BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
The Premier League previews on Fan Fuel complete the Merseyside double with a look at an Everton squad who start the season with a new manager in Roberto Martinez after eleven years under the stewardship of David Moyes.
It started in 2003 with Duncan Ferguson and Kevin Campbell in attack, David Weir, David Unsworth and Alan Stubbs the stalwarts at the back, and the tough duo of Thomas Gravesen and Lee Carsley in the centre of midfield. The Everton team that played under David Moyes last season had a different look to it. In addition to being a more cosmopolitan unit there was also a more nuanced style of play. The one quality that remained throughout his tenure was that Everton barely ever threw in the towel, and each and every player wore the blue jersey with pride.
In many ways Roberto Martinez’s management is the logical next step to further develop Everton’s increasingly continental approach to football. What he lacks compared to his predecessor is a proven mental fortitude in tough situations. Martinez will quickly realize that being praised for pretty football in a losing cause is all well and good at Wigan, but it won’t cut the mustard at Goodison Park.
In defence: American international goalkeeper Tim Howard has been between the sticks since 2006 and has rarely ever let the club down. Initially indecisive when coming for crosses, Howard has grown in stature and marshals the Toffees defence superbly. Like most modern keepers, Howard is also extremely effective when it comes to shot stopping, though he isn’t the best in one-on-ones. Howard will be the starter, although Martinez has brought Joel Robles along with him from Wigan, after the Spaniard put in some excellent performances for the Latics to displace Ali Al-Habsi.
Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin were the preferred pairing of centre-backs during David Moyes’ last season in charge, and judging by the pre-season selections, Martinez is keen to retain the duo in his starting eleven. Like a fine wine, Distin seems to be getting better with age. The 35-year old Frenchman can still compete physically with the best, and his prowess on the ground has always remained consistent. Jagielka is the new captain after Phil Neville’s retirement, and the England international is a worthy successor. The centre-back is excellent in the air, and is very good at reading the game, although he can at times be tactically vulnerable. The skipper recently remarked that the way the defence plays under Martinez is radically different from the Moyes era. This is especially pertinent because the new manager does not hesitate to change formations within games, especially to three at the back in either a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2.
For that reason, Johnny Heitinga might still have a significant role to play despite being disgruntled with his lack of playing time last season. It’s also probably why Martinez has brought Antolin Alcaraz with him from Wigan, as the Paraguayan was accustomed to the gaffer’s system at the back. Martinez hasn’t been shy in giving teenager John Stones a few runs in the team during pre-season and it probably hints at the youngster getting a few opportunities during the course of the regular season. Another youngster Shane Duffy will also be looking forward to some playing time under the new manager.
Everton are blessed with two quality fullbacks who are sound defensively in addition to being genuine attacking options. Leighton Baines has been one of the best left-backs in the division for a while now, and Toffees fans are worried that he might follow Moyes to Manchester United. Baines’ overlapping runs are a constant source of menace for his counterparts, and his expertise from dead ball situations provides a consistent stream of scoring chances for his teammates. Séamus Coleman started off as an attacking right-winger, but has now been converted to a marauding right-back. Coleman has blistering speed, but the Irishman has learnt when to accelerate and when to be calm in possession. The frightening thing about Coleman is that he can only get better. Bryan Oviedo is the back up to Baines at left-back, and the Costa Rican can also be quite entertaining to watch with his trickery in the final third. On occasion last season, Oviedo doubled up on the left with Baines, and provided the Englishman stays at Goodison Park, it is certainly a combination that the adventurous Martinez will implement from time to time. Coleman’s back up doesn’t possess similar attacking threat, but veteran Tony Hibbert does provide defensive solidity and experience when needed.
The midfield: Leon Osman has been a mainstay in Everton’s midfield for the past five seasons. Osman does the simple things really well, always choosing the straightforward option over the glamorous. The central midfielder is rarely ruffled, and his economy of movement and short passing ensures that the Toffees possession of the ball is not too static. Furthermore, Osman weighs in with his fair share of goals, most of them spectacular strikes from long range.
