Sometimes you have to give credit where credit’s due, and today I’m going to give some to Roberto Martinez.
The Everton manager presided over a wonderful debut season at the club. At the start of the campaign, he promised chairman Bill Kenwright that he’d bring Everton to the Champions League. And he very nearly did, missing out on fourth place to Arsenal in the final few games of the season.
This time around, we all expected Everton to progress even further – they consolidated what they had in the transfer market by making loans for Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku permanent deals and adding Muhamed Besic and Samuel Eto’o to the ranks.
But they didn’t hit the height of last season. Besic hasn’t been wonderful, though he’s only 22 and it’s his debut Premier League season. But he’s made 15 starts in the league, and picked up eight yellow cards. Only Gareth Barry has picked up more for Everton this season (10), and has made almost twice as many starts (29). Samuel Eto’o wasn’t a star performer either, and left for Sampdoria after only a few months.
But then no one has been a star performer for Everton this season, really.
They’ve been close to the relegation pile and they’ve crashed in the cup competitions too. But now they’re starting to move away from the bottom places and climb to a more respectable league placing. They now lie 10th and they’ll probably have Swansea City in their sights.
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The Swans lie 8th after a solid season, and they’re only six points above Everton. So the goal for Martinez’s men over the last four games will surely be to overhaul them. It’s not a big goal, but at least it’s something. Everton are one of the form teams in the league over the last six games, so it’s definitely a realistic goal.
In fact, the Toffees are unbeaten in their last six games, winning five of them. Ever since going out of the Europa League in abysmal fashion, Everton have looked like a decent side again, and it looks like it’s down to Martinez.
The most encouraging stat from an Everton point of view is that, in those six unbeaten games, they’ve conceded just two goals. Both goals came in away games, against QPR in a match they won, and against Swansea in a one-all draw. That’s in stark contrast to the rest of their season.
If we compare Everton to the teams in the top seven – the part of the league in which they belong – we see that they’ve conceded more goals than all apart from Spurs. In fact, Everton and Spurs have conceded lots more than the rest of the top seven. Everton have also scored the fewest of those teams too.
Conceding only two goals in six league games is good going for Martinez’s men. Especially when you consider that they conceded five goals against Dynamo Kiev.
Some of those were great strikes, but most, if not all, were avoidable at some point along the way. And the defence was particularly shaky that night.
So it looks like Martinez has worked on the Everton defence over the last few games. It helps that John Stones is back from injury, because Antolin Alcaraz has been woeful alongside Jagielka this season, and Jagielka himself hasn’t been good.
And last weekend was a good example of Martinez’s sudden realisation that Everton may actually benefit from defending once in a while.
They sat back against United, allowing Louis Van Gaal’s team plenty of the ball, and looked to spring a counter whenever they could. The plan worked to perfection. They stifled United’s attacking threat, cut out mistakes and kept a clean sheet. It was a defensive performance that Jose Mourinho would be proud of. They also managed to score goals, something they have found it hard to do all season too.
Martinez deserves the credit for working on his defence and making them more solid. He’s realised that his team can be built up from the back, and that’s what’s happened.
By focusing more on the defence, the defenders have become less worried about having to defend against counter attacks when the attackers lose the ball. They’ve become less worried about making mistakes and have the confidence to play properly. This in turn breeds confidence to the rest of the team.
Arsene Wenger says that it’s ‘easy to defend’, and he’s right. Although it was a jibe at Mourinho’s ‘boring’ Chelsea, the easiest way of getting results in a football match is to have a solid and well organised defence and build upon it in attack.
And Everton have simply not done this all season. But now that they look to have started, they’re seeing results. A good display in the next four games would give the team confidence to come back again in August and start the season off much better than they did last time.
So the season’s not over yet, there’s still confidence to play for for the Toffees.