Everton knock it around in midfield knowing that if the ball is at the feet of a man wearing Blue, the opposition cannot score. But venture into the final third, where the blue shirts are outnumbered and the spaces smaller, and the routine passes need to be hit harder and not just to a man, but to a man’s foot. That burst of pace find a little room to get the head up to play the killer ball or the drop of the shoulder to make a half-yard in which to shoot – well, that’s the hardest thing to do in the game. It’s what separates the very good from the great.
So much in The Martinez Project is working successfully – just one defeat in the League and an away win over a top side – but progress in turning good possession into good chances isn’t quite as impressive as so much else of the Catalan Conjuror’s work. So, short of buying Assist Master Juan Mata in January, what can be done?
The answer seems obvious (and may be happening, but there are few signs). On the training ground, why not line up Lukaku, Barkley, Pienaar and Mirallas against Barry, McCarthy, Jagielka, Distin, Coleman and Oviedo / Baines? It’s not quite how Everton attack – Barry and McCarthy and both full-backs usually join offensive play – but the puzzles to be solved would mimic those encountered in match situations.
Of course, the training – which are led to understand is quite different under Martinez than that directed by David Moyes – has led to technical excellence throughout the XI, even throughout the matchday XVIII – but that merely shifts the attention to another aspect of football – imagination. Under pressure, with hearts pounding and fatigue in the limbs, it’s hard to think creatively – the fortunate few can rely on instinct – but it can be done.
And as I write, exactly the sort of imagination allied to technique is shown by a player who is riding a wave of confidence not seen in an Everton player since Peter Reid bossed game after game in the mid-80s. You wonder what would happen if Lukaku and Barkley were as prepared to attack as Seamus Coleman or if Mirallas had his shooting accuracy. Would practice help? Surely it wouldn’t hinder.
How can Everton develop the collective understanding to make the right decisions with possession in the final third? The season reaches its halfway mark at the end of the year and, with expectations raised way beyond what even the most optimistic of Evertonians would have considered likely in August, football’s most difficult questions need to be answered. They are questions that Manchester City answer regularly, that Luis Suarez seems capable of answering on his own and that can cost £40M per player. The second half of the season’s Martinez Project will tell us if this very good Everton side can be considered great.