06 April 2014

Everton port-mortem: Pascal's Wager

I'm speechless. I don't know if I've ever been as downcast and depressed as I am over a football match as I was over this one. We've had some epic collapses against teams before, but there's something about this one that just feels heavier, more calamitous, than previous ones. We could write off the debacles at Stamford Bridge, Anfield, and the Etihad as one-off freaks of football in which a myriad of other circumstances came together and caved in on us. This one, though, peels back the curtain and suggests that the man behind it really would rather we pay him no attention whatsoever. It's a grim denouement to a season. It may even suggest the end of a career.

Of course, we still have five matches to play, not to mention the FA Cup to vie for. However, the nature of this loss and its impact on our prospects for next year are hard to exaggerate, hard to blow out of proportion. Everton now have an inside track to fourth place—they're a point behind with a game in hand. Even if they have the tougher run-in with visits from Man U and Man City over the horizon, we have issues of our own to deal with and can hardly count on Everton to drop points, not with the run they're on and the confidence they have. Last season, it was us who stormed across the finish to claim fourth in dramatic fashion; this time around, we're witnessing that charge, if not being run over by it.

I can't even stomach the idea of rehashing what went wrong. It would take too long and take too much out of me. Suffice it to say, Martínez saw a left-flank that consisted of Gibbs Monreal and Vermaelen with Podolski in front of them, and promptly moved Lukaku over there. He ran rough-shod over all three—well, two, because Podolski could not be bothered to track back, leaving two players who have barely played, much less played together, to deal with Lukaku on their own. The scoreline flatters us, in fact, as Szczesny made a number of crucial saves early on to keep us close, and the chasm in quality between us and them was a jaw-dropping sight to behold. We're staggering and on the brink of collapse, and even our relatively gentle run-in doesn't seem to inspire much confidence. We've dropped our destiny, such as it was, and simply have to win everything in front of us while hoping that Everton drop points somewhere. They'll have to drop at least two points, if not three, because they now also have a goal-differential of +12, five better than ours.

So where does us leave us? We have the Champions League hanging by a thread and the FA Cup ahead of us. It reminds me of Pascal's Wager, which he used to determine whether or not he should believe in God. It takes only a small stretch of the imagination to see its application here. In place of Pascal's variables (I believe, I don't believe; God exists, God doesn't exist), I propose Wenger's (finish 4th, finish 5th; win FA Cup, don't win FA Cup).  Presenting these options to us might help us to determine just where on the path to heaven, hell, or purgatory we currently stand, and which forks in the road lay ahead. There's still time, but one would be remiss to wait until Death is knocking before taking stock.

With that in mind, here's what we have: a grid that presents those options and their meanings for us. It's not quite a match with Pascal, but you get the idea. We may not be weighing eternity here, but it might feel like something similar. In the "eternal happiness" area, we win the FA Cup and finish fourth. In the "Eternal Misery" area, we finish 5th and fail to win the FA Cup. Unfortunately, Sunday's result shoves us rudely towards the right column, where we hover somewhere between depression and disaster. Finishing fifth would bring to an end a seventeen-year run of Champions League football and send us careening around the Europa League, which, I remind myself with a shudder, I have derided and mocked gleefully and remorselessly. Should we fall from grace, we can also likely look ahead to another summer filled with wild goose chases and dashed dreams as Cavanis, Costas, and Pogbas of the world either stay put or go where the gettin's much better than we can give. While we're at it, a fair few players might look to leave, whether it's Sagna, Podolski, or Vermaelen.

Speaking of leaving, where does this leave Arsène? Even if we find a way to finish fourth and win the FA Cup, what does this betide? It's hard to see him staying, harder-still to see fans wanting him to stay. I, among others, have stood by and defended him and the club through injuries, failed transfer policies, and all manner of other disappointments, but I begin to worry that this defeat, regardless of how we recover, might just mark the moment that reveals how much the game has caught up to the man who did so much to change it. Martínez, after all, is seen as an heir-apparent to Arsène, what with his emphasis on attacking, attractive football. However, a result such as this one suggests that, contrary to Arsène, Martínez brings a tactical nous, a savvy for each match, that led to the devastating result today. Even shorn of Osman a few minutes in, he was able to adapt on the fly and to put his players in a position to perform. All through the match, he cajoled, shouted, and, well, coached while Arsène sat and watched. The contrast between them matched the contrast between players on the field. Everton's XI were full of piss and vinegar; we looked to be hollow men, heads stuffed with straw.

It's not quite the end, yet, but the whimper we managed at Goodison Park feels that way. I want to say it was just one match, but this is the fourth such time we've collapsed. Grasping feebly for a silver lining, at least Ramsey came on and did well. Kos should be back, as may Gibbs and Gnabry. Whether they and the rest of the squad can dust themselves off and come back fighting is the question.