While many tipped Everton to improve under the stewardship of Roberto Martínez, few would have predicted the scale and speed of their development. Whereas former manager David Moyes made his Toffees famously hard to beat in order to make them the best of the rest, continually fashioning admirably dogged and determined units from relatively modest parts, Martínez has upped the level of footballing style and arguably improved on results.
Everton’s success has won many admirers but also drawn sharp criticism, it being built primarily on the practice of borrowing unwanted players from Champions League outfits – players like Romelu Lukaku, Gerard Deulofeu and Gareth Barry have contributed hugely this season, and one cannot help but feel they would not be seen dead signing a permanent contract at Goodison Park.
Nonetheless, the loan arrangement is beneficial to the players, to their parent clubs and to Everton themselves, and with the purse-strings famously tight on Merseyside, Martínez has been left with little choice other than to borrow and improve available youngsters. Indeed, improving players is Martínez’s modus operandi and one may argue that this was why his time at Wigan Athletic was a success, despite their relegation last season.
The truth is that with their financial resources, Wigan were never going to survive in the Premier League for very long. The best chance they had of improving their lot was by buying promising youngsters, developing them and then cashing in when the big clubs came calling. This policy worked with the careers of Antonio Valencia, Charles N’Zogbia and Victor Moses, as well as Everton’s Leighton Baines and James McCarthy.
However, the club’s reinvestment was never able to keep up with that of their relegation rivals and despite Martínez’s best attempts to maintain a coherent playing philosophy that could attract foreign players to prove themselves in the Premier League’s budget finishing school, injuries to key personnel conspired with horrendous levels of basic incompetence to end the Latics’ eight-year stay in the top flight.
With better players, Martínez’s methods have reaped disproportionate dividends. Everton have lost only three league games this season, the best record in the division and one shared with Arsenal and Chelsea. The same two teams are the only ones to have conceded fewer goals and Martínez’s adventurous 4-2-3-1-cum-3-4-3 system has seen them score the sixth highest number of goals, too.
By now, everyone is aware of how this Everton side plays: they look to monopolise possession, work the ball out to the flanks with quick interchanges or sweeping long-passes and use the vertical power and intelligence of their wing-backs to create overwhelming pressure on the opposition wide-players.
Their reliance on their wing-backs is obvious: 40% of their attacks come down the left, which is logical when they have the much-heralded partnership of Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar on that flank; 33% of their attacks come down the right, with Séamus Coleman’s Cafu-like role having made him one of the Premier League’s most productive players.
If there is a criticism to be made here, it is that Baines and Coleman have only one assist between them this season. Baines’ dead-eye from set-pieces and Coleman’s surprising goalscoring contribution have to some extent covered up the fact that their adventurousness, while effective in that it pins the opposition back remarkably well, has not directly translated to output.
In terms of chances created, Everton’s key men have in fact been Kevin Mirallas, Pienaar and McCarthy, with 2 key passes per game, 1.5 and 1.4 respectively. Mirallas and Lukaku lead the club’s assists chart with five apiece, with Gareth Barry, Leon Osman and McCarthy on three. These figures underscore the multifaceted threat that Everton pose: once they have you camped in your own half, they can score from anywhere.
It will be interesting to see how Martínez sets up on Sunday: top scorer and attacking focal point Lukaku is out with the injury he sustained in the Merseyside derby drubbing, but otherwise the Spaniard arrives at White Hart Lane with a full-strength side.
Tim Howard will start in goal, barring an unexpected outbreak of the plague, with the familiar back four of Coleman, Jagielka, Distin and Baines in front of him. The full-backs will expect to spend more time in Spurs’ half than their own, although the directness of Tim Sherwood’s system could lead Martínez to play it safe with one of them.
Gareth Barry will patrol the area in front of the defence, acting simultaneously as the third man in defence and the metronome through whom all attacking moves must go. He is Everton’s most prolific passer: his figure of 71.3 per game is 17 more than any other Everton player. Arguably still underrated by most fans, putting Barry under constant pressure is perhaps Spurs’ best chance of disrupting Everton’s rhythm.
James McCarthy will play slightly ahead of Barry, acting as a link-man between defence and attack. His role is essentially to balance the team, which suits his attributes: his positional play is very good and he reads attacking moves well as a consequence of Martínez coaching. If his development continues at the pace it is moving, he will find himself on the move to a club playing Champions League football very soon.
England’s latest Great White Hope, Ross Barkley, should start as the most advanced midfielder and is capable of producing something from nothing, but there are doubts over his match fitness. It could be that the more experienced and tactically-aware Leon Osman is trusted with the task of facing up to Spurs’ aggressive midfield.
In their last match, against Aston Villa, new arrival Aiden McGeady started wide on the right and can be expected to do so again. After a difficult time in Russia with Spartak Moscow, McGeady is looking to re-establish himself as a player and his tricky, technical style fits right in with his coach’s philosophy.
Steven Pienaar is finally fit again and should resume his brilliantly refined role on the left, primarily acting as a pivot for Baines to use and create space with. Despite the South African’s return to health, there is the possibility that Osman could carry on having started the last game in this position.
Up front, Kevin Mirallas is the favourite to carry on where he left off up front, with Steven Naismith an outside bet to take the starting role and presumably relegate McGeady to the bench with Mirallas moving back to his favoured wide-right position.
Without the presence of a target-man, Martínez may tell his front three or four players to interchange at will and look to exploit the spaces that come from said movement – a ploy that could play havoc against Tim Sherwood’s favoured 4-4-2 system. Equally, should the players fail to carry it out, their tactical sophistication could be their Achilles’ Heel.
Indeed, while Martínez’s side should have the upper hand tactically, at least on paper, this could be one of those games where factors such as home advantage, individual quality and direct attacking count for more than sophisticated preparation and good form. As previously stated, the figures produced by Everton’s defence this season have been extraordinary, but I have a hunch that this will be one of those games where simply putting the ball in the box for Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado will do the job.
Name - Rob Brown
Twitter - @Robbro7