Everton vs. Crystal Palace: 6 Things We Learned
Jason Puncheon's 23rd-minute strike gave the visitors an ideal start and set the tone for the rest of the game: The Toffees attacked a heavily populated final third, while Palace looked to counter.
The away side then doubled their lead just after the break, as Scott Dann's header blunted any half-time encouragement from Roberto Martinez.
The Toffees finally opened their account on the hour mark—as Steven Naismith found the net—but the away side once again proved clinical on the break, scoring on 73 minutes through Cameron Jerome.
Kevin Mirallas' late strike prompted a final onslaught, which Palace managed to repel.
Here's a look at some Everton-related talking points to emerge from this contest.
Bold Selection Offered Little in Attack...
Everton began the game with a surprise starting line-up.
James McCarthy, Steven Naismith and Leon Osman all dropped out for the explosive talents of Ross Barkley, Kevin Mirallas and Aiden McGeady.
While this was exciting on paper, it simply didn't work.
Mirallas and Gerard Deulofeu have only started once together all season—versus Cardiff—and displayed a similar lack of cohesion in the final third.
That time their direct, head-down approach was slightly tempered by Osman's presence. With McGeady and Barkley also in this XI, Everton's attack was far too similar.
It was all step-overs, quick bursts and flashes of brilliance instead of the sustained, patient, clever build-up that was required.
By half-time, despite 65 percent possession, the Toffees had registered just one shot on target—the same as Crystal Palace.
...And Even Less in Defence
While this selection presented issues in attack, Everton were most affected off the ball.
In possession, Martinez's line-up had obvious logic. He predicted a scenario of Palace defending with 11 men behind the ball—as was the case—and wanted as many explosive options on the field as possible.
He envisaged them creating space and potentially distorting the visitors' defence, which may have worked had the Toffees stayed level.
However, any time a move broke down, this selection left his side far too vulnerable off the ball with too many bodies slow to retreat.
Mirallas, McGeady and Deulofeu are not known for their defensive contributions and—with Barkley also in midfield—Everton had four or even five players left up field.
That was the case for Palace's opening goal, which proved crucial.
Martinez predominately selects Naismith, Osman or Steven Pienaar in one of the three positions behind the striker, and this game underlines exactly why.
As well as those three players' more patient craft in attack, their ability to tuck in and solidify the Toffees midfield was sorely missed.
Martinez has so rarely erred during his 10 months at Everton; this line-up was an exception.
James McCarthy a Hard Man to Replace
Perhaps the strangest call was Martinez's decision to rest James McCarthy for the first time in 21 matches, bringing Barkley back into central midfield.
This role is suited to Barkley in the long term, but he struggled to replicate the Irishman's input, especially off the ball.
Without McCarthy's dynamism, Gareth Barry was far less of a steadying influence and Everton's midfield seemed unusually accommodating.
Barry was left exposed at any turnover as Palace regularly found and capitalised on overloads.
If it was unclear just how key McCarthy is to Everton, this performance fully emphasised his worth.
It was later revealed a muscle injury kept him on the bench, although he still managed an energetic 30-minute appearance.
Set-Pieces Still an Issue
One of the very few areas to regress under Martinez's leadership is set-pieces.
The Catalan has been open in his apathy towards them, especially corners, yet he must find a way to present a bigger threat.
Aside from direct free-kicks, Everton have rarely posed any danger from dead-ball deliveries all season.
This match was another example of multiple opportunities leading to minimal attempts on goal.
Of their 13 corners, just one led to a shot.
In stark, decisive contrast, all three of Palace's corners led to an attempt on goal—including the key second strike just after half-time.
Stones Very Much the Toffees' Future
One of the few players to emerge untarnished from this defeat was John Stones.
The 19-year-old continued at centre-back and once again displayed confidence and composure that belie his limited experience.
As highlighted by his manager, his distribution is exceptional. Only Barkley passed more than the defender, who found a team-mate with 73 of his 79 passes during this game.
His 95 percent pass accuracy is all the more impressive considering his willingness to hit fast, precise, cross-field diagonals.
In all, he hit 15 of these longer balls, with 13 going to a team-mate and often launching an Everton attack.
While his defensive work wasn't as polished as in recent weeks—especially for the third goal—these blips will ironed out over time.
What is clear is how his ability on the ball will provide Everton with a new dimension in coming seasons.
It's Not over Yet
This will be a difficult few days around Everton.
Martinez's squad will hurting; devastated at losing their grasp on a top-four finish.
While Arsenal's schedule seems eminently winnable, it just takes one surprise score—such as this result—to pour life back into the Toffees' challenge.
This must not be lost among the gloom.
The Gunners have appeared increasingly fallible over recent weeks and Martinez must rouse his squad to capitalise on any further shocks.
Statistics via WhoScored.com