In literal terms, Everton’s improvement this season has been slight – they’re in sixth, the same position as last year, and have won only two extra games.
Nevertheless, few doubt that Roberto Martinez has changed the club for the better, and the Toffees are in a good position to push on.
Here are five key features of Martinez’s reign…
1 – Evolution, Not Revolution
It’s hardly fashionable to praise David Moyes in the current climate, but it’s worth considering his impact upon this Everton side, even after his departure.
Everton always played with great width under the previous regime, and while Martinez orders neater passing than Moyes, who preferred crossing, Everton remain one of the Premier League’s most efficient users of the flanks, particularly the left.
It’s also interesting that, under Moyes, Everton played a higher proportion of their passes in the final third than any other side – and this has continued under Martinez. That’s in stark contrast to Martinez’s approach at Wigan, where his defenders often hung onto the ball for long periods, and this Moyesian purposefulness must be recognised.
2 – Possession Play
Nevertheless, there’s unquestionably been a shift towards a more positive form of football, and a greater emphasis upon possession play.
The statistics tell the story – possession has risen from 53% to 57%, pass completion from 79% to 83%. Everton are a more entertaining side, but more importantly they’re a more proactive side, capable of taking games to the opposition rather than sitting back and waiting for opportunities to scamper forward into attack.
There’s now a greater control of games, in terms of both possession and position – the two centre-backs, Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin have pushed up, squeezing the opposition back into their own half.
3 – A Goalscoring Forward
Everton often struggled to find genuinely prolific strikers, and after Nikica Jelavic’s initial good impact two years ago, his goals dried up. Moyes admitted the lack of goals upfront ruined Everton’s chances of challenging for the top 4 last season.
Moyes addressed this issue directly, and brought in Arouna Kone and Lacina Traore, in addition to the clear first-choice striker, Romelu Lukaku. The Chelsea loanee had a mid-season dip and has encountered injury problems in recent weeks, but his impact at the club has been clear. Not only had he contributed goals himself, he’s also proved effective at occupying multiple defenders and making space for attacking midfielders to scamper into.
4 – A Proper Attacking Midfielder
Moyes recognised the ability of Ross Barkley, but was generally hesitant about bringing him into the side. Instead, Martinez placed his full trust in the youngster, and until the last month when Barkley has needed a rest, the England midfielder has been a regular.
For long spells of Moyes’ reign, he often used his most advanced midfielder as a supplementary striker. Tim Cahill, for example, was a regular goalscoring threat, but when the goals dried up it was difficult to work out what he brought to the side, and Everton’s all-round play was harmed. Marouane Fellaini, while more technically talented and versatile, often played this role last season.
Barkley is more versatile. He varies his position excellently, dropping deep to overload in the centre of the field and ensure possession dominance, drifts into pockets of space either side of his direct opponent to enable forward passes, and motors forward to combine with Lukaku. When he adds goalscoring to his game, he’ll be unstoppable.
5 – A Stronger Squad
Moyes often complained about the limitations of his squad – his Everton usually had a good starting XI, but a weak bench and few genuine tactical alternatives.
Martinez concentred upon strengthening his squad as a whole, particularly with the use of loanees. He’s brought in nine players, without significant losses: Fellaini is the only big name departure, with the likes of Jelavic, Phil Neville and Victor Anichebe no great loss.
It’s not unusual for Everton’s bench to contain a few internationals, as well as various promising youngsters. The option of a Gerard Deolofeu or an Aiden McGeady from the bench is something Moyes couldn’t always count upon, and Everton have often won points late in matches – Everton have scored 13 goals in the final 10 minutes this season.