Testing Times

Lost in the dramatic unravelling of Everton's season has been the positive adventure that characterised Roberto Martinez's first season in charge. Can the adversity he now faces bring it back?

Roberto Martinez earned numerous plaudits for his swashbuckling approach in his debut season. Regularly making bold decisions without batting an eyelid, the former Wigan boss impressed with his fearlessness and willingness to opt for the attacking option whenever possible, particularly when it came to substitutions.

Romelu Lukaku came off the bench on his debut at West Ham, turning the game in Everton’s favour and eventually scoring the winning goal. Martinez had no qualms about throwing the Belgian into the action on his debut.

Steven Pienaar scoring just 27 seconds after Martinez introduced him in the 2-1 win at home to Hull is perhaps the best example of the effectiveness of substitutions last season.

Another standout intervention arrived in the Merseyside derby when Leighton Baines had to depart through injury with the match just 50 minutes old. Martinez went for the bold option, introducing Gerard Deulofeu into midfield and moving Gareth Barry to left back.

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The move paid off, only slack defending in the closing stages prevented three points from a previously losing position. Deulofeu terrorised the Liverpool back line with his pace and the ambitious ploy underlined the principles of a manager not afraid to take risks in order to generate rewards.

Leon Osman scored a decisive second in the 2-0 win at Aston Villa in October; Gerard Deulofeu had been on the pitch for five minutes when he earned a point at the Emirates in December. Kevin Mirallas scored in the next match as the Blues demolished Fulham 4-1; Lukaku haunted West Ham once more to score the winner in the return fixture at Goodison.

Both Steven Naismith and Mirallas scored after entering the fray from the substitutes’ bench in the corresponding trip to Fulham, while Naismith grabbed another in this fashion in the 3-2 defeat at home to Crystal Palace.

Luck plays a part in these changes and their effectiveness; for example, Martinez cannot legislate for introducing a player who goes on to disappoint. However, what has been absent this season is a willingness to make these changes.

Fast-forward to the present day, the same fearless attitude appears dampened. The defeat at Manchester City best highlighted a previously unseen cautious streak, when Seamus Coleman and Tony Hibbert both started in a bid to keep Sergio Aguero quiet. The Martinez from his debut season would have wanted City to worry about Everton, not the other way around.

There is a seeming reluctance to influence matches with the same readiness and sense of adventure. Changes are arriving too late, giving players’ minimal time to affect the outcome of the match.

Amid the run of games either side of the 3-1 win over QPR, Everton failed to use their full quota of substitutes in each of the four matches - four matches in which the Blues drew or lost, matches in which results were being chased.

In the 3-0 defeat at Southampton, Martinez’s insistence that the players on the pitch were best for the task made him the first Everton manager since January 2009 to go through a match without a single change.

The other criticism levelled at the Toffees’ boss is a failure to deviate from his favoured formation. In his first season, noticeable home wins over Manchester United and Arsenal were synonymous with successful tactical ploys differing from the usual.

This season, since the same approach worked then eventually backfired on Arsenal’s latest visit to Goodison Park in the second game this term, Martinez has largely stuck to the tried and trusted 4-2-3-1.

One possible reason for a lack of formation alteration is player suitability. There are those who would like to see Everton replicate the back-three system employed by Martinez at Wigan, but this squad lacks the ball-playing centre backs for a system that would put even more pressure on an already overworked Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman.

Similarly, the absence of wide players, both in terms of numbers and quality, undermines the calls for 4-3-3. Mirallas is the only player suited to the advanced forward positions associated with a three-man attack. Then there is 4-4-2, which constantly failed under David Moyes, and there is little evidence supporting its reintroduction, especially as it tends to leave midfield and defence susceptible to opposition attacks. This defence does not need any more questions asked of it.

Nonetheless, for the 3-2 defeat at Newcastle, the first signs of tinkering did emerge. Despite limited success, seven personnel changes and various tactical changes made for a refreshing break from habit. It would be more worrying if Martinez stubbornly refused to tweak formations or rotate out-of-form personnel.

This poor run of form that has seen Everton lose as many matches (8) as the whole of last season may help coax the Martinez of last season back to centre stage. This is the most testing time of his tenure and this adversity may just reignite the positive, adventurous methods evident last season.