It’s funny how things can change so quickly in football, isn’t it? After that Merseyside derby defeat at Anfield, things were a little bit doom and gloom for Everton. But a hard earned victory over Aston Villa suddenly became a wholly significant one, as none of the Toffees’ top four rivals managed to pick up three points in Matchday 24 of the Premier League.
Subsequently, the positive mantra that Roberto Martinez has instilled at the club wasn’t missing for long at all. European football looks a target that is very much attainable once again.
Next up for Everton is a trip to fellow Champions League-chasers Tottenham, and if they can topple Spurs at White Hart Lane, then the Merseyside outfit will surely thrust their way into the “serious contenders” bracket in the ongoing battle for that coveted fourth spot.
The travelling Evertonians will have been buoyed this week by some positive team news too. Martinez has stated in the build-up that Seamus Coleman and Gerard Deulofeu are set to return following injury layoffs, per James Dickinson of the Daily Express. The Catalan also claimed the club’s new loan signing Lacina Traore could play a part, declaring him “fully fit”, per the club’s official twitter page:
RM: "Lacina is progressing really well. I need to check whether it's wise to use him Sunday. He is fully fit from a medical point of view."— Everton (@Everton) February 7, 2014
It’s vital for Everton these key players hit the ground running, because going to Spurs is never an easy task. But whilst some Everton teams in years gone by may have looked to shut up shop at White Hart Lane, this Everton side will be going all out to take the three points back up north to Merseyside.
Here’s how Martinez’s men will go about doing it. But first of all, the likely lineups for each team:
Get Barkley behind the Tottenham midfield
Since taking over at Spurs, Tim Sherwood has opted for a much more traditional stylistic approach when compared to the intricate methods of his predecessor.
The former Spurs academy boss has opted for a rigid, flat, four-man midfield and in the main has set his side up with two strikers during the infancy of his tenure. He seems to prefer rounded midfielders over specialist ones, and whilst that brings an added string to Tottenham’s offensive bow, it does pose some issues.
Namely that there hasn’t often been a place in this Tottenham team for a “natural” holding midfielder.
|West Ham (H)||Sigurdsson & Dembele||1-2|
|Southampton (A)||Eriksen & Dembele||2-3|
|West Brom (H)||Eriksen & Holtby||1-1|
|Stoke City (H)||Paulinho & Dembele||3-0|
|Manchester United (A)||Capoue & Dembele||1-2|
|Arsenal (A)||Bentaleb & Dembele||2-0|
|Crystal Palace (H)||Bentaleb & Dembele||2-0|
|Swansea City (A)||Bentaleb & Dembele||1-3|
|Manchester City (H)||Bentaleb & Dembele||1-5|
|Hull City (A)||Bentaleb & Paulinho||1-1|
And it’s something that better teams have exploited. Most notably in the FA Cup against Arsenal—where Santi Cazorla wreaked havoc with his lateral movement between the lines—and more recently against Manchester City, where Spurs were trounced 5-1.
City’s first goal was a perfect example of the problems this type of setup can cause.
In this game, Spurs played with a central midfield pairing of Nabil Bentaleb and Moussa Dembele (circled), neither of whom are typically the most defensively aware. This leaves a huge gap between the Tottenham defence and the midfield, which David Silva—who has drifted untracked from the left-hand side—exploits with ease:
By the time Bentaleb and Dembele get to Silva, he has three different passing options. And as the Spaniard so often does, he plays in Sergio Aguero and City go 1-0 up:
This will surely be Martinez’s main focus when concocting a plan to attack the home team. Especially with attacking midfielder Ross Barkley back in the side after a short injury layoff.
Away from home this season, Barkley has been crucial for Everton. The Wavertree-born midfielder has honed a patent for finding space in between and behind the midfield when the game is stretched, before bearing down on the opposition back four.
Earlier in the season at Arsenal—who, like Spurs, don’t often play with a natural midfield anchor—the England man had a marvelous game. He regularly drifted between Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey and consistently picked the ball up in pockets of space in front of the back four, as we can see (left).
If Everton can find Barkley in these pockets and he is able to link up with the likes of Kevin Mirallas and Steven Pienaar regularly, then it could be really a tricky afternoon for that Tottenham midfield.
Sharper defensive transitions
In the Merseyside derby, Liverpool caught the Toffees time after time on the break, as Everton were painfully slow recoiling into a cohesive defensive shape when losing the ball. And whilst the team looked a lot more solid with Sylvain Distin back from injury against Villa, there were still indications this issue has not been fully alleviated. Most notably in the build up to Villa’s opening goal.
Below, Barkley is tackled superbly by Fabian Delph, but his fellow Everton players seem unnervingly slow reacting to any potential danger. The only player alive to the ball and anticipating an opportunity is the eventual goalscorer, Leandro Bacuna:
Even after the pass is played into the feet of Christian Benteke, there is still little in terms of a reaction from the Everton midfield or back four. Distin is on his heels, unsure on whether to engage Benteke or hold position—in the end he does neither—and Gareth Barry is too ponderous in getting back to plug the gap:
Ahead of the Spurs clash, from an Everton perspective this is a little bit worrying, especially as Sherwood is expected to deploy a 4-4-2 system.
It means that if Tottenham nick the ball high up the pitch, each centre-back will be occupied with a front man and you become highly susceptible to late runners from midfield and wide players laterally stretching the pitch and pulling defenders out of position. This is something that Liverpool exploited with a callous ruthlessness in the derby.
Spurs are a quick, athletic and hugely energetic team and they will have certainly picked up on this flaw. The Toffees will still attack and be positive, but they must be more alert and reactive upon losing possession.
Intelligent use of width from Baines and Coleman
With Coleman likely to return this weekend per Dickenson’s aforementioned piece, and Leighton Baines a certainty to feature at left-back, Martinez has two of the best attacking full-backs in the Premier League at his disposal.
But in this fixture last season, both the Everton full-backs were pinned back by their opposite numbers and Everton sought to play on the counter attack. This time, Baines and Coleman must push on when they can and force the Tottenham wide players deep into their own half.
The manner in which the Toffees have adapted their game to a more possession-based approach means that they may have a better chance of shackling their opponents this time round. Consistent and recycled possession in midfield—where Everton should have an edge—means Tottenham will have to drop off and give time and space for the Everton full-backs to creep forward.
Pienaar and Mirallas are set to play on the left and right of midfield respectively, and their natural style sees them come off the line looking to link up with Barkley and the centre-forward.
So it’s imperative that width comes from the full-backs. That didn’t happen last season, and Everton were far too narrow. Resultantly they had to adjust to an unfamiliar style and were prevented from using what are arguably their main two attacking outlets.
But intelligence and maturity is key here. The duo must be selective in their forays forward and careful not to expose the two centre-backs to swift counter attacks. Striking that right balance will be key to the success of the Everton effort from both an attacking and a defensive point of view.
Get Mirallas involved
Undoubtedly Everton’s man in form, Mirallas has been excellent in recent weeks. He scored a sensational free-kick against Aston Villa to win the game for the Toffees last weekend, and his all-round game seems to have sharpened up after a tiring festive period
Here, he needs to get involved in the game. Too often when Everton play on the road Mirallas seems to be on the periphery of things, when in reality his pace and direct style should make him a vital player.
With the gaps that Tottenham’s cavalier, high-pressing style look likely to leave in midfield, Mirallas needs to be shrewd in his movement and look for the ball in intelligent areas. His goal against Tottenham at White Hart Lane last season was a perfect example of what he can do, but even in that particular game, he didn’t see enough of the ball.