Second-season syndrome has well and truly set in for Roberto Martinez and his Everton side. The Spaniard's attractive passing style earned him rave reviews and a fifth-place finish last season, but now lying in 12th, he needs to make changes to turn the Toffees around.
Everton recorded their highest-ever points tally last season. But 22 games into the current campaign, the Blues are just four points above the relegation zone.
While Everton have more than enough quality to avoid the drop, it shows how far they've fallen from the heights of last year.
A significant reason for this is a decline in their defensive capabilities, brought on by Martinez's style.
Everton conceded just 39 times in their previous league campaign, but so far this year they've only managed three clean sheets, the lowest of any Premier League side.
It's possible that last season the players enjoyed a balance between David Moyes' defensive legacy and Martinez's new philosophy.
The frequency of errors has also been alarming. Everton have made 11 errors leading to goals already this season. That's more than any side in Europe's top five leagues. They only made six in the whole of last year.
Ross Barkley was guilty of gifting Newcastle United a goal in December after miscontrolling the ball inside the area (2:16, below).
An even more telling error was John Stones' attempt to dribble through three West Ham United players on the edge of his own area in the recent FA Cup replay (from the start, below).
This kind of mistake is indicative of Martinez' passing, short-ball-only style.
Gary Lineker tweeted his approval of Stones' attempt:
Martinez, meanwhile, said: "I will never tell him off for carrying the ball out of defence," according to Phil Kirkbride of the Liverpool Echo.
However, as admirable as Stones' intentions were, there's a time and a place for it. Stones is young and inexperienced, but it illustrates the larger point that Everton's adherence to this style is causing problems and the need to adapt.
The Spaniard needs to be more willing to allow his players to clear the ball out of the defence. Even if it surrenders possession, the ball is lost much further upfield and not immediately in front of goal.
Per Daniel Anwar of Squawka, another problem has been caused by Martinez's 4-2-3-1 formation.
While it allows Everton's wingers to push up and cause problems, it leaves the Blues exposed at the back. Kevin Mirallas' heat map against Tottenham Hotspur shows that there isn't much tracking back:
With the likes of Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin suffering the effects of age, and Joel Robles the effects of inexperience, the defence needs more protection.
Martinez need not ditch the 4-2-3-1 entirely, but being able to adapt to each game and perhaps switch to a more conventional 4-5-1 on the fly could help in this department.
Another problem with the former Wigan manager's tactics is that they aren't getting enough out of Romelu Lukaku.
The £28 million hitman scored 15 goals in 29 league starts last season, but in 19 starts this season he has netted just six. Squawka reveal how the Belgian has been less involved this year:
According to Adam Bate of Sky Sports, Lukaku admitted a change in style could help. He said:
The players were asking about going more direct.
We all said to the manager, 'Can we play a bit more direct sometimes?' We have a style of play where we keep the ball a lot, but knew we needed to take more responsibility, play to my strengths more.
For me that makes it easier, because when I am one v one, running on a defender, that gives me a better chance.
As with the defence, a complete change of style is not necessarily required. What is needed is the ability to adapt to different situations and be more versatile in their approach. There will be times this season—for example, against the likes of Spurs who play with a high defensive line—where a direct approach will bear more fruit.
Unfortunately for Everton, Martinez has shown little willingness to do this. Per Adam Bate, he said: "You don’t win games by changing the style. You win games by being very good at what you do. Changing only brings doubts."
Having nothing beyond Plan A worked for Pep Guardiola's Barcelona because they had the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, who can create magic out of nothing.
As good as Everton's players are, they're not close to that level. Being too rigid in their approach is only going to cause them problems for the foreseeable future. Martinez has to change his tactics to save their season.
Knocked out of the domestic cups, Everton can only qualify for European football next season by coming fifth or winning the UEFA Europa League this year. Fifth is unquestionably beyond the Toffees at this point, and winning the Europa League is a huge ask.
However, if Martinez makes some changes, he can achieve a top-half finish, restore some pride and give both current and prospective players a reason to be excited about his project at Goodison Park once more.