“I’ll bring you Champions League football”. Those were the words Roberto Martinez introduced himself to Bill Kenwright in the summer, as the former Wigan manager was chosen to replace Manchester United-bound David Moyes.
Martinez’s bold claim sounded overly optimistic in some quarters and completely ridiculous in others but, six games into the season, the former Wigan’s manager confidence seems increasingly justified.
In a summer monopolysed by Spurs’ spending spree, Jose Mourinho’s return and Arsene Wenger’s new-found boldness in the transfer window, Everton flew largely under the radar, yet they remain the only unbeaten club in the Premier League.
While David Moyes has got off with the wrong foot at Manchester United, Martinez has got to a flying start at Goodison Park and, crucially, he’s succeeded where his predecessor is currently failing at his new club.
Everton have been quick to adapt the former Wigan manager’s philosophy of quick, crisp, passing football, and Martinez’s bold approach has seemingly sped up Ross Barkley’s development.
The Toffees have averaged 514 passes per game under Roberto Martinez, a significant increase from the 416 passes per game average last season under David Moyes and while their average possession stands at 58%, that figure alone is not enough to explain Everton’s progress this season.
Under Martinez Everton have gone from adopting a cautious approach to taking the game at their opponents and few players have been as instrumental in this change of philosophy as Romelu Lukaku.
Despite playing only two Premier League for the Toffees since his arrival from Chelsea, the Belgian centre-forward has already netted three times and his physical presence up-front offers Martinez the sort of focal point his Wigan teams never had.
While Lukaku’s physicality is extremely important for Everton, his mobility is just as big an asset for Martinez’s team, for the 20-year-old’s movement makes him even harder to handle.
Everton’s 4-2-3-1 has been extremely well-balanced this season, with a barely perceptible preference to attack down the two flanks than through the middle, as Leon Osman – or Steven Pienaar – and Kevin Mirallas have been given more responsibilities, while the departure of Marouane Fellaini has give Ross Barkley licence to roam between midfield and the final third of the pitch more freely.
Only 26% of Everton’s attacks have come through the middle area of the pitch thanks, in no small part, to their strikers’ willingness to run the channels.
Under Moyes, Nikica Jelavic and Victor Anichebe were considered target men, while in Martinez’s gameplan, whoever gets the nod between the Croat and Lukaku is expected to be involved with the team, not only in terms of holding the ball but also in terms of creating chances for their teammates.
Everton’s new-found offensive fluidity has seen them scoring nine times in six league games, their second-highest goal return at this stage of the season in the last five seasons, while the six goals they have conceded are Everton’s join-best defensive record after six games since the 2006-07 season.
Martinez’s detractors pointed at Wigan’s woeful defensive record under the Spaniard to criticise Kenwright’s decision to appoint him, but the former Wigan manager’s astute purchase of James McCarthy and the arrival of Gareth Barry on loan from Manchester City have provided the Toffees with a solid shield in front of their back four.
Everton will almost surely suffer from a slump in form at some stage, but with Romelu Lukaku set to remain at Goodison Park for the rest of the season, Martinez’s attacking football philosophy could make the promise of Champions League football look increasingly realistic.