Everton surprised many observers at The Emirates – including Arsene Wenger given the transformation in his side’s play after his half-time team talk – with 40 minutes of The Martinez Project writ large at The Emirates. All the strengths of this season’s transformation were on show: possession football; quick short passes played to men who may be marked but are trusted to deal with the ball; injections of pace through the midfield ball-carriers (Stephen Pienaar, Ross Barkley and Kevin Mirallas) and the flying full-backs; the power of Romelu Lukaku, leading the line with incessant commitment; the solidity of the defensive unit (Tim Howard, the back four, Gareth Barry and James McCarthy); and, more than ever, the huge confidence that floods through the club from its manager.
But the weaknesses of The Martinez Project were also on show: the final ball is poor; shooting is erratic and the feeling persists that possession is in danger of becoming an end in itself.
Then, just when I thought The Martinez Project had delivered three points from trips to Manchester United and Arsenal – something for which I would have gleefully settled even after Stoke City’s four goal defenestration, the grit in the oyster salvaged a point, delivering a remarkable eight day haul of seven points from six goals scored for one conceded. That grit was, of course, the blooming fair-haired Catalan pearl, Gerard Deulofeu.
Everton’s Number Ten, like the man who wears that shirt at his parent club, isn’t much to look at. Not very tall, his run is a short-strided, slightly hunched scuttle (unlike Lukaku’s Bolt-like sprinting) but he covers the ground at remarkable pace. He can go both ways, off either foot, and has the close control given only to the very best. A hush comes over Evertonians when he has the ball. We don’t know what he’s going to do, but we do know that he’s going to do something – and, deliciously, we know that defenders are thinking that very same thought. In forty years of watching Everton, Gerard Deulofeu may be the most naturally gifted footballer I have ever seen in the royal blue shirt – not the best, but maybe the one with the highest ceiling.
Of course, he’ll be back at Barcelona at the end of this season – or, if Roberto’s silver tongue works its magic, the end of next season – so we must enjoy him while we can. And maybe, just maybe, he can make the difference between Everton contending for a top four place and Everton securing a top four place. And maybe, just maybe, CL football is on the menu at Goodison next season, it might just be the bargaining chip Roberto needs to push on with The Martinez Project and keep his Catalan wizard for another year.
But, for now, we should enjoy this purest of players while we can, and reflect on three points at Old Trafford and one at The Emirates. Now, how many behind Liverpool are we?