If Roberto Martinez continues to set Everton up in the style which worked so effectively against Stoke City, then the the swell of angst against him in recent weeks will quickly dissipate.
Perhaps alongside the 3-0 win against Southampton in the second match of the season, the triumph at the Britannia Stadium by the same scoreline was the Toffees’ most balanced showing of the entire campaign.
It was a victory made extra sweet as this was the first time in 10 months the team has notched back-to-back Premier League wins, the other coming against Newcastle United on Wednesday; six points in four days is most welcome for a side who, despite moving up to seventh spot with this victory, are still underachieving.
They’re wins and clean-sheets which have come about due to a clear shift in tactics from the manager, one which has been in motion for the majority of 2016. Now, Everton have to cherish this new-found efficiency in their football.
We saw signs of a more pragmatic ethos against Tottenham Hotspur in the first game of the calendar year, with Muhamed Besic and Aaron Lennon impressive. In the first-leg of the League Cup semi-final, a similar set-up was used, with Tom Cleverley tucking in on the left flank and Besic snapping around in midfield.
Joel Robles has played his part too. Granted, he’s had little to do in Everton’s last three outings, but a trio of clean sheets in seven days is not something many would have considered this brittle defensive structure to be capable of; needless to say, the Spaniard’s presence has been settling at the base of the XI.
It’s a set-up which has worked well for Everton when utilised this season and one which saw this side flourish at the Britannia, as the Toffees ran riot in the first half before being foiled by the excellent Jack Butland in the second.
Like the showing on the south coast, it was a comprehensive effort. Everton were industrious out of possession, with Lennon in particular seeming insatiable in his willingness to get any kind of a touch on the ball anywhere down the right flank. Cleverley and James McCarthy, both superb on the day, also played crucial roles.
At the back, there were no great dramas either. Although John Stones is a special talent, at the moment the fundamental defensive qualities of skipper Phil Jagielka and Ramiro Funes Mori helps relieve pressure off the back line rather than encourage it.
The extra focus on keeping clean sheets also means that when this side does get in front, there’s a better chance of keeping the advantages intact too, something we’ve seen as Newcastle and Stoke have been snuffed out. Also, when things don’t quite go to plan, significant firepower is in reserve on the bench.
And while the side is not quite as full of attacking talent, with Gerard Deulofeu the noticeable omission in recent wins, it’s a structure which has brought the best out of other offensive gems, especially Ross Barkley.
With Lennon, McCarthy and Cleverley all ratting around in midfield and nicking the ball back, Everton are turning possession over quicker, getting it into Barkley’s feet and giving him more space to burst into.
It’s no surprise that the England international has played his best three games of the season in the last three matches. He’s relishing the responsibility of being the side’s key creative crux and with a more cohesive foundation in place behind him, Barkley seems to have been encouraged to take the game to the opposition. With him, Romelu Lukaku, Lennon, Cleverley and the two full-backs all in the XI, there’s more than enough attacking quality to trouble sides.
This has to be the way forward for this team; balancing steeliness with an attacking flair. Martinez is renowned for his attacking mantras, but his team has shown they can juggle the two and the benefits of doing so have been clear.
But we’ve been here before with this side and this manager. Martinez has a niggling reflex for cavalier football which has been prevalent throughout his career in management; now, especially with a relatively favourable set of fixtures to come, it’s going to be interesting to see whether he can stave it off.
Of course, there may well come a point when the likes of Deulofeu and Kevin Mirallas will be needed, but they must fit into a system which has proven the best fit for the greater good. Tim Howard, Leighton Baines and Stones should have to wait for their chances too, regardless of their pedigree and perceived influence on the starting XI.
Hopefully, this week the penny has dropped for Martinez. The model may not cater for the utopia of attacking play which the Catalan seems to crave, but it’s still entertaining. More importantly, it has proven to be extremely effective against sides from all sections of the Premier League table.
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