Everton’s start to the 2013/14 campaign went from ‘good’ to ‘great’ after Wednesday night’s 1-0 victory over Manchester United. It wasn’t just that they defeated the former champions, it was that they defeated their former coach – David Moyes had a terrible record away at big clubs in his Everton days, partly because of his negative tactics in those matches.
Roberto Martinez has Everton playing a more proactive, positive style of football – and having triumphed at Old Trafford, there’s no reason they can’t repeat the feat at the Emirates this weekend.
The Spaniard's approach at Everton has been extremely intelligent. Although evolving the style of play was clearly a key consideration, he understood that he didn’t need to completely rip up the existing side.
There are two major areas where Martinez has largely retained The Moyes Way. First, both coaches favour an approach that concentrates on attacking down the flanks. Moyes created the best left-sided combination in the Premier League with Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar, and Martinez has been careful not to disturb that understanding. On the opposite flank, Seamus Coleman and Kevin Mirallas have become more attacking, but again, it’s a partnership that had been favoured by Moyes.
Second, Everton’s defensive unit is unchanged since Moyes’ final season. Tim Howard has established himself as one of the division’s most reliable goalkeepers, while Phil Jagielka’s relationship with Sylvain Distin is excellent. The former plays a more proactive role, always tracking his opponent tightly and winning the ball quickly, whereas Distin plays more reactively, often sweeping up behind if Jagielka is bypassed. Jagielka understands Coleman’s game, and Distin covers when Baines darts forward – so across the defence, and down the flanks, there’s great cohesion.
Elsewhere, however, Martinez has changed things significantly. This is most obvious in the centre of midfield, where Marouane Fellaini followed Moyes to Old Trafford, making way for an all-new central midfield combination of Gareth Barry and James McCarthy.
The central midfield duo are in entirely different situations – Barry is making a step down having been a regular title challenger with Manchester City, while McCarthy is attempting to prove himself at this level for the first time, having been accustomed to a relegation battle under Martinez at Wigan. But they’ve struck up an instant relationship, dovetailing nicely and often performing each other’s duties to keep the opposition guessing.
Barry is the more defensive-minded of the two, allowing McCarthy to storm forward into attack, but there’s often not a great difference between their statistical contributions. They make a similar number of tackles per game, as shown in their display against Manchester United, while Barry completes marginally more passes because he remains in deeper zones and is freer to receive passes.
The style of passes are also very interesting – both retain the ball extremely consistently in deep positions, and generally only concede possession when attempting more penetrative forward balls into the final third. That sums up Martinez’s philosophy – he wants to remain in control of the game, but he urges his players to attack whenever possible.
At the top of the triangle is Ross Barkley. He’s not a new signing, of course, but Martinez has fully embraced the youngster where Moyes was tentative about allowing him opportunities in the first team. The England youngster is still very raw, but his positional intelligence is extremely encouraging – he darts back and forth between midfield and attack, and can find pockets of space towards the flanks. He rarely collects the ball between the lines in central positions, and is also fond of shooting from ambitious angles.
Always on the move, Barkley encourages the midfield to play a forward pass – and while Moyes often favoured a more physical player like Fellaini or Tim Cahill in that role, he helps attacks flow towards goal.
Up front, meanwhile, Romelu Lukaku’s impact has been obvious. His loan signing from Chelsea answered the major question mark about Martinez’s side in the summer – the apparent lack of goals. He’s perfect for this system – although often categorised as a primarily physical player, his real brilliance comes from his intelligent runs. He works the entire width of the pitch, making runs from wide positions and working the channels. The variety of his positioning often causes the opposition problems – midfielders and full-backs become concerned by the Belgian’s threat, which leaves other Everton players unmarked.
He remains an old-school centre-forward at heart, though – look below at the assists he converted in the 3-2 win over Newcastle.
Then there’s another loanee, Gerard Deulofeu. A quick, pacey attacker capable of playing on either flank, he’s more direct than many La Masia graduates, and has proved a superb option from the bench. His impact against Liverpool in the Merseyside derby was fantastic, and while his dribbling was less successful over the course of 90 minutes against Stoke, and his defensive ability and decision-making remains questionable, he’s the ideal supersub and is helping to keep Mirallas and Pienaar on their toes.
Meanwhile, three early signings from Wigan – Joel Robles, Antolin Alcaraz and Arouna Kone – have improved Everton’s squad depth (despite Kone being the only to appear before suffering a bad knee injury) and bring experience of Martinez’s methods in training.
At Wigan, one of Martinez’s key strengths was his ability in the transfer market, often bringing in unknown players at very little cost. At Everton, he’s again excelled at purchasing players in the right zones.
His approach has been extremely simple – he’s retained the things Everton did well under Moyes, while improving in central midfield and in the final third, where they previously lacked guile.
Closer to the top of the table than the bottom half, Martinez himself has proved one of the signings of the summer.