When Roberto Martinez was first mooted as a possible replacement for Manchester United bound David Moyes, many concerns were raised about the defensive record of teams previously managed by the Spaniard. Looking at the stats it was hard to put a case together to justify why Martinez’ teams had struggled to keep out the opposition (196 goals conceded in the last 3 seasons), apart from the obvious injury problems suffered in his final 12 months at the DW Stadium and the lack of resources traditionally available to the manager of Wigan Athletic.
Conversely, Everton under David Moyes had a strong defensive pedigree, often focusing on keeping out the opposition as the number one priority. That is not to say the Blues haven’t suffered defensive problems of their own, particularly in the early part of last season (2 clean sheets in the opening 18 league matches), when sloppy goals cost Everton vital points, which may have been the difference between European qualification and not.
So where does that leave Everton? Does a more expansive playing style under Martinez inevitably lead to more goals conceded, or can Martinez skilfully mix the open free-flowing style in adopted at Wigan, with the defensive solidarity enjoyed by Everton under the management of Moyes?
As a starting point, very little has changed in terms of personnel since Moyes departed. Tim Howard is likely to start the season as number one choice in-goal, even allowing for the arrival of the highly rated Spaniard Joel. In central defence Martinez will enjoy an embarrassment of riches. England centre back and Captain Phil Jagielka is an obvious and almost certain pick, alongside one of Sylvain Distin, World Cup Finalist Johnny Heitinga, Paraguyan international Antolin Alcaraz and the up and coming pair of Shane Duffy and John Stones. With the transfer window still open, Martinez may decide to cash in on one his defenders, especially with Heitinga entering the final year of his current contract, but even if the Dutchman was to leave, Martinez would not be short of options.
If the personnel remains largely changed, the playing demands most certainly have. The key to success under Martinez will be ball retention and he will not allow his defenders to simply play the ball long in the hope of the finding a colleague. The percentage ball has been parcelled and delivered to Old Trafford and I for one will not miss the long hopeful diagonal balls from back to front that became prominent at Goodison for well over a decade. This will inevitably lead to an increased reliance on the defenders to play the ball to feet and despite a shaky start in Vienna, the main protagonists have quickly adapted to the Martinez way. The central pair are expected to spread to the edges of the box, providing space for the two deep-lying midfield players to fill the central void and start the play from the “Quarter Back” position.
The use of full backs at Everton has evolved significantly under Moyes and that evolution will continue under Martinez. Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines will be utilised as attacking players, using their tireless energy to work the flanks and support the forward play. Bryan Oviedo appears a natural fit with this style of play and will provide more than adequate cover for the brilliant Baines. Hibbert on the right will find his opportunities limited and there are signs already of the Everton stalwart struggling with the expectations of the new regime. At Blackburn on Saturday, Hibbert looked for assistance at every opportunity, declining the opportunity to attack the full back. The comparison with Coleman in the second half was colossus, the maturing Irishman producing the perfect display at right back, dangerous in attack but able to utilise his vast energy reserves to chase back and provide defensive solidity.
If Everton have the ball, the opposition cannot score. This has been the basis of success for the Spanish national team and Barcelona for a number of years and the “Martinez way” will certainly see Everton enjoy the majority of possession against the majority of teams. But when Everton do come up against their stronger opponents, can the Blues remain solid at the back?
The early pre-season games haven’t provided many clues, the opponents have been chosen carefully to provide the right contest at each and every stage of pre-season and so far the opposition have not provided the Blues with a significant defensive challenge. That will undoubtedly change against Juventus on Wednesday night, with the Italian giants possessing some of the Worlds very best players. Although some minor amendments will be made, Martinez has already spoken about avoiding unnecessary changes.
Speaking to the Liverpool Daily Post, Martinez has reassured supporters the team will lose none of their famed tenacity and believes the Goodison faithful will accept the shift in tactics.
“It is not changing everything in the way we play. We are not losing anything, but trying to add.
“I know Goodison Park is an incredible place to play fast, forward-thinking football and we are going to do that.
“But, at times, we will need to have another approach, another dimension and the fans will understand it.”
Moyes’ many strengths included his attention to detail, his unrelenting pursuit of excellence and ensuring his team is perfectly prepared for each and every game. These are qualities shared by the new management team and were key selection criteria in Bill Kenwright’s search for a replacement. The Everton chairman spoke of how impressed he was by Martinez’ approach, particularly in the FA Cup Final, where he set out his team perfectly to stop the free-flowing football of Manchester City, while still allowing his creative players to express themselves. Everton will continue to go into every game this season perfectly prepared, nothing will be left to chance and each player will be aware of the many challenges facing them over the 90 minutes, whether it be against Manchester United or Hull City.
The changes at Everton this summer are positive and have so far been received as a breath of fresh air. The openness in the teams playing style will inevitably put the defence under additional pressure and concentration levels will need to remain high. But Roberto Martinez possesses an intelligent footballing brain, his attention to detail and tactical nous will ensure that Everton are in no way under prepared and with the defence led by the superb Jagielka, Everton should retain the defensive solidarity that became the bedrock of the Moyes era.
Let us know your thoughts? Were you concerned when Martinez was appointed? Do you remain concerned or has Martinez reassured you with the strong start to his reign?