Indeed, amid a Premier League campaign not quite like any other, in which Chelsea have produced the worst title defence in Premier League history, Manchester United have rarely surpassed the realms of mediocrity, Arsenal have capitulated once again and Manchester City have performed below expectations, the Lilywhites have taken advantage, surging up the table with a young, ambitious and prodigious side who balance out zealous attacking displays with relentless industry off the ball.
Yet, on paper at least, the disparity of quality between Spurs and Everton is minimal. Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley and Dele Alli are almost interchangeable in terms of age and ability, James McCarthy and Eric Dier are near enough like-for-likes, Leighton Baines, Seamus Coleman and Phil Jagielka are amongst the most proven defenders in the Premier League and a significant percentage of neutrals would place John Stones above any player on show at White Hart Lane when considering potential.
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Spurs may boast better depth in certain departments and superior quality between the sticks, but that doesn’t go anywhere near to explaining the ten positions and 17 points separating them and Everton in the Premier League table. The north Londoners are a shoo-in for Champions League qualification and an outside bet for the English title; the Toffees, meanwhile, might not even finish in the top half.
It has become almost too simplistic to place the manager at the heartbeat of every indiscretion in the Premier League, amid arguably the most chaotic and confusing era of its 24-year history. But in the instance of Everton, on course to finish in the bottom half for successive seasons for the first time in nearly 15 years, it’s difficult to look beyond the role of Roberto Martinez.
No doubt, the Spaniard has created an incredible side going forward, tapping into the enormous potential of Everton’s many prodigious attacking talents. Only Leicester City have scored more goals than the Toffees this season, only Manchester City have netted more from open play, only Arsenal have averaged more successful dribbles per match and only four sides have averaged more shots on target per match.
Yet, Martinez has not created an effective team and that remains his ultimate downfall. Team ethic has become a predominant trend this term; the likes of Spurs, Leicester City, West Ham, Watford and Stoke have performed beyond expectations because of their cohesion as a unit. City, Swansea, United, Everton and Newcastle, meanwhile, despite boasting decent enough starting XIs on paper, just haven’t gelled as a collective in the same way.
Their current league standings compared to their season objectives are evidence enough. But particularly in the case of Everton, individual results are equally telling – starting with that inexplicable defeat to West Ham last weekend. The Hammers are a good side and Dimitri Payet, who bagged a last-minute winner, is an incredible player, but stoppage time goals are a by-product of team spirit. Leicester and Tottenham Hotspur have produced many throughout the season.
In dramatic contrast, Everton have suffered an opposing disease, throwing away results in the dying embers of games. The Toffees have conceded 14 points from winning positions this season and throughout the entirety of Martinez’ 104 game tenure, that number skyrockets to a rather incredible 45. Many have placed that on defensive frailties, a common criticism throughout Martinez’ career, but the issues must stem a little deeper, considering Baines, Jagielka, Stones and Coleman is hardly a mediocre back four – in fact, quite the opposite – and Gareth Barry and McCarthy are solid enough defensive midfielders.
Whilst Mauricio Pochettino prioritises fitness and industry ahead of attacking brilliance, it appears to be the other way round under Martinez at Goodison. Tottenham earn their right to turn on the charm in the final third, Everton act almost as if it’s their divine right. That steely influence and team cohesion, a product of back-breaking work on the training grounds at Enfield, just isn’t evident on the blue half of Merseyside.
Some may argue that’s as much about individuals as the manager. Barkley, Lukaku and Deulofeu all possess a particularly notable selfish streak. But young players are adaptable, moldable, impressionable and open-minded. Pochettino has used that to his advantage in creating an effective team, Spurs’ young squad completely buying into his philosophy and methods, but Martinez has failed to curtail the individuality of his youthful players in the same way.
They all want to be the star player and such ambition should be encouraged, but it should never stand in the way of the team and most importantly of all, the right results. That is where Martinez has let himself down.
No doubt, Martinez is an impressive developer of young players. In five or ten years, I’m sure Barkley, Lukaku and Stones will look back upon their spell under the Spaniard as the era in which they truly began to flourish. But that development will be of little use to Everton if results can’t keep their most promising talents at the club.
Pochettino, on the other hand, has balanced out development and results to a world-class degree at White Hart Lane and with the promise of Champions League football, no clubs will be able to prize away their biggest assets this summer.
So am I suggesting Everton would be in the top four right now if Pochettino was at the helm? Well, they certainly wouldn’t be far from it.