Everton’s full-backs have scored nine goals at the midpoint of the Premier league season – indeed, they have scored in five of the last seven games. Why is this so?
Jonathan Wilson regularly reminds us that football tactics are designed to find space on the field and The Martinez Project (and it is plainly a project, extending through the club from training ground, maybe even back office, to pitch) aims to find that space through moving the ball with relatively low risk short passes, albeit in relatively high risk areas. But any version of tiki-taka – even with the variations Martinez uses (and there were more long balls vs Southampton and more concessions of possession than in most other matches this season) – can become a little stale, a little too self-regarding, a little short on penetration as the ball travels laterally. Sooner or later, someone needs to take a chance on beating a man, having a shot or playing a killer ball.
That’s when Everton’s three footballing full-backs come into their own. With marginally more space to work out wide and with the reassurance that midfielders can defend a loss of possession when the ball can only be moved in one direction (in-field), Martinez encourages his full-backs to up the tempo by taking on their opponents, cutting inside for a shot or by hurtling into the box to add the all-important extra man that can tilt the odds in attackers’ favour when balls run loose near goal. Of course, confidence breeds confidence, and Seamus Coleman in particular is brimming with the stuff – he just expects to score.
But football is a dynamic system – each part of the system impacts on another, each action both an effect and a cause of others. Nowhere is this more clear than when Coleman or Baines lift the tempo with another incisive pass or run and shot. Largely unnoticed, James McCarthy, Gareth Barry and, in the Southampton match, Bryan Oviedo, drift in behind the marauding defender, filling in empty space, reducing the risk, limiting opponents’ options. This was most noticeable today when Leighton Baines was caught upfield and instigated an ad hoc positional swap with Bryan Oviedo that required much pointing and meaningful looks from a distance of about 30 paces.
The Baines-Oviedo left-side didn’t work on its first outing, but there’s a future for the two working together, rotating from defending to attacking, lifting the tempo to inject the change of pace that can open up packed defences. This will become more important when Ross Barkley is injured or jaded (as he was a little today) – and when Kevin Mirallas fulfils the role of impact substitute.
And on the other side? The Irishman seems capable of running the show himself just now – the most improved player in the Premier League in 2013. Older readers will recall Derek Mountfield’s ten league goals in 1984-85 – can Seamus Coleman match that much loved goalscoring defender’s tally? He’s on course all right.