If you wanted a game to perfectly and neatly demonstrate the assorted frustrations of two football clubs over a season, the FA Cup semi-final between Manchester United and Everton was it.
This was a game which displayed the very worst and occasional best of both teams, the recurring failures of two managers who could well leave their respective jobs in the summer and glimpses of the quality that both possess, thus enhancing the frustration.
Fans from both ends of Wembley saw their campaigns in microcosm, good and bad, and both screamed themselves hoarse as everything they have seen over the past eight months played out in front of them over 90 minutes.
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For the neutral, it was thrilling, chaotic, a production line of low-level incompetence interspersed with moments of quality; in short, the sort of things that make a thoroughly entertaining football match. Although judging from the anguished noises coming from either set of fans, those in blue and red didn't enjoy it in quite the same way.
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Neither, you would imagine, did Roberto Martinez and Louis van Gaal, for whom this game had added personal significance: win this, and then the final against either Crystal Palace or Watford, and something tangible could be gained from a campaign that has otherwise been a lengthy let down.
For Van Gaal, more may lie ahead, but Martinez might not be so lucky. This week was generally portrayed as his last chance to impress, a final opportunity for him to display he is worth keeping on at Goodison Park, but ultimately he has nothing to show for it. Everton capitulated against Liverpool on Wednesday, and while this defeat was by no means a surrender, it nevertheless gave more evidence against him than for, starting with their approach early on in the game.
Everton began sitting so deep their defenders almost required tickets for the seats behind the goal. In theory that approach might make some sense, the idea being to soak up United's attacks in order to hit them on the break, as often as not through long balls in Romelu Lukaku's general direction, but the problem with this tactic is that you still have to be good at defending in order to properly pull it off, and Everton aren't exactly renowned for their gumption and solidity.
Sitting back would theoretically deny space for United's rapid forward line, but the Everton defence is so fragile that pace was simply used to slice holes in it, holes that were not especially difficult to slice. Phil Jagielka didn't look fit, Muhamed Besic is a midfielder deployed a right-back, while John Stones played exactly like a man whose abilities have been picked over and questioned at length over the past few months, uncertain and jittery.
Manchester United players celebrate
Image credit: Eurosport
“I wouldn't say we played badly,” said Martinez after the game, displaying his trademark positivity and also an opinion that not too many others inside Wembley would share. They clearly did play badly, and Martinez's tactics simply exposed further what we probably all knew anyway, that the Everton boss still seems unable to organise a defence.
United dominated the first half, and took the lead through a scuffed Marouane Fellaini finish following nice work down the left by Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, but couldn't manage any further goals as their dominance suggested they should have. And this is where their frustration comes in, as a theme of their season has been to look threatening, to have much the better of play but not make the most of it.
They looked more incisive than at many stages this season, when their football has been often been teeth-grindingly tedious, and they at least eschewed the sideways carousel that provided so much irritation earlier in the campaign. But they had Everton by the throat and instead of squeezing tighter their grip loosened; they slacked and repeated so many mistakes of the past. A more decisive team would have put the game to bed by half-time, scoring goals they might well have needed given the way Everton recovered after the break.
Whether Martinez delivered a rocket of a team talk that sent his players back out onto the Wembley turf determined to show a little more spirit, or if they simply responded to the collective dissatisfaction coming from their supporters and bucked their ideas up, isn't clear. What was clear was their improvement, displaying far more purpose and intent after the break, resulting in the penalty brilliantly saved by David de Gea from Lukaku, and then their equaliser, sliced into his own net by Chris Smalling.
Everton manager Roberto Martinez
Image credit: Reuters
From that point it was further chaos, the equivalent of throwing a pack of cards in the air and seeing what came down at the end. Which, as it turned out, was a moment of excellence from Martial, spinning and creating another hole in the Everton defence, from which he stroked home the winner and promptly sprinted to the United fans behind the goal to celebrate wildly.
That, as an aside, was the 11th time this season Everton have conceded in the last 10 minutes of a game.
Martinez praised their “incredible tempo and intensity” in the second half and their “strong mentality to stay in the game” in the first, the problem being that those qualities only really applied to short sections of the game. Again, Everton ended frustrated and empty-handed, and Martinez's talk that they are a young team, a work in progress and improving doesn't quite sit right given that this is the end of his third season and their league position has got worse every year.
“My ambition is exactly the same as the club's,” he said. “We've got very good young players, but I share the drive that the club has – getting into the Champions League and bringing silverware to the club.” At the moment the Champions League looks a long way away, and Martinez hasn't made a good enough case that he's the man that can take them there.
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