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EVERTON: Is the honeymoon period over?

When he joined from Wigan Athletic in June 2013, Roberto Martinez received a mixed reception from Evertonians. On the one hand, here was one of the game’s brightest managerial prospects, lauded for his ethos of playing passing, attacking football whatever the outcome. On the other, he had finally taken Wigan down to the Championship after several years’ flirtation. In truth, the deciding factor for the Everton faithful was probably the fact that, three days prior to relegation, he had masterminded an FA Cup Final victory over heavy favourites Manchester City, humiliating the Toffees 3-0 at Goodison Park en route to Wembley. The 2013 FA Cup final outcome was no fluke, despite the 90th minute winner. Martinez had a clear game plan which his players executed to perfection.

After a slow start to Premier League life at Goodison Park (three draws, two of them goalless), on transfer deadline day Martinez swooped for the missing pieces in his jigsaw; an experienced holding midfielder in Gareth Barry, deemed surplus to requirements at Manchester City, and a hungry young striker in Romelu Lukaku from Chelsea. Sadly both of these were loan deals, but Evertonians are used to such short-term gratification. Both deals were as successful as loan deals could be, although it should be worth mentioning that for all his plaudits and egocentric sound bites, Lukaku actually netted one more goal in the previous season at West Bromwich Albion than in his season with Everton, who even Liverpool fans would admit are a superior team.

That said, there is no doubting Lukaku is an excellent prospect, with more goals at his age than Neymar, Messi and Rooney. A young, powerful striker with Premier League experience represents a statement of intent for Everton. The fee of £28million is a not insignificant use of the BT Sport money, and one can hope that not having to prove himself anymore doesn’t make Lukaku complacent. Kudos though for Everton’s structuring of the deal; £5mill up front then annual payments of the same amount. That is how you do business! Whilst traditionally the goals have always been shared around the team, the lack of a lethal finisher has always been the club’s main obstacle in breaking the glass ceiling and achieving Champions League football, so Lukaku’s ratio of a goal every other game comes as a relief to every Evertonian.

Of the strikers on their books, Steven Naismith seemed to adapt to the Premier League in 2013-14 after a troubled first season at Goodison Park, scoring some key goals and contributing valuable assists. However he cannot be relied on to deliver the goals on a regular basis as behind the front man is his specialist position. Likewise, Kevin Mirallas has pace to burn but is best utilised as an attacking midfielder.  Finally, the jury is out on Arouna Kone as he is the wrong side of 30 and missed the entirety of last season. This writer believes that Wigan Athletic may have been his level and will struggle with the expectations of performing for a club with higher ambitions. Hotly-tipped Belgian prospect David Henen is expected to sign in due course, but Martinez is already speaking of him joining the U21s so cannot be considered quite yet.

The midfield is where Everton’s seasons traditionally stand or fall, and this season is unlikely to be any different. Martinez seems set to complete the signing of Muhamed Besic, one of Bosnia’s shining lights in the World Cup, who should bolster the ranks of an impressive midfield selection, rife with internationals. James McCarthy has seen his valuation double in his first 12 months and is one of the first names on the team sheet. Once Jagielka retires he is the obvious candidate for the captaincy. Aiden McGeady, Steven Pienaar and the aforementioned Mirallas occupy the wings, although Pienaar is a fading force and should be used sparingly. Bryan Oviedo, already a folk hero after scoring the winner at Old Trafford in December, can also provide cover on the left once he returns from injury. Likewise Darron Gibson in the centre, as it is hard to see him breaking up the McCarthy-Barry axis which was the foundation for Everton’s relative successes last year. Veteran Leon Osman, a loyal servant and one-club man, is a useful outlet coming from the bench. Whilst never being able to cut it against top quality opposition, he is more than capable of putting teams like West Brom and Sunderland to the sword.

And so to Ross Barkley. It’s safe to say England didn’t see the best of him at the World Cup, but this was down to a difference in Roberto Martinez and Roy Hodgson’s outlooks; Martinez encourages Barkley to play to his strengths and express himself, mistakes and all, with a view that he is a rough diamond constantly learning and will get better because of these mistakes. Roy Hodgson on the other hand doesn’t have the luxury of time, though he perhaps criticised Barkley unnecessarily before the tournament. Barkley is key to Everton’s future, a player capable of genuinely great moments as his goals against Manchester City and Newcastle proved. If nothing else, not succumbing to the advances of City et al is a big statement for the Blues. Much is expected of Barkley in 2014-15, and his recent signing of a new contract demonstrates Everton’s intent.

In defence, Martinez continues to reap the benefits of predecessor David Moyes’ safety first policy, with the solid Phil Jagielka continuing to work well with the age-defying Sylvain Distin. However, it is only a matter of time before one of these stalwarts is replaced by the outstanding John Stones. Stones possess everything required of a modern centre back, pace, height and composure on the ball, and should be an England regular by Euro 2016. Whether or not Everton can keep hold of him is another matter, as he doesn’t have the same affiliation to the club as Barkley.

Everton are in possession of the best fullback pairing in the country in Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines. Baines’ best year may be behind him as an attacking outlet, but Martinez’s notion of adapting his game to play in the centre midfield, a la Philip Lahm, may pay off dividends in the coming years. Coleman, the club’s Player of The Year, should continue to be an outstanding weapon marauding down the right. Finally, the solid Tim Howard should still be on a high after his heroics in Brazil and will be No 1 for the foreseeable future.

So all in all the future looks bright for Merseyside Blues. However, this writer believes Martinez runs the risk of being found out and suffering difficult second season syndrome, although he will continue to carry a great amount of goodwill because of his activity so far this summer. However, with only one recognised goal scorer on the books, the risk of an injury to Lukaku combined with a gruelling Europa League campaign could see Everton struggle to reach the relative heights of last season.

Article by Richard Bowes

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