On Saturday, Chelsea face their biggest test of the season thus far, as they travel to Goodison Park to take on an Everton team that has been a bit of a bogey team for them over the past few years. It was an early trip to Goodison last season that saw Jose Mourinho’s team meet their first defeat and, in hindsight, would prove to be an omen as far as the Blues’ struggles away from home. But this is a new side, built more to the manager’s liking, and one that has serious title ambitions. The first step is to win away from home against tough opposition that quality dictates you should win.
For Everton, after years of being just outside the top four because of not having the budget to really compete, the Goodison faithful have seen their manager dip into the transfer market this summer and permanently secure two of their biggest contributors who were on loan deals last season. Aside from the astute buy of Aiden McGeady last winter, Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku were a big part of Everton’s successes last year, and both return to the club on a permanent basis. In fact, Everton were willing to play £28M for Lukaku, smashing their club transfer record, in order to secure a player whose 15 goals last year were vital to the team. With continuity in place, Roberto Martinez will be looking to help Everton narrow the gap between them and Arsenal, the fourth-place finishers, especially since his club flirted with Champions League qualification last year before fading at the end.
Roberto Martinez is showing himself to be a very gifted manager and has improved an Everton side that David Moyes thought had peaked.
Everton are a really fun story to look at over the past two years, especially when you consider what was expected after the departure of David Moyes for Manchester United and the questions over Martinez because of his time at Wigan. Despite their FA Cup win over Manchester City, Martinez had underwhelming league results with the Latics, and narrowly avoided the drop on three different occasions. He moved to Everton with the Goodison faithful worried that he wasn’t good enough to take over for a manager that consistently finished in the top five with a limited budget. However, people tended to forget that he was managing a Wigan team that also had limited resources and more so than Everton because of their position in the league.
Since arriving at Everton, Martinez has enhanced his reputation in that he’s taken an outfit that under David Moyes tended to play a more defensive brand of football and gotten them to play a more attractive, attacking game when needed and did so without many changes to the squad. Under Moyes, Everton had flirted with fourth place for fleeting moments, only finishing there in 2005-2006 when Liverpool fell off after their Champions League triumph, but Martinez has them believing that they can compete for that top four every season. In addition, Martinez’s reputation in the game allowed him to land the likes of Gerard Delofeu and Lukaku on loan, making the side much more formidable.
Lukaku, for the first time, has to play with the weight of expectation on him and against his former club. How will he respond?
Last season, Lukaku was unable to feature in the matches against Chelsea due to the terms of his loan deal. This will mark the first time that he comes up against the side that brought him from Anderlecht, and he’ll have to know it’s a tall order.
In Gary Cahill and John Terry, he’ll face the best center backs statistically in the Premier League last term and the best back four from last season, and with the expectation of his price tag, will be expected to make an impact.
However, he’s still very raw, and despite his performance against Arsenal, Chelsea’s defence is not Per Mertesacker and Calum Chambers, and he will not be able to bully the Chelsea defence like he did to Arsenal last Saturday.
If Chelsea are to control him, and I think they will, they must keep him from getting behind the defensive line. One of the criticisms I had of him, and why I thought he should be sold, was his inability to play in compressed spaces with his back to goal and find room to shoot. He’s at his best making runs behind the line, and when he can’t do that, he’ll either just occupy space in the middle or start coming deep to find the ball, both of which take him out of the danger area.
In addition, you want to force him deep because on a technical level, he’s not very good at linking play. His first touch sometimes lets him down, making passes that he should hold up look as if they’ve bounced off a wall, and his decision-making in his passing game is suspect. He also is a bit awkward with the ball at his feet, especially running with the ball and tends to look out of control, though it can be effective.
The interesting thing for me is that he’s only really shown his power and strength for a guy so big when he’s attacking crosses when he’s made a run or he’s pulled out in a wide area with either a fullback marking him or a center back closing him down. He’s very rarely shown the ability to turn a defender in a small area, and I think that’s how you have to deal with him; force him to play centrally and deny him space behind.
The unheralded member of this Everton squad is Steven Naismith, who’s quietly scored in every match this season.
Never underestimate a willing runner, one who’s willing to make runs through the channels or runs from deep regardless of whether the ball finds him or not. Chelsea are finding the benefits of that trait in Andre Schuerlle, who is very much that type of player.
In Naismith, they’ve found a player who can perform that role both centrally as a lone striker and also from a wide position. If you watch his goals, many of them come from him losing his marker on a run through the channel and finding the ball to prod beyond the