Unproductive to undroppable: Aaron Lennon's Merseyside renaissance at Everton
It's October 2014: Tottenham are hosting Newcastle at White Hart Lane. Aaron Lennon looks up and surveys the situation in front of him. Harry Kane and Roberto Soldado wait in the box. Cristian Eriksen loiters on the edge, and Nacer Chadli makes for the far post.
Lennon, brought off the substitutes' bench in place of Erik Lamela with 12 minutes remaining, is in a good position with the ball on the right. His Spurs side are 2-1 behind at home to Alan Pardew’s Magpies, and their hopes of an equaliser are fading away with every passing second. The winger, though, has done well to work himself a yard of space, after his speed takes him away from Toon left-back Paul Dummett. As Lennon approaches the byline, White Hart Lane holds its collective breath.
The subsequent exhalation comes in the form of 32,000 sighs: the cross has failed to beat the first man and Newcastle clear their lines, pushing right up the pitch and relieving the pressure on their back four. The final whistle sounds moments later, condemning Spurs to their third home defeat of the season.
That single moment seemed to encapsulate Lennon’s entire career to date: clear evidence of ability but ultimately a failure to deliver in a promising situation. That may sound harsh on a man who has won 21 caps for England and produced some fantastic individual performances over the years – most notably under the guidance of Harry Redknapp and Andre Villas-Boas – yet it is a description that will resonate with those who have been continually frustrated with his seemingly chronic inconsistency.
Since Lennon joined Everton on loan in January, however, he has proven a reliable figure, and it's no coincidence that the Toffees’ recent upturn has coincided with the 28-year-old playing 445 of the last 450 Premier League minutes. Roberto Martinez’s side have won four of their last five encounters, with Lennon playing a pivotal role in each victory.
Ashley Young will not be the only in-form and revived English winger on show at Goodison Park when Everton take on Manchester United on Sunday.
Lennon’s first Everton start came in March’s defeat to Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium. Martinez bemoaned his team’s lack of spark and energy in his post-match interview, while insisting that his players had it in them to pull clear of the relegation zone.
The Spaniard kept faith with his on-loan wideman the following week against Newcastle, a game Everton headed into just six points clear of the bottom three. Lennon was superb as the Merseysiders cruised to a 3-0 victory, adding zip and pace that had previously been absent. He hugged the right touchline for most of the game, and always looked to run at the full-back; although only one of Lennon’s six attempted take-ons was successful, his direct approach was clear. A pair of Newcastle fouls on him led to an Everton penalty and Fabricio Coloccini’s sending off.
At many stages of this season, Everton’s patient, possession-based style that brought them so much joy last term has not reaped rewards. Lennon, with his speed and direct running, has given the Toffees an added dimension, offering a change of pace, an outlet on the counter-attack and the opportunity to quicken the tempo in an instant.
The natural width he provides has also been important. Lennon is an old-fashioned winger who focuses on beating his man on the outside and getting crosses into the box. Martinez’s preference for a high defensive line makes attacking width essential: if a side is squeezing the pitch vertically, it is important to then stretch it horizontally to avoid congestion in central zone. With Leon Osman starting four of Everton’s last five games on the left, Lennon has been the primary provider of it.
There are early indicators of a better end product too. On first viewing, Lennon’s goals against QPR and Swansea appeared to be little more than simple finishes from close range, but both actually demonstrated his ability to take up dangerous positions inside the box when the ball is on the opposite side of the pitch; indeed, the two goals featured build-up play down the left, with Lennon then on hand to apply the finishing touch after working enough space to leave himself unmarked in the penalty area.
For a player who has yet to find the net more than five times in any single league season, his recent strikes are a clear sign of improvement.
Lennon’s diligence without the ball has also impressed, suggesting an increased maturity in the 28-year-old’s mindset. Against Newcastle and Swansea he recovered possession four times; seven in the home defeat of Southampton.
Playing on the same flank as flying full-back Seamus Coleman means that Lennon is not without defensive responsibilities. The Irishman, always keen to overlap, has not had to temper his natural inclination to bomb forward whenever possible: in his last five matches, Lennon has attempted 4.2 tackles per game on average, an indication of his willingness to help out with the unglamorous task of covering for the marauding right-back whenever necessary.
The next couple of months will be a hugely significant time in Lennon’s career. His Tottenham deal expires in June 2016 and, with Mauricio Pochettino seemingly not a huge fan, it is has been widely reported that the player is “desperate” to extend his stay on Merseyside. With Spurs allegedly interested in Everton’s Belgian winger Kevin Mirallas, some form of swap deal could be in the pipeline.
Now 28, Lennon’s next move will be a vital one. If he wants to stay at Everton beyond the end of this campaign, he must maintain his current level of performance in his side’s five remaining games, starting this Sunday against Louis van Gaal’s revitalised Manchester United.
As things stand, the winger finds himself in a good position. This time he must take full advantage.