Gareth Barry's downturn in form central to Everton's struggles
It came during the heady days of a new relationship. Gareth Barry was the Evertonian Invincible, a man whose presence on the pitch provided immunity against defeat. He was both lucky mascot and James McCarthy's mentor. He was a theorist's dream, a player with the intelligence to implement Roberto Martinez's sophisticated tactics. He was a strolling indictment of Manuel Pellegrini, who exiled him unceremoniously from Manchester City and saw him excel elsewhere.
City's loss was Everton's gain. Martinez has a tendency to gush anyway, but a mention of Barry tended to make him coo. "Unique," one of the Spaniard's favourite adjectives, was deployed regularly, especially the suggestion that Barry was that rarity, an Englishman with a continental European's understanding of the holding role. Most remarkably, he argued Barry could have the best part of a decade left in his career.
"I think Gareth can play up to his 40s," he said. Barry was 32 then. He is 33 now. He has a contract that takes him past his 36th birthday. Its end looks a long way away, and that, for Everton, is a worrying sign. Martinez's logic was that, as Barry possessed a footballing brain and never relied on pace, he could have longevity. It made sense.
Yet now he is dangerously slow. Besides collecting cautions, the only thing Barry is doing quickly now is declining. In his debut season at Everton, while on loan from City, Barry represented much of what was right about the Merseysiders -- intelligent recruitment, tactical awareness, a possession game played with geometrical precision, the proof ageing players could be reinvented by an innovative manager -- but 12 months on, he is indicative of much that is wrong.
He did not lose a league game at all last season until Boxing Day; he has tasted defeat nine times already this term. Like Martinez's Everton, he is suffering from an acute case of second-season syndrome. Old and slow, he is emblematic of a team. A summer signing who is struggling, he is a microcosm of the ambitious transfer business that has reaped few rewards. Above all, a defensive midfielder is not protecting the defence. Only QPR have conceded more often than Everton.
If midfielders are rarely judged by the goals against column, perhaps Everton's should be exceptions. Martinez's full-backs are programmed to spend so much time going forward that the quartet of outfield players nearest their goal tend to include the two holding midfielders. Yet Barry has been unable to cover the ground required, especially when possession has been lost. Indeed, he coughed it up against Tottenham, dispossessed by Harry Kane when Roberto Soldado scored.
His deeper role makes tactical fouling more important to prevent counter-attacks when Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman are stranded upfield. It is notable his disciplinary record has deteriorated at Goodison Park. He was booked 10 times last season and has eight yellow cards already this. He is fortunate that total is not higher.
There have been frequent flirtations with two in the space of one game -- he could have been dismissed within the first 10 minutes of September's Merseyside derby -- and there are times when it seems he has been saved by being Gareth Barry. His stolidity, the dullness that saw him mocked first by the Boring James Milner Twitter parody and then the real Milner in the space of a few weeks, seems to earn him the benefit of the doubt from referees.
More seriously, a recourse to fouling when isolated against an opponent is a shortcoming in a midfielder with destructive duties. It is notable how quickly influence in the Everton midfield has shifted. If Barry initially guided McCarthy through games, now the Ireland international is the indispensable one; his injury-enforced absences have exposed Barry's deficiencies. Many would welcome the selection of the more athletic Muhamed Besic alongside McCarthy when the hamstrung latter is finally fit again.
The energetic Bosnian may be especially useful against Barry's former club City on Saturday. As Barry discovered to his cost, Pellegrini has fondness for all-action midfielders; the one British veteran he appreciates is the ever productive Frank Lampard.
And over the course of a year, Barry has gone from a talismanic figure to an inauspicious presence. Everton have not won a league game with him in the side since October. Their last victory, against QPR, came with the youthful duo of Ross Barkley and Besic paired in the centre of midfield. Martinez reprised that selection at Hull on New Year's Day, but accommodated Barry by choosing him on the left of a back three; it was a role in which he made his name at Aston Villa, but one he has rarely occupied this millennium.
It was a disaster. Barry fouled Ahmed Elmohamady inside the penalty area -- a free kick was errantly awarded -- and collected a caution; once again, he diced with a second. Much as Martinez is eager to experiment tactically and is often an advocate of a three-man defence, it is hard to imagine Barry beginning in one again.
Yet it is notable that the Everton manager is reluctant to countenance naming a side without him. Barry's centrality in his plans was evident when, with skipper Phil Jagielka missing the Newcastle game, the veteran captained his side. Leighton Baines, an Evertonian, a longer-serving player and one who merits his place in the team, appeared a more deserving candidate. Instead left-back Baines, in yet more of Martinez's tactical tinkering, has spent at least some of the last two league games in midfield.
It hints at a recognition that last season's successful formula, a 4-2-3-1 based around Barry's capacity to anchor the midfield, isn't working. But a reunion with City indicates the sheer scale of change in Everton's fortunes. Then Pellegrini was being criticised for allowing Barry to leave. Now his pivotal role forms part of the case against Martinez.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.