool club.” Not to mention, John Stones, one of English football’s hottest prospects, linked with Chelsea during the summer.

Martinez has shown that he is a capable Premier League manager, and he can carry a strong enough team to a solid finish in the Premier League. However, there are some things missing that could propel Martinez’s side to the level of legitimate Premier League contenders.

To start, look at the teams that have consistently been at the top of the Premier League over the past few years. The list of goalkeepers for those clubs consists of Joe Hart, Thibaut Courtois, Petr Cech and David de Gea. One keeper that is nowhere near that level is Everton’s man between the posts, Tim Howard.

Howard joined Everton from Manchester United in 2007 and has been a staple in goal for the Toffees. However, despite an overall successful career with the Toffees and his heroics in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the American is now 36, and will be 37 in March. He has value in any squad, but at this point he is an average goalkeeper in the twilight of his career who has clearly declined.

An MLS move is almost certain, and Everton must take that as a positive course of action and find themselves a capable keeper. Whichever club he joins in the States you can expect their odds to drop in the soccer betting. Finding a world class keeper is extremely difficult, but that’s not something Everton can really count on anyway. Instead, Martinez must look on either end of the spectrum — he can opt for an experienced goalkeeper like Howard but with more ability or a young but promising keeper that can develop into a shotstopper capable of taking the Toffees to new heights. If experience is the route, a rusty Victor Valdes is now virtually without a club, or they could opt for another Manchester United keeper in backup Sergio Romero, who is probably better than his status as a second keeper.

Regardless of the route they take, Everton need to move on from Tim Howard.

The goalkeeper is the base of Everton’s innate inability to close out matches. With their high-powered attack spearheaded by Lukaku and masterminded by Barkley, even when Martinez’s side falls behind, there’s a feeling that they can recover to salvage a point or even three.

However, in recent weeks, they’ve seen goals in added time almost ensure the victory only to watch the other team equalize in dramatic fashion (and in John Terry’s case, in an offside fashion). Against Chelsea and Bournemouth, with a chance to win on the line, Everton failed to deliver. That’s what currently makes them a midtable team, rather than the European contenders they have the ability to be.

Ahead of the goalkeeper, there are problems in the defense that the inconsistencies lie on as well. Phil Jagielka is a capable center back, but age is slowly getting to him. Stones is highly regarded and sought after, but as a youngster, he is still very mistake-prone. Ramiro Funes Mori is a solid center back as well, but like Jagielka, not a star.

Whatever way they set up defensively, with Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman on the flanks, they can be defensively sound. The issue is, especially against good teams or in crunch time, the mistakes continue to pile on. To be taken seriously, Everton would benefit from a certified brick wall in defense. John Stones, if he is to stay, can reach that point. But for now, Everton’s leaky defense is holding the club back.

The final piece to Everton’s puzzle revolves around personnel. Obviously it’s always nice to add superior players to a squad, but in the case of a club like Everton, they aren’t going to lure those big names. That means, regardless of their sputtering form, they need to hold onto their stars.

Barkley and Lukaku are 22, while Stones is 21. Brendan Galloway is a promising fullback at 19 years of age. These players garner genuine interest from the so-called “bigger clubs” at every transfer window, and it’s immensely important that Everton retain their services. As they grow into themselves as players, Everton can improve with them.

It’s asking a lot of a midtable club right now to keep the budding stars they have, and the constant links for Lukaku, Barkley and Stones don’t help with squad harmony around the dressing room either. Everton have a difficult road ahead of them in trying to keep these players, but it’s something they must do if they’re to be considered a contender for the European places.

Improvements should always be made at clubs, and for Everton it’s not just limited to the goalkeeper, defense and inability to close out games. For Roberto Martinez, he must find ways to keep his current stars happy despite being a mid-table team.

The Toffees have plenty of ability, and at times look like a team that can threaten the top Premier League clubs. If they can keep their stars, and fill their defensive and goalkeeping needs, perhaps they can threaten consistently. Until then, Martinez still has work to do.

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