As far as first impressions go, Roberto Martinez has made a pretty decent one at Everton. He is a amicable, studious and progressive manager. And these are all traits which have shone through in his early days at Goodison Park.
His side have been superb in stints; scything through teams with vibrant, passing football. But there have been moments of frustration too, as his adapting team have faltered when tasked with breaking down compact opposition. Nonetheless, Martinez has a clear vision for this club and Everton fans have bought right into into it. All in all, the opening signs have been overwhelmingly positive from the Catalan.
This weekend, Martinez will have the chance to boost his popularity further, as Everton take on Liverpool in the Merseyside derby. It’s a game that represents the biggest test of the Toffees’ progress under the stewardship of their new boss and a wonderful opportunity to wrestle back some initiative in a fixture they have an atrocious recent record in. But it will be tough.
From a stylistic perspective, this clash will be a huge challenge for Everton. Perhaps more than any in English football, the Merseyside derby is fast, furious and physical. In some derbies, such as North London and Manchester games, the two teams will try and outscore and outplay each other.
Not on Merseyside, though. These derby games are usually more resembling of a battle. Typically tight and tense affairs. And whilst the influence of both Martinez and Brendan Rodgers should make for some more fluid, attacking contests, don’t expect this historic match-up to lose any of it’s long-standing ferocity.
Liverpool are an energetic side who press the ball well and they will do their utmost to unsettle Everton’s rhythm in the hope of bossing possession themselves. Make no mistake, this will be a major examination of Everton’s new found approach.
They must stay true to their manager’s principles, though, for it’s about time Everton set a proactive, positive precedent in this fixture. They’ve finished above Liverpool for the last two seasons running, suggesting they are very much the top team on Merseyside.
With that in mind, the Everton supporters should be optimistic going into this one. In addition they have an excellent home record – having not lost a league game at Goodison this calendar year – and have enjoyed a wonderful start to the season. But the overriding emotion heading into the game is apprehension.
Why? Because far too often, the very sight of those red shirts has been enough to make Everton cower and recoil.
That was certainly true under previous boss David Moyes, who won just four of his twenty-five derby games as boss. The Scot’s defensive reflex always seemed to get the better of him in the derby and Liverpool regularly tucked in against meek, hesitant Toffees teams.
The hope is that Martinez, a much more positive manager by nature, will instill a greater sense of confidence in his players for these big games. He has done it in the past, as his Wigan side often game good when it really mattered in the latter parts of the campaign.
Plus, he will not be burdened with the same scars Moyes has acquired over the years. Come to think of it, neither will a lot of this Everton team. Players like Phil Neville, Tim Cahill, Marouanne Fellaini and Victor Anichebe had suffered nothing but heartache against the Anfield outfit, but they’ve all since departed. Perhaps derby debutants like Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley, James McCarthy and Gerard Deulofeu – along with their new manager – can bring a much needed sense of fearlessness to the side.
A statement of intent is vital. One that resonates that Everton are no longer in awe of the team across Stanley Park. One that affirms that under this new regime, they will obliterate this long-standing inferiority complex.
They need to, for these fixtures are so, so significant. Yes, you only get three points for a win, just like any other league game. But derby results can determine the mood of a clubs for weeks after. Losing two games a season against your city rivals, season upon season, cannot be good for morale.
Everton fans have become accustomed to this for far too long and Martinez must put that right. Starting this Saturday. The Catalan is a fearless operator with a taste for the big game; it’s about time these Everton supporters got to see their team operate in the same way against their red neighbors.
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