Whenever Darron Gibson was fit, Moyes preferred to start him alongside Osman. After being fairly anonymous at Manchester United, Gibson has developed an important role for Everton with his tackling and tenacity in the middle of park providing an added screen for the defence. Looking at Martinez’s preferences however, he might consider Osman and Gibson too similar when Everton have possession. Consequently, it’s quite likely that talented teenager Ross Barkley will feature prominently alongside either one of Gibson or Osman to offer more technical creativity, especially against teams that sit back. It also wouldn’t be a surprise if Martinez returns to his old stomping ground at Wigan with a late bid for the criminally underrated James McCarthy before the transfer window closes.
The million dollar question for Martinez and Everton however, is if Marouane Fellaini is going to stay or follow his old boss to Manchester United? Fellaini was clearly Everton’s most dominant player last season, his eleven goals the most scored in the team, and seven assists sharing the lead with Baines and Steven Pienaar. Scoring goals is only half the story with Fellaini, as the talented Belgian is actually equally capable of directing play from a deeper position in midfield. Crucially, if Martinez deploys Fellainin in a deeper role, it could allow Everton to retain better possession as well as affording the team the opportunity to use more varied attacking options in the final third. If Fellaini does end up leaving however, not only do Everton lose their biggest attacking threat from last season but they also miss out on the added tactical flexibility that Martinez enjoys so much.
On the attack: After becoming an instant sensation on signing from Rangers, Nikica Jelavic’s form fell away spectacularly from October onwards. It was quite a turnaround to see a striker who displayed calmness in the box to score a variety of goals, miss the easiest and most straightforward of chances. Moyes wasn’t able to reinvigorate the Croatian before the season ended, and the forward’s confidence was shot. Martinez has given him another chance after clearing his head in the summer, and so far he has repaid the new manager’s faith by scoring goals in pre-season.
Jelavic will know he can’t coast through another season in the light of increased competition brought about by the signing of the excellent Arouna Koné. Another import from La Liga who flew under the radar, Koné flourished under Martinez at Wigan, equally adept at beating defenders with his pace in wide positions and dribbling past centre-backs to score goals. The Ivorian is a more dynamic option up front, and his versatility could be a good foil alongside either Jelavic or Steven Naismith or when needed, he could play as a lone striker who brings midfielders into the box with his deft touches and smart passes.
Besides Fellaini, Kevin Mirallas is another Belgian that the Goodison Park faithful have taken to. The speedy winger scored some amazing solo goals last season, combining pace with serenity while gliding past opposing defenders, and finishing with purpose when one-on-one with goalkeepers. In addition to scoring himself, Mirallas was an expert at twisting and turning fullbacks, before delivering teasing balls into the box for his teammates to attack. If Mirallas stays injury free, then Martinez can count on the Belgian in tandem with Koné to always keep the opposition defenders occupied.
The last piece of the attacking jigsaw is Steven Pienaar, the South African’s flair evident on the left wing, but also equally capable of drifting inwards to play a more controlled role in keeping possession from midfield. Pienaar is a fan favourite, and the possibility of him exchanging the ball in triangles with either one of Baines or Oviedo and Koné will certainly excite Everton fans.
Conclusion: David Moyes has certainly left a good legacy with the current squad at Everton. Chairman Bill Kenwright has never been one to splash money, and in Roberto Martinez he has a new manager who is comfortable working under the financial restraint at Goodison Park. Martinez will hope to advance Everton’s style with an approach that prioritizes possession and flair.
However doubts about the Spaniards credentials in organizing a defence refuse to go away. Everton didn’t manage a single clean sheet in pre-season, though to be fair to Martinez, not many pre-seasons include games against opponents of the calibre of Real Madrid, Juventus, Valencia and Real Betis. In fact an argument can be made that after playing such difficult ties, Everton will feel even more prepared for the tough season ahead. If Fellaini and Baines remain, Martinez could yet end up replicating Moyes’ sixth place finish last season. On the other hand if the duo leave, Martinez will do well to ensure that Everton finish as the best of the rest again.