In August, I fretted about Everton’s defence</a> and, with nearly a third of the season gone, I still fret about it. Amazingly the same five players have played every minute of every match: step forward, soon for a twelfth time, Tim Howard, Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Sylvain Distin and Seamus Coleman. But the ever-presents’ ever-presence on the pitch underlines my point – where are the back-ups? Though only Tottenham and Southampton have conceded fewer goals, how long can this last?
In The Martinez Project, more is demanded of defenders than mere defence, though that remains the first priority – as the record shows. Possession football requires the back four to be comfortable on the ball, able to give a pass and take a pass. Concentration is critical too, both to cover if possession is surrendered by a man receiving a ball under pressure on the halfway line and in eschewing the high and hopeful alehouse ball from back to front. Opposing coaches are wise to this and press up, leaving Distin as the spare man – which underlines the reason why this otherwise tremendous footballer has never played for his country: his passing, in conception and execution is weak. There’s a cumulative effect too, with Baines and Coleman lately showing signs of mental fatigue, having delivered some strong performances at either end of the field in early season games.
The midfield has not been as settled as the defence, but is coming together nicely as a unit after two key deadline day signings. Gareth Barry anchors the five, playing every match at the level Phil Neville played at his best. He covers, he intercepts, he er… fouls and he keeps it simple. He has even got up to contribute in the opposition box – who would have thought just a few weeks ago! James McCarthy has slotted in slightly forward of Barry and has a brief to be just a little more creative. His experience, at a young age, shows and he is clearly going to be the team’s anchor when Barry goes back to City or retires.
The more attacking midfielders give most cause for concern – hardly any wonder, as it’s one of the hardest roles in the game, especially for players used to playing in English football. Kevin Mirallas, Leon Osman, Stephen Piennar, Steven Naismith and Ross Barkley have all scored but all have had quiet games too and only Barkley has netted more than once. Mirallas’ form is the most concerning – he’s the joker in the short passing format, the man who will run with the ball as well as play it short. Is he stifled by the system or is he in a lean patch? It’ll be interesting to see if Martinez rotates him soon.
And Romelu Lukaku? Hard to ask more of a 20 year-old centre-forward, but can he maintain his output? And who will score the goals if he doesn’t?
Things can only get better? I fear the reverse.