Flying high in the table and cutting teams to ribbons with vibrant, offensive play, there has naturally been a lot of chatter about Everton this season.
A section of it has been a little negative – perhaps born out of envy – with critics bemoaning Roberto Martinez’s astute use of the loan system. But the overwhelming majority has been upbeat and centred on the fearless performances of some fantastic young players. Most notably Romelu Lukaku, Gerard Deulofeu and Ross Barkley.
The latter in particular has drawn a vast majority of the recent plaudits. Pretty heady ones at that as of late; his manager Roberto Martinez has tentatively compared him to Michael Ballack and Paul Gascoigne. But sift through the hyperbole that has surrounded the aforementioned trio, and there is another Everton midfielder who has been hugely impressive this season, but in a much more understated and subtle fashion.
That man is James McCarthy, a player who Everton shelled out £13 million for in the final hours of the summer transfer window. It was a price that certainly raised some querying eyebrows, especially after losing the talismanic Marouane Fellaini to Manchester United and David Moyes on the same day. But you will struggle to find any Evertonians that say anything other than McCarthy looks a snip at that price. His award as the club’s November player of the month only compounds that.
McCarthy’s capture has been the most significant catalyst for Everton’s seamless transition from the Moyes era to the Martinez one. Stylistically, his influence is absolutely vital, primarily due to his unrelenting energy and cool head in possession. McCarthy’s presence has helped knit Martinez’s Everton together as a unit and it is no surprise the Catalan boss – who knows the player and his skill-set inside out – was so desperate to get him on board.
In keeping with his manager’s start, McCarthy has settled in immediately at the Merseyside outfit. Fellaini has barely been missed and the Irish international is already proving to be a much more accomplished central midfielder in almost every facet.
Perhaps most importantly for the new regime, he is a far more accomplished with the ball at his feet. He is comfortable taking the ball off Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin in deeper areas, buying a yard and recycling possession. In addition, his ability to pop the ball off with a solitary touch is a wonderful trait and one that injects a positive, purposeful tempo into Everton’s play. It is no surprise that McCarthy averages over 50 passes per game in the Premier League with a mean success rate of 86%.
But there is more to his game than just being neat and tidy on the ball. McCarthy is a dynamic, energetic presence in the middle of the park, and when you combine his skill-set with that of his midfield partner Gareth Barry – who is a studious and seasoned reader of the game – Everton have a wonderfully diverse set of attributes in that midfield area. It makes them a very difficult side to play through, emphasized by the fact that no team has conceded less goals in the Premier League this season.
As is key for a double-pivot midfield you could sometimes throw a blanket over Barry and McCarthy, such is their intelligent positioning and close proximity to each other. This gives Everton a disciplined, compact and cohesive base to build from, helped no end by the fact the understanding between the duo took no time developing.
When Everton do come under pressure, McCarthy can use his athleticism and dynamism to get about the pitch and make tackles; he has averaged 3.1 per game this season, which is more than any of his teammates. Meanwhile, Barry is more likely to survey the play and sweep up with assurance.
McCarthy is more than happy to drive forward with the ball from deep too, and he picks these bursts forward with maturity and poise. These in turn creates mismatches and facilitates space for the likes of Barkley, Lukaku, Deulofeu and Kevin Mirallas to operate in.
The Scottish-born, Irish international looks to have all the qualities required to become a top-class central midfield player at Everton for many years. He is defensively switched on, a super passer, a strong runner with the ball and confident in advanced areas. All qualities that his national team’s assistant manager Roy Keane alluded to recently (courtesy of the Daily Mail):
He probably plays a little like me, maybe not as aggressive and is possibly looking to mature in terms of his personality on the teams over the next few years but that will all come. He is certainly, in terms of getting forward and hopefully over the next few years getting a few more goals to his game, he is going to be a top midfielder. He is a very good player.
And at 23-years-old there is plenty of time and plenty of room for improvement. With the resources to hand at both Everton and Ireland, he has a wealth of knowledge to draw upon. He can learn from experienced midfielder players like Barry, Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar at his club, whilst there is perhaps nobody better qualified to advise him on how to be a quality box-to-box midfielder than Keane in the national set-up.
And if we are to heed the words of his manager this can only bode well for those of a blue persuasion (courtesy of The Mirror):
I haven’t seen a sponge in football terms like James. He takes all the good things off people around him and can become a great.
They certainly don’t look to be hollow words. McCarthy has swiftly grown into a key member of this Everton first team and his absence was felt in the Toffees midfield despite the Toffees eventually running out 4-1 winners over Fulham. Osman took his place and whilst the Englishman is perhaps a little silkier on the ball, he fails to offer the same defensive potency as the summer signing.
But McCarthy’s one game suspension is served and Martinez will be delighted that his midfield maestro has his ban out of the way ahead of a convoluted few weeks. With the more illustrious sides all playing each other over the Christmas stint, Everton have a chance to put some points on the board and properly establish themselves as Champions League contenders.
McCarthy will be as key a player as any if the Toffees are to achieve those lofty ambitions.
All statistics from WhoScored.com
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