There have been a plethora of faux turning points for Everton this season.
The earliest came after Phil Jagielka’s last-minute thunderbolt at Anfield salvaged a 1-1 draw. The wins away against Wolfsburg and Young Boys were also expected to trigger something of a revival and the home draw at Manchester City was a stirring display to prevent a fifth consecutive loss.
But despite some cornerstone performances and a selection of isolated instances to savour, the club has been engulfed in a perpetual lull throughout the 2014/15 season.
The team has spluttered and staggering along, with the Toffees performing a precarious balancing act between their prosperous Europa League campaign and downright rank league performances. But after another fine display in Europe against Dynamo Kyiv was backed up by a win against Newcastle United in the Premier League, the green shoots of recovery seem to be emerging at last.
The domestic triumph was the most important of the campaign to date, as Everton were just three points clear of the drop going into that clash against the Magpies. With Burnley’s win over the champions showing that they’re still breathing and a trip to Queen’s Park Rangers to come next weekend, Roberto Martinez simply couldn’t afford a loss.
But the team played with a purpose and tempo that has been so scarce in recent moribund surrenders at Stoke City and Arsenal. Players like Aaron Lennon and Arouna Kone showcased wonderful endeavour, Darron Gibson and Leon Osman got Everton moving forward with incisive passes and Romelu Lukaku continued his superb form at the sharp end of the pitch.
It’s a more direct blueprint and one that Martinez has looked to employ in smatterings this season. In clashes against West Ham United and City earlier in the year it seemed to work well, but the subsequent matches only served to blur Everton’s principles further as the manager continued to tinker. However, this is the template the Toffees must use moving forward, even for a manager as notoriously stubborn as the Catalan.
After all, the players Everton have on their books are better suited to a vertical style of play. That doesn’t necessarily mean looking to hit Lukaku at the earliest opportunity, because that’s simply not his game. But they must transition the ball through the lines slicker and take more risks when entrenched in opposition territory.
It’s a style that may be juxtaposed from Martinez’s bespoke principles, of which he seems to hold an immovable belief in. But at this relatively early stage of his Everton tenure, a style a few shades removed from what he prefers is better suited towards this team sampling some short-term success.
While Martinez will surely have a long-term vision in mind, the here and now is what it’s all about for this Everton team, with silverware and Champions League football still there for seizing.
The Europa League is a competition that has afforded Evertonians a fillip of minor positivity away from the arid domestic landscape and even that competition was in danger of turning sour as Kyiv bagged an early goal in last week’s last-16 first leg. But once Everton upped the tempo and played with increased urgency, the Ukrainians toiled and were lucky only to lose 2-1.
For all the criticism of English teams in Europe over the past fortnight, it’s this facet of the Premier League’s stylistic make-up that’s going to push Everton far in this competition. The Toffees don’t have the flair to match technical sides like Sevilla or Napoli, nor the cohesion of teams like Besiktas or Roma, so a ferocious tempo is absolutely imperative in all dimensions of their play.
That was on show in earnest for the last hour against Kyiv and it’s a trait Everton must take into what will be a very difficult second leg. But he home side will have to come out and attack, subsequently opening up space for the Toffees to play briskly, vertically and cause problems on the counter. If Everton can replicate their previous two performances, it’s game that could pan out for them perfectly.
There’s been a lot of misconceptions about the Toffees this season. The narrative that the Europa League is the sole factor behind the recent horror show is simplistic, as is the notion that Martinez has “no plan B”—if anything the manager has made too many subtle but equally significant changes to this team, without giving any new formula time to fully embed.
But, applying a timeless soccer cliche, it’s time to persevere with a winning formula, for the manner in which Everton have played against Dynamo and Newcastle is this team’s best bet for an end-of-season flourish.
In the long-term, you can’t imagine Martinez—obsessed with dominating the ball and controlling the midfield—wants his Everton team to play in this direct fashion. But the manager can become a club icon should he lead this team to Warsaw for the Europa League final on May 27, regardless of the tactical principles imposed en route.
While Everton remain a long way away from that particular occasion, there’s encouraging signs that Martinez seems to be realising the manner in which the Toffees will have to play to give this team the best possible chance of getting there.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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