Ask any Evertonian what our biggest problem has been this season and you’re likely to get a variety of answers. Howard’s post-World Cup downturn in form, fullbacks not getting forward, Lukaku’s first touch, defenders forgetting how to defend, too many forwards shoehorned into the wrong positions, injuries to key players, Gareth Barry being slightly older, Europa League strain. It seems reasonable to accept that there would be a myriad of reasons for such a significant drop in results from one season to the next, given that it’s the same manager and the squad has remained largely unchanged. For me though, all these potential culprits are second to the conundrum that Martinez has yet to solve – how to be the team he wants us to be.
Recently, a lot’s been made of our style of play, particularly the tendency to play sideways and backwards too often. Taking the safe option. I think there is a little bit of that, many of our players don’t have the imagination to play penetrative forward passes, but much of the time it’s a more fundamental problem. They simply don’t have anyone to pass to. If you go through a list of the attacking players in the Everton squad picking out the ones that are good at finding pockets of space in which to receive the ball, there are only two that stand out: Steven Pienaar and Leon Osman. Lukaku and Naismith try to get involved but don’t have the technical ability to turn or dribble away from an opponent, Mirallas, Barkley and McGeady all prefer to be direct runners, and Eto’o can do anything with the ball but doesn’t have the legs to start the majority of games. For reference, this season Pienaar and Osman have eight starts between them in the Premier League, with none of those starts coming together. Of those eight games, we’ve won three, drawn three and lost two. When neither of them have started, we’ve won two, drawn three and lost five. You can digest the stats for yourself below, but the quickly drawn conclusion is that we suffer without them. Or, this season at least, we suffer without Osman, managing a win percentage of just 17% when he’s not in the starting line-up.
Now I’m not trying to make a case for either of these players being some kind of mercurial talent that we simply can’t do without, but the job they do for the team is often underplayed and their contribution undervalued. They find space. They create the possibility of a forward pass. They protect the ball, or turn with it and dribble around in a little circle, allowing time for the fullbacks to get forward and strikers to make runs in behind. In short, they give you controlled possession in the attacking third. Without them, you get Leighton Baines throwing his hands up in the air, going backwards to Distin, and then either Distin giving it away or going further back to Howard and “BOOOOOOOOO!”. Think back to last season, and many of the seasons before, when we used to spend almost the entirety of every game at Goodison camped in the opposition half. How many times would a move start with Baines playing a short pass inside to one of Pienaar or Osman and then sprinting down the line because he knows they won’t give it away? It’s been the staple of Everton’s play for years, and, with equivalent players, the staple of many other top sides, too.
Last season, Leon Osman appeared in every single Premier League match that Everton played. He started twenty-seven and came on as a substitute in the other eleven. We won sixteen of the matches he started, drew six and lost five. The games he didn’t start, we won five, drew three and lost three. That’s a 60% win rate with Osman down to 45% without. As for Steven Pienaar, interestingly, we won a far greater proportion of games without him than with, winning only 37% when he started, compared to 74% when he was not named in the initial line-up. Pienaar in particular has struggled with injuries this season and last, so it’s perhaps a little unfair to assess so few games when he’s rarely been in the side on a consistent basis, but having double the chance of winning a game when a player doesn’t play is fairly damning evidence of a significant loss of form.
So we won a lot of games last season when at least one of Osman or Pienaar played. That’s fairly self-apparent. What’s more enlightening is to examine those games from last season that we won when neither of them started the game. Nominally, there are only two, with another bonus game that is worth mentioning in its own right. Firstly, Swansea at home, which we won 3-2. If you recall, we went 3-1 up through goals from Baines, Lukaku and Barkley before Williams nodded in a last minute consolation. All in all a decent performance and a comfortable victory. Can you remember how we played though? We pretty much sat in our own half the entire game, waiting for a Swansea attack to break down and then hit them on the counter. They had 59% possession and, to be honest, played far prettier football than we did. But we won at a canter because we had Lukaku, Barkley, Mirallas and McGeady sprinting at them every time we nicked the ball. The 2-0 win against Manchester United towards the end of last season was eerily similar. No place for Osman or Pienaar from the start, Naismith in for McGeady and Lukaku moved out wide to make space for the Scot. Again, the opposition had the vast majority of the ball (61%), gave the impression of being technically superior without being able to penetrate a resolute defence, before being ruthlessly picked apart by our pace on the break. The other game that clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of this style of play was the 3-0 demolition of Arsenal. Osman actually started that game but went off after six minutes, with Barkley taking his place. Same drill. Sit deep, defend as a unit and then sit back and relax as a big Belgian lad steamrolls everything with half a pitch to run into. We have an explosion of counter-attacking ability up front and those games showcased how to use it. The same ploy’s worked against Wolfsburg this season.
But it doesn’t always work, because sometimes you crumble and make a mistake before you get to counter. Sometimes the opposition is so good at keeping the ball they don’t give it away. Sometimes you concede the first goal. Sometimes the opposition doesn’t want the ball either and the game becomes a battle of who can manage not to slice the ball out of play for a throw-in. Traditionally, the only times a manager would deliberately favour a defensive, counter attack set up is if they were facing a side superior to their own, playing an important away fixture against a title rival, or trying to gain a favourable result in the away leg of a cup competition. It’s seen as a cowardly strategy, almost an admission of inferiority before the game has even begun. In truth, there is no right or wrong way of playing, and, as a general rule, whichever team plays the best, wins.
Our manager, though, believes in possession. If you want to control possession and you’re to averse to playing long ball, players that can find space in attacking areas are absolutely vital to getting your side up the pitch. They put pressure on the opposition by enticing them out of their defensive shape. They make defenders make decisions, often baiting them into reckless challenges. These challenges lead to freekicks in dangerous areas, with the net result being either a goal direct from the set piece, or at least a further opportunity to push men forward and sustain the attack. The crowd gets involved because things are happening. It’s exciting to watch. If you’re insistent on playing a short passing game based on possession and keeping the ball, having at least one player like Osman or Pienaar in your side is an absolute must. They’re the difference between the 72 points of last season and the 21 points of this. They’re the difference between passing it around the back line, going nowhere, getting nervous, making mistakes, conceding sloppy goals, and methodically working your way up the pitch, moving the opposition around, testing their fitness and concentration until an opening appears. The latter is how Martinez purports to want his teams to play, but this season the teams he’s picking seemingly aren’t capable of it. It simply doesn’t make sense to try to play possession football with players that aren’t particularly good at playing possession football. That’s why, for me, barring a complete sea-change in his approach to football, finding a replacement for Osman and Pienaar should be the manager’s number one priority at this moment. If he gets the right one, signing a new little magician could be the first step to regaining the confidence of both the players, and, perhaps more importantly, the fans.