And now we’ve won six on the bounce – with Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Manchester United and Southampton up next, there’s no reason that can’t be ten. Four games in a row in which we’ve scored three goals. What’s more is that the arrogance of the performances have simply swept sides away. Newcastle in their tinfoil fortress, Fulham – who genuinely believed they had picked up a point – and Arsenal, who swanned into L4 simply expecting to roll us over and secure 4th spot, as always.
This is an Everton revolution, and quite rightly people are focusing on what has changed about the club. Roberto Martinez, Graeme Jones and the excellent new background staff, the new signings, the new style. They’ve all made an Everton side that settled for “top 6” and nothing more under David Moyes into a side that gives us watching Blues not just belief but expectation that there will be a performance we can take heart from. From Lower Gwladys Lad’s excellent piece “The Perfect Day”, one point caught my eye. “Every single Everton player”, he said, “played their respective parts at Goodison Park, and they, along with Roberto Martinez and those Blues on the terraces, should all have been awarded Man of the Match collectively.” And he’s completely right. What we’re witnessing isn’t just a new Everton, a Martinez brand if you will. There’s a core to this squad that has done something very few can do, and adapted to an entirely new style. To compound it all, they’ve done it in a matter of months.
In the words of Martinez himself, “Much of the credit has to go to the players for being prepared to try different things with real professionalism”. Professionalism itself is what they’re paid for. But being prepared to change the way they think about the game is never a given. Let’s start with the old timers eh? Normally they’re the ones that struggle to change. I’m not well schooled on all things Inaki Bergara, but this season Tim Howard has been rejuvenated. Instead of crumbling under pressure and falling back on himself when confronted, Howard’s outlook has been positive. Interestingly, as The Everton Podcast noted earlier (cheers lads) the American has also joined in with possession and skills drills in training. Confidence on the ball is vital for every player, even one with the ability to pick it up. Hence playing from the back becomes even easier – just as the striker is the first line of the defence, the goalkeeper can be the first line of attack.
In my mind, the greatest single improvement by a player this season has been by Sylvain Distin. The Frenchman says it best himself: “For a player like me who is used to being more of a stopper it wasn’t enjoyable for the first few months and I was a bit scared at first. The manager would be telling me I had to get the ball here and there instead of being a bit more old-fashioned. But it is enjoyable now because it works.”
Distin has spent his entire career as a runner; from bombing forward, often without direction, at Man City, to being the pace man of our own back line, he has never truly fulfilled his own ability. Watch any game from last season and you can see Distin visibly panic in his own penalty area, playing the ball down the field simply as a way of shifting pressure from himself. Now, when he picks up the ball, he’s facing forwards with Gareth Barry dropping back to provide support and Leighton Baines constantly giving an option on the left flank. Distin still has his faults on the ball but the overall performance is much improved. A player with his fitness levels could just keep going – and at 36 years old, that’s a sign of his own remarkable ability to adapt, not just excellent man-management.
Leon Osman. The last bastion of Moyes-ball, no? A man who has exclusively played under the ginger Scot. He was the one who was visibly failing to keep up with the new style of football. But now Osman has bought into the ethos, and his football is improving as a result. Less panic on the ball and more attempts to make defence-splitting passes has made him a very useful member of the midfield. Not that the odd ball doesn’t go astray. ‘Koff Osman.
It’s interesting to see his thoughts on our football as well:
“We won a lot of games that way. But we could never take the next step because, when teams started paying us more respect, we couldn’t change our game and break them down. Right now, we are all about possession. And if we managed to qualify for the Champions League this time, we will be in a much stronger position to go forward.”
Osman’s game reflected our game in general. Under Moyes we gained steel and skill, but from around 2009 and that excellent season that could’ve been so much more, it stagnated. Is Leon Osman merely a mid-table player? He’s shown flashes of skill that make us think otherwise – as well as the poor performances that make us want to wring his neck. Whilst for Osman this new style can bring about a glorious swansong, players just reaching their peak can grow and improve.
