Everton's Improvement Under Roberto Martinez Offers Great Hope

Nick MillerFeatured ColumnistFebruary 4, 2014

Everton's manager Roberto Martinez takes to the touchline before his team's English Premier League soccer match against Southampton at Goodison Park Stadium, Liverpool, England, Sunday Dec. 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Jon Super/Associated Press

Going on just the numbers, Everton are more or less the same as they were at this stage last season. Now, they are fifth with 45 points—after 24 games last season they were fifth with 41 points. They have scored the same number of goals and conceded two fewer this term. Purely on that basis, there isn't a lot to it.

Scott Heppell/Associated Press

However, there is a difference. While discussion of David Moyes' playing style while the Everton boss has often over-emphasised how direct they were, his version of Everton football certainly wasn't famed for being pretty or free-flowing.

However, under Martinez they are much more fluid. They are quicker in attack and rely less on crosses from out wide—preferring to build through the middle more, utilising the strengths of the hugely promising Ross Barkley in midfield, something Moyes was reluctant to do.

Perhaps the most unexpected element of Martinez's tenure thus far is how good Everton's defence has been. Aside from an aberration in the Merseyside derby against Liverpool, when Sylvain Distin was missing and Phil Jagielka had one of his worst games in some time, Everton have been pretty solid at the back having let in just 25 goals, keeping nine clean sheets in the process.

Clint Hughes/Associated Press

Martinez was always going to implement the quick passing that made his reputation at Wigan, but the concern about him stepping up to a bigger and better club was his defensive organisation. Wigan's defence was routinely terrible in his time at the DW Stadium—they let in 73 goals while being relegated last term, 62 the year before and 61 the year before that. Much of that appeared to be down to organisation.

Martinez could get the attacking stuff right, but without a steady foundation, one wondered if he could replicate his success with Everton.

So far, it seems to be going well, with Distin, Jagielka and the rest adjusting to Martinez's policy of his defenders playing from the back, rather than simply clearing the ball at the first opportunity. Martinez told the Liverpool Echo in October:

They have been incredible to adjusting to having so much of the ball. It’s about taking responsibility for different ways of playing and starting the play from the back.

They have been the solid rocks of this squad for a long time and this season they’ve really embraced changing the way we start the play and been incredible ambassadors for this project.

Clint Hughes/Associated Press

It's possible that the explanation is as simple as Everton having better players than Wigan. If Martinez asks his defenders to pass from the back, then it makes perfect sense that such a strategy would succeed with more technically adept players.

Another big victory for Martinez has been tying Leighton Baines down to a new contract. Baines had been a long-term target for Manchester United, as per the Guardian, so securing his future was a huge victory for the Everton boss. Martinez said, as quoted by the Guardian:

We are all excited that Leighton will be able to have a long-term future with the club and we are all looking forward to the second half of the season having his experience. It is such a specialised position it is a great boost internally but I know fans will be delighted because Leighton is more than a footballer at the club.

What Martinez can achieve at Everton is unclear. When he took over at Goodison Park he promised to deliver Champions League football, as reported by the BBC, which would be ambitious this season given the strength of the four teams currently above them in the table.

In the future it is also tough to see what will happen since the budget Everton operate on restricts Martinez to relatively short-term thinking in the transfer market. They currently have three players on loan and two (Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry) have been key to their success. Will they be able to sustain that?

For now though, Everton fans can enjoy the knowledge that despite losing their best manager in a generation they are still moving up.