August 31, 2013 - Everton coming off their third straight draw to start the season. The team scoreless in their last two. And questions being raised whether this was what life was going to be like post-David Moyes: exceptionally mediocre.
It was hardly the start Roberto Martinez wanted for his Everton tenure. The product was altogether stale, with the headlines revolving around whom the team would lose in the transfer window.
Two days later, September 2, became the most important day of Everton's season, the decisive moments, all coming in the last hour before the transfer window slammed shut. A last minute £27.5 million move by Manchester United for Marouane Fellaini seemingly plucked Everton of one of their most influential players. The return on investment exceptional, and the first domino had fallen. Within 60 minutes, central midfield duo James McCarthy from Wigan and Gareth Barry on loan from Manchester City had arrived. And the icing on the victory cake, Romelu Lukaku joining the ranks, preferring Goodison Park to the familiar confines of the Hawthorns.
The moves lacked the prestige of Mesut Ozil to Arsenal, or even Fellaini to United. Upon further review, the moves were decisive, calculated and have transformed Everton from a team destined for mid-table mediocrity to a true contender for next year's Champions League.
Everton finished in the top four just once under David Moyes, the best Premier League finish in club history. It was a thin squad in 2004-05, with low expectations. The team finished with 61 points, a goal differential of minus-1 and absolutely over achieved. Tim Cahill was top scorer with a mere 11. It was a story of perseverance, hard work, and proof that every once in a while, the little guy could compete with the big boys.
Everton remains a Premier League have-not monetarily. They have no Middle Eastern oil money propping up the club, nor an Olympic-sized stadium to call home. However, this time around, the team has genuine quality. The team's quiet confidence, patient approach and maturity was on full display in their 1-1 draw at the Emirates on Sunday. Even when falling behind, the game plan did not waver. Everton's resume speaks for itself. They are the only team with one loss, one of three teams undefeated at home and are on pace for 71 points. They've played a difficult schedule with a soft spot coming over the Christmas period. Everton play three of their next four matches at home, and play no team in the top seven until January 28 against Liverpool. While Liverpool and Spurs remain popular choices to finish in the top four, Everton is my choice.
Five reasons why Everton can finish in the top four:
1) Centre-back consistency: Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin have been an under-rated duo in recent years. They have played every minute this season and are both in the top five in shots blocked, intercepted and clearances, leading a backline producing eight clean sheets. Both players have shown genuine comfort working the ball out of the back. The team, especially goalkeeper Tim Howard, is better off for it.
2) Defensive midfield strength: Managers all too often try to force their teams into playing a 4-2-3-1 despite not having the players to do so (ahem, Chelsea). Everton are a team built for this system. Lacking flash and flair, McCarthy and Barry have formed a complimentary partnership in the middle. The stay at home approach of Barry allows McCarthy to be more adventurous. Both are adept at tackling, with McCarthy a more creative influence. It's this all-important balance that allows the attacking midfield (Mirallas, Barkley, Pineaar) the freedom to get forward and play to their strengths. Role definition at its finest.
3) Lethal Lukaku: Every top team needs a game winner. Nikica Jelavic was that player for Everton 18 months ago, but has fallen off the deep end. Queue Lukaku. Eight goals in 11 matches for Everton, the 20-year old is a perfect fit. A true target man in every sense, he is as much a handful away from goal as he is inside the 18-yard box. The way he manhandled Nemanja Vidic, one of the most imposing defenders in the league, last week speaks to his ability to influence matches in a variety of ways. Jose Mourinho will not recall the Belgium international in January: a short-term coup for Everton.
4) Youth Development: Year over year, squad players need to step up and emerge as key contributors towards team success. Those players for Everton have been Seamus Coleman and Ross Barkley. Coleman always seemed a hybrid: a player without a true position. Whether he'd become anything more than a depth player was a legitimate question. From the get-go this season, Coleman has made right back his own and few, if any, at the position have been better. Barkley's pedigree was never questioned. It was a matter of when, not if. His cutting edge, determination, and authority around the 18-yard box have drawn high praise. The 20-year old is an automatic starter and has put himself in the conversation for England in Brazil.