Enter Leighton Baines. Under Moyes the England left back earned plaudits aplenty, with claims that he had reached his peak being met with agreement from Evertonians. His peak? At 29 years old he has time yet. Roberto Martinez took Baines to Old Trafford – not to watch Alex Buttner stumble about and laugh like fools, as many would be tempted to do, but to observe full back-turned defensive midfielder Philip Lahm. “You need thinking players to be able to take those instructions on board and change things during a game,” Martinez said. “You need to have a flexible mind to play in different positions and to occupy the space rather than just being solid in your role.” In this case, Baines is literally a student of the School of Science.
He’s not the only one. After his match-winning free kick against Aston Villa, Kevin Mirallas revealed “In the weeks leading up to it we had long discussions about how I could contribute more and improve.” Players aren’t just playing the game, they’re reflecting, discussing and improving. That’s incredibly difficult to do in the space of less than a year. In fact, the attempts at changing the thought processes of the players makes Roberto Martinez unique. “I soon realised that not all the players knew their history. Not everyone knew who Dixie Dean was, for example. I think it’s important to know the history and appreciate what a privilege it is to play for a club like Everton” said the Spaniard. Players buying into the Everton way is another facet of this development.
Simple things are changing – Roberto Martinez has laid down the law in stating “A player must sleep for eight hours and if I can prove that he has not slept for eight hours he will get a fine“. When it comes to drinking or smoking, the boss has provided education, rather than chastisement. If players can think for themselves with all the information they need off the pitch, they can do the same on it. Tim Howard also pointed it out when he said “He doesn’t see danger (in the opposition), he sees their weakness. He always gets us working on that. The focus has not at any point in time this season been on the other team. On Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, it has always been about us.” Don Revie made the idea of dossiers famous when leading the all-conquering Leeds United, and the idea of accumulating information to gain an advantage over another team is sound if players can deal with it.
Case in point – Romelu Lukaku was deployed on the right to wreak havoc while Steven Naismith was able to drop back and allow both Lukaku and Mirallas to attack the space he leaves. With those two causing distractions Naismith could make his way into the penalty area. Martinez looked at Arsenal play, and identified a lack of movement as the weakness that could be exploited. Yet the players had to buy into it. We’re looking for new players this summer – that one you like, he’s quality ain’t he. Scores the goals and that. But wait, not a team player? Couldn’t tell a false nine from a false leg? Sorry lad, it’s not happening.
But wait, I heard Naismith, so I’ll run with that. Naismith encapsulates the Moyes attacker. Often out of position, unable to reach the opposing penalty area enough, the Scot was roundly dismissed as a poor player as a result. One thing Naismith has always been is smart, so when Martinez gave him a clear focus and played him where he is most comfortable, Naismith delivered with a return of eight goals thus far – double the number he notched in the 2012/13 campaign. That’s a mix both of confident, clever managing and a confident, clever player.
“It was also evident how Everton’s players are totally prepared to play for their manager and accept his decisions. You never see or hear any sign of dissent or disgruntlement at Everton and, when Martínez leaves players out, they are then prepared to run through brick walls for him when they eventually get back on the pitch.” Alan Hansen said that. Hansen. Alan Hansen. Yes, that Alan Hansen. The great sceptic, a man as loveable as Vladimir Putin as manager of a Butlins resort, believes we’ll make the top 4. The Martinez effect has been well publicised, but this point is important too; the players have bought into it. They have shown a work rate and hunger to learn that is vital in development both as an individual and a team member.
Quite rightly people will look back on this season and think of Roberto Martinez, the loan signings, James McCarthy, Aiden McGeady and the youth players. But there’s a core which has facilitated the move to proper, “School of Science” football. The question is – who from the current squad would you actually sell? Shh, stop saying Arouna Kone. None of that. The mood is such that even Magaye Gueye and Apostolos Vellios are welcome to prove themselves. Simply put, Everton has rediscovered its roots as the School of Science, and that is a result of every single person within the club working with freedom and expression. It’s all a bit sunshine and flowers, I know. But the final piece of the puzzle is of course investment.
Yet Roberto Martinez insists that all we need is time. With time, what can we become? Based on the changes of the last nine months, there is no limit to our ambition. Nil Satis Nisi Optimum, people. More than just a phrase.