If Everton's defence stands firm against Manchester City, the whole city of Liverpool will benefit. Paul Wilkes analyses the budding partnership of Phil Jagielka and John Stones...
Everton may be unlikely to close the four-point gap to fourth-placed Arsenal, but it has still been a remarkable campaign for the Merseyside club.
The team and supporters are now full of confidence that this success can be built upon and that they can make another challenge for the top four next year. Roberto Martinez has his side playing some exceptional football and his tactical variations have given the players a new sense of freedom.
Whilst Martinez's predecessor David Moyes did extraordinarily well on a limited budget and over a long period of time, his team had reached a plateau. During Moyes' 11-year tenure, Everton failed to win at Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool; Martinez ended that run at the first time of asking, at the Scotsman's expense when the Toffees won at Old Trafford in December.
How Martinez improved Everton
It's not just stylistically that Everton have improved: there's a new mental ethos that has assisted their results. The belief that they can take the initiative against any team within the league is a stark contrast from simply trying not to get beaten.
Martinez has taken Everton to their highest-ever points total since the Premier League started. "The fifth-placed team this season will be the unluckiest never to get into the Champions League – and it's going to get harder and harder," explains the Spanish manager.
The lack of resources mean that squad depth has been a worry for many years and this is highlighted further when you consider that three of their most important players this season are loan signings: Romelu Lukaku, Gerard Deulofeu and Gareth Barry.
"I don't want to qualify for the Champions League and not be good enough to compete in it," added Martinez. With his ability to improve players by coaching and teaching, Martinez can continue to make £5 million transfers look like £20 million ones.
His extensive knowledge of foreign markets, as displayed by his Wigan signings, will aid his quest for reinforcements at cheap prices, while the coach's faith in the academy system means that any gaps in the squad are filled by promising youngsters rather than panic purchases at the end of August.
Their impressive form this season at Goodison Park was in fact started last year and there is little between the two managers in that comparison. They have acquired the same amount of points at the ground, although Moyes' team conceded one more goal and Martinez still has to face Manchester City this weekend.
The real alterations are in how those results came about. Under Moyes they had 53.6% possession at home with a 79.5% pass success rate; with Martinez, it's 55.4% possession and 83.5% pass completion. It may seem marginal, but it can make a big difference as we have seen.
Everton have lost only twice on their own turf this season to Sunderland and Crystal Palace. Their defensive record as a whole has been good as the third best in the league and they have also kept clean sheets against Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham at home.
Their issues with own goals last weekend at Southampton were both unfortunate and down to their unfamiliarity. Antolin Alcaraz was making just his fourth league start of the season and it was only the second time he was partnering 19-year-old John Stones.
Made in Yorkshire
With Sylvain Distin hamstrung, the defensive stability is further threatened by holding midfielder Gareth Barry's ineligibility against his parent club – so the timing of their captain's return couldn't be better.
"Phil Jagielka has been recovering well and the plan was always for him to be in the squad for Manchester City, and we are hoping that is going to be the case," Martinez told reporters this week.
Stones and Jagielka have also only played as a centre-back partnership on one other occasion: shutting out Norwich, both were among the top three passers of the match. The two have been in the line-up together with Stones at right-back, whilst Jagielka's organisational skills were also badly missed when the Paraguayan partnered the teenager.
The Jagielka-Stones pairing is much more than a stopgap: with Distin now 36, this is likely to be the chosen combination for the future. And although Martinez won't be hurrying the Frenchman out of the door, he will welcome the continued development of the Yorkshire-tinged partnership.
Barnsley-born Stones and Sheffield-schooled Jagielka are more comfortable on the ball than Everton's other two centre-back options, which means that the team play with greater control when looking to build attacks from the back. Stones has the highest pass completion rate out of the entire squad, whilst no one completes more clearances than Jagielka, whose excellent positioning foxes forwards.
This is Manchester City's last away trip of the season and for many, considering the subsequent home games against Aston Villa and West Ham, their final real test. City have lost on their last four visits, and it could play heavily on the minds of the squad.
If Everton hold or even beat City, they could help Liverpool in claiming the title. While some supporters won't want that to happen, it will matter little to those in a blue shirt. The players and manager will want to finish the season in a positive fashion knowing that it can be carried into the new term. With Martinez in charge, the next few years will be bright for Everton, even if they take a huge step towards helping their local rivals this weekend.