When Everton manager Roberto Martinez described John Stones as “more than a footballer” in the aftermath of his team’s 3-1 win over Chelsea, the majority of the soccer stratosphere would have thought he was being typically over exuberant. But anyone who trained an eye on defender’s situation throughout the past few weeks, from an Everton point of view at least, will be quick to attest to the validity of that statement.
Keeping Stones this summer was about more than fundamental footballing factors for the Merseysiders. It was about the club showing a stance of defiance, standing up to a richer outfit and, in doing so, instilling some pride back into a fanbase that has been engulfed by a malaise . They did so, and it’s Martinez who deserves major credit.
Reading between the lines, the Catalan was the driving force behind Stones sticking around at Everton. Throughout the transfer window he was adamant the defender wouldn’t be sold, even when the player’s transfer request heaped pressure on the Toffees to cash in. In hindsight, after a raucous Goodison Park roared Everton on to a fine victory over the champions, it was a masterstroke.
Just imagine how the famous old stadium would have been with Stones coming back in a Chelsea shirt. All the anger and frustration which was flung the way of Jose Mourinho and his team would have been directed at the club’s divisive board, the manager and maybe even some of the players.
But Martinez puffed his chest out emphatically, has protected Stones superbly, and suddenly, after a tepid term in 2014-15, Everton are beginning to look like their old selves. The manager is slowly starting to win back a lot of the floating voters who cast him off last season.
It’s fair to say the fanbase was divided on Martinez at the end of 2014-15, which is natural after one wonderful campaign was backed-up by one of the most disappointing in recent memory. But his stance on Stones is one of many acts which seem to be swaying the supporters back in his favor.
Performances on the pitch are another. Aside from a dreary opening day clash with Watford, Everton have played the kind of soccer supporters crave. The team have been committed, adaptable, tenacious and dynamic in games against Southampton, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and, most recently, the reigning champions.
It means a deviation from Martinez’s staunchly held principles, based on fastidious passing and patient build-up. But the penny seems to have dropped when it comes to getting the best of players like Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku. Space to surge into has been facilitated, and transitions have been sharp.
Some of the manager’s criticized signings have also shown their worth. Both Tom Cleverley, a new summer signing with a bad reputation, and Arouna Kone, who has barely played for the club because of a succession of injuries, came into this campaign with doubts surrounding them. But Cleverley showed plenty in his first five appearances in a blue shirt before picking up an injury against Spurs, while Kone, scathingly criticized in preseason, saved a point against Watford. He has started, and impressed, in every game since.
There’s also a dawning realization that while Martinez may have not been afforded massive backing in the transfer window, slowly he’s built an exciting young team, something which was most apparent against Chelsea. He’s the manager who gave Stones and Barkley their big chances after all, and the pair are now the sparkling crown jewels of a burgeoning side. But the likes of James McCarthy, Brendan Galloway, Muhamed Besic and Romelu Lukaku all began the game, too, meaning more than half of the starting XI which trounced the champions were aged 24 or under. All the aforementioned have had their development expedited under the tutelage of Martinez.
The manner in which Martinez dealt with Mourinho’s expletive post-match rant — “When he beat us 6-3 (last season) he was such a nice man. I prefer him like that!”— was also a reminder of the man’s unquestionable class. Also, when he admitted singing the Stones terrace chant in the shower, it was a modest glimpse into the human side of the coach Evertonians unanimously adored in his first term.
Of course, there are significant challenges to come, and many doubters still to win over. The most pertinent problem for this team remains breaking down well-drilled, defensively-minded opposition, especially given the inability to draft in a player with the intricate antidote to win these kinds of matches.
Martinez’s decision-making from the bench has also regressed from proactive and bold, which was such a hallmark of his first season in charge, to reactive and hesitant. And starting shadow starting XIs in the League Cup, a competition Everton should be going all out to win, will win him few admirers.
But there are encouraging signs that Martinez is beginning to learn from the errors of the past 12 months. For a man who last season seemed so reluctant to deviate from his idyllic modus operandi, that’s probably the most encouraging facet of all. Once again, plenty of Evertonians can start to glimpse into the future with excitement, rather than trepidation.
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