5) The manager: Many questioned Martinez's managerial worth, despite years of keeping Wigan in the Premier League with paper-thin squads and marginal talent. I never understood those doubting Martinez. No matter roster limitations, the approach of his teams remained the same: patience on the ball, commitment to possession and a tight squad rotation. With better players at his disposal, it has all come together at Goodison. Players know where they stand. Kevin Mirallas has been substituted in 12 of the 14 games he's started. And young Gerard Deulofeu has been eased into the team, emerging as a composed and confident player in recent weeks. Martinez has taken a hard working, blue-collar team and transformed them into an attractive side in short time. Martinez is the ideal man to lead Everton's evolution.
Everton is not without warts. The possible January sale of Leighton Baines doesn't bode well, no matter how well Bryan Oviedo has played in his stead. The sale of Thomas Graveson to Real Madrid in 2004-05 had a likewise negative effect on the team. No team relies on the left side in attack as much as Everton with the English international in tandem with Steven Pienaar.
As much as keeping Baines is a priority, adding secondary scoring is another area of need. Outside of Lukaku, no player on the team has scored more than two goals. Reinvesting the transfer window profit from September on another attacking player would be worthwhile. Chairman Bill Kenwright has acknowledged he must support Martinez. "The board has got to support the manager if we want Champions League." It may come sooner than expected, but Kenwright should put his money where his mouth is, come January. They've won at Old Trafford, beat Chelsea, and taken points from Arsenal, Liverpool, and Spurs. And the best is very likely still to come.
- A tough road lay ahead for Liverpool. The Reds play Spurs, Manchester City and Chelsea all away before the New Year. Compounding the issues of a difficult schedule are significant injuries in the squad. Captain Steven Gerrard is out up to six weeks (hamstring), in addition to the long-term absence of striker Daniel Sturridge and left-back Jose Enrique. Jordan Henderson (ankle) is also a concern for Sunday's trip to White Hart Lane. These are huge losses for a team lacking requisite depth. The 33-year old Gerrard will be especially missed, keeping the midfield shape intact, as well as providing service from dead ball situations. Liverpool has scored 13 goals through set pieces – three more set piece goals than anyone else in the league. Rather than turning to Joe Allen, perhaps Rodgers tinkers with his formation, preferring to play five at the back as he's previously deployed this season.
- How poor was Manchester United's home loss to Newcastle Saturday? United completed the fewest passes in the attacking third (93) of any team last weekend. No other team had fewer than 100. In fact, United have created the 12th most goal scoring chances overall this season and only four teams have a worse goal scoring record at home than the reigning champions.
- Some good news for Manchester United; the group stage results in the Champions League couldn't be better. As a top seed, United avoided the big guns, setting up a knockout stage matchup against Galatasaray, Olympiakos, Schalke 04, Zenit St. Petersburg, or AC Milan. Manchester City and Arsenal meanwhile, are left tempting their UCL fates against the top seeds, and clear top contenders in the tournament. Can United make like Chelsea of 2011-12, struggling in domestic play en route to Champions League glory?
- Newcastle has been an on-field feel-good story this season amidst dysfunction off it. The latest gong-show: the Evening Chronicle reporting the club will charge newspapers exclusive interviews with members of the staff. Pay for coverage. Seriously.
- Sunderland may be at the bottom of the table but in fairness, they are better than their position. Gus Poyet has done a wonderful job since taking over, finding semblance with a team his predecessor nonsensically added 11 players to. The Black Cats have been victim to poor officiating and missed calls on multiple occasions. Sunderland was robbed of a penalty claim after Sandro clearly handled in the box in a 2-1 loss to Tottenham. Law of averages, things will turn around. Don't see this team being relegated.