After the inevitable pessimism that followed a thoroughly abject 2014/15 Premier League campaign, this time around Everton, as a club, finally has its swagger back, both on and off the pitch. Gone is the overly lateral, possession-centric football witnessed during last season’s below-par showings; in its place a fluid, exciting – if slightly more direct – attacking style that caters to the considerable strengths of the plethora of young stars being carefully (and successfully) nurtured by the reinvigorated Roberto Martinez. As such, it’s fair to say there’s a general ‘sky’s the limit’ sort of optimism sweeping through the Evertonian ranks at the minute. Supporters are enjoying seeing their side play, and rightly so, for the case could well be made that Blues are currently English football’s great entertainers.
The expectation was always such that after a season of under achievement things could only get better for a talented squad that was stretched to its limits during the 2014/15 season; a year in which Europa League participation and World Cup hangovers transpired to undermine, and indeed temporarily negate, the visible signs of progress evident during the Catalan’s first season on Merseyside. That’s not to say, of course, that players and manager alike could afford to hide behind excuses of regular injuries and fatigue. Yes, impalpable factors such as these were out of the hands of Martinez et al, but what was needed was a thorough analysis of the failings on the pitch, and a concerted effort to put them right, and for the most part the response has been impressive.
With the shackles off and (painful) memories of long-haul trips to Kiev consigned to the history books, Martinez focused his efforts on righting the wrongs of the previous campaign by tweaking his preferred tactical setup and strengthening the squad in a number of key areas. Crucially, this has, by and large, succeeded, with the signings of Gerard Deulofeu, Tom Cleverley and Ramiro Funes Mori simultaneously adding quality to the first eleven and improving squad depth. The Toffees now boast greater, more dynamic options both in the centre of midfield and in wide areas, with £4.2 million bargain Deulofeu (11 assists) – once heralded as the standout prospect in the post-Messi La Masia era- excelling as creator -in-chief.
Tactically, while the 4-2-3-1 formation used in 13/14 and 14/15 remains the shape, personnel and modus operandi of the team have all changed. Whereas star striker Romelu Lukaku was once left isolated and starved of decent service for large swathes of matches, the use of Arouna Koné and an old-fashioned inside forward and the increasingly influential Deulofeu on the right-wing as a conventional ‘get paint on your boots’ sort of winger in an asymmetrical system has afforded the Belgian striker the space in which to thrive. The ex-Chelsea man is in the form of his life, with his goal at Norwich taking his season tally to 16 goals (all competitions) and making him the first Everton player in over forty years to net in seven consecutive games. Couple this with the massive strides that made by Ross Barkley ( 6 goals, 5 assists in the PL) in recent months and you get the sense that, on their day, the Blues’ front four are a match for anyone in the league. When it clicks, as it did in the recent home thrashings of Sunderland and Aston Villa, the aforementioned quartet are close to unplayable, yet, in the absence of another striker to take the considerable goalscoring burden off Lukaku’s hands, at the time of writing chances are being spurned all too regularly, with the Merseysiders guilty of failing to kill sides off when they get ahead. In this case, two things immediately spring to mind; first, Everton’s achilles heel is still – as it has been for the best part of Martinez’s reign – a lack of defensive solidity both in general play and from set pieces. Much-maligned by sections of the fan base, Tim Howard, soon to be 37, is an obvious weak link from crosses, and the American custodian routinely fails to come for crosses in his six-yard-box.
Second, game management is still a string that manager Martinez needs to add to his bow. Two-goal leads have twice been squandered in the past month, away to Bournemouth and at home to Sunderland, while the Toffees also failed to see out the game against a dispirited, out-of-form Norwich. A solid 1-0 victory at St James’ Park was then followed up with a 3-4 home reserve versus Stoke City, a game in which Everton conceded two goals in the last ten minutes. It would be nice to see more inventive substitutions from the Catalan, as the likes of Kevin Mirallas, Steven Naismith and Aaron Lennon remain chronically underused when games become stretched in the latter stages.
Currently, Everton sit in a rather underwhelming eleventh position, nine points off the coveted Champions League places. Even though the opportunity is there for a squad as talented as this to take advantage of an unpredictable league table and mount a concerted attempt at securing a place in Europe’s premier club competition, the feeling lingers that, unless the flaws listed above are remedied supporters may have to settle for more style than substance as far as the Premier League is concerned. Most Evertonians would take this if it meant the club lifting its first trophy in just on twenty years, though, and with a League Cup semi-final showdown with Manchester City on the horizon, attention will now turn to preparations for the two-leg encounter with Manuel Pellegrini’s side. Our star-studded, nouveau riche opponents may well start as favourites, but after scraping through in previous rounds, some associated with Everton believe the club’s name is on the cup this year. At this stage in proceedings it’s always worth adding a note of caution where the Toffees are concerned. For this is Everton- the perennial nearly men and underachievers – and while there may never be another opportunity quite like this to break through the proverbial glass ceiling by lifting a trophy and/or breaking into the top four the feeling remains that for all their obvious promise (and it is just that at this stage) there are several rough edges in need of ironing out, and sharpish, if Martinez’s men are to live up to their billing. Time will tell on this one, but one thing is for certain either way; 2016 could well define the former Wigan boss’ tenure on Merseyside. Fingers crossed for a positive outcome.
Follow Patrick on Twitter @Paddy_Boyland