Is it time to consider Everton genuine top four contenders?

Everton for the latter half of the David Moyes era were the perennial ‘Will they, won’t they?’ team in the Premier League with regards to qualification for the UEFA Champions League. Many times Everton were discounted by people courtesy of their regular poor starts to campaigns only for performances to pick up to a consistent level after the Christmas period or because of the perceived lack of star quality in their squad in comparison to the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal and more recently Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City.

One of the most impressive characteristics the David Moyes Everton sides had was work ethic, Leighton Baines when he was prised away from Wigan Athletic was not the outstanding defensive and offensive full-back he is today, nor was Seamus Coleman when David Moyes took a chance on the young Irishman. They both worked ferociously hard to get to the level they are at today and much of that sat comfortably with the David Moyes ethos.

This work ethic often led to fans and media alike genuinely believing that Everton would go and get a point at Stamford Bridge through gritted determination, or even recently go and win at Eastlands and usually the team did not disappoint in that regard however when you would ask the same people if Everton had a realistic chance of Champions League qualification the answer would nine times out of ten begin with a scoff and a resounding no to boot.

One of the things Everton were guilty of under David Moyes was not going out and winning games, Moyes wasn’t cautious but he was reactionary, as pointed out by Michael Cox in his excellent piece on Moyes’ perceived lack of identity published yesterday, there was and still is no set David Moyes philosophy like say for example a Pochettino or a Laudrup. This in turn meant Everton often reacted to match situations rather than having a preset plan on how to dominate a match and make the result their own so to speak.

What we are seeing this season however is completely different. There is an identity within Roberto Martinez’s Everton team, the ball retention and ability to make clever decisions when on the ball as individual players is very reminiscent of the football you so often see in the Champions League. Many will say Martinez has merely carried over the principles by which he worked both at Swansea and then Wigan Athletic but for Everton it is something completely new.

You still have the incredible work ethic instilled by David Moyes within certain players and positions, for example Leighton Baines, Seamus Coleman and the central defensive partnership of Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin however now with Everton you have a preset identity, you know they are going to retain possession when possible, James McCarthy and Ross Barkley will be able to split opposition teams with a pass and then you have the individual brilliance of players like Mirallas, Deulofeu and Pienaar who can feed off the physical presence of Lukaku up front.

We saw the perfect illustration of just why it might be time to consider Everton as possible top four contenders last night at Old Trafford. It is all too easy to forget but this is an Everton side that has lost the least amount of matches in the league this term, with their solitary defeat coming at Eastlands. They have conceded fewer goals than Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United yet they are not a defensive team, they look to control matches through possession.

Manchester United were out-passed, out-thought and ultimately out-worked by an Everton side that deserved nothing less than the three points they took back to Merseyside. Yes, United did have chances to go one, two or maybe even three goals to the good but that has been a recurring theme throughout the season. At no point could you have really said United were in complete control of the match, Everton on the other hand were.

The visitors kept the ball in midfield through the trio of Barkley, McCarthy and the unassumingly impressive Gareth Barry, they were allowed to keep possession in midfield due to United’s lack of urgency with regards to a pressing game and the Everton team looked more likely to make something of their possession than United did, Martinez’s side were never short of ideas. There were numerous options on every time they broke forward, whereas for United if the initial idea of passing the ball to Rooney, who it must be said had a poor game, failed then the attacking move invariably broke down.

Everton have kept everything that was so impressive about themselves during the Moyes era and have adapted it within a preset playing style, Everton are no long waiting for things to happen in matches anymore, they are outwardly looking to control proceedings from the outset and Everton’s approach is characterised no better than through the image of their lone forward Lukaku.

For an on-loan striker Lukaku’s work rate is and has been throughout the campaign, astounding, he chases every loose ball and puts opposition defenders under pressure through his physical presence, a prime example coming last night when the Belgian brushed off the imposing figure of Nemanja Vidic with relative ease albeit Martin Atkinson deemed it to be a foul. Whereas a forward normally polishes and refines the look of a team, Lukaku is the burly presence, who can score goals yet bring Everton’s technically gifted players into play and that is why the system works so well, the team are adaptable to most situations yet still the main principle of retaining possession remains.

With this preset idea in place at Everton on most occasions it won’t take the team long to get into the tempo of a match as happened so frequently in recent years and whilst there will still be shock results there probably won’t be as many draws, particularly at Goodison Park. This is why Everton have to be taken seriously as top four candidates this season, if you were to match them up with a Tottenham or a Liverpool for example in years gone by you would probably suggest Everton just didn’t have enough to overcome those teams in particular but now you look at it and think well they are going to have a lot of the ball, that’s half the battle, and with Lukaku and a couple of the creative players in tow then Everton are in with a chance.

Of course Martinez has delved into the transfer market and pulled off some excellent deals but there hasn’t been too much wholesale charge in terms of personnel from the squad last season yet you would be far more eager to suggest this is Everton’s best chance of sustaining a charge to the Champions League places merely because of the type of football that the club are playing.

There is still a long way to go in the season and there will be times when Everton’s squad size is called into question particularly as the fixtures pile up throughout the festive period but Everton head to the Emirates on Sunday with every chance of claiming a draw or even three points as they have in years gone however this season when Everton host Fulham the week after it is fully expected they will dominate possession and ensure they win that match whereas last year, would the same have been said? These are the key differences which make a side capable of a top four finish and this year Everton certainly fit into that category.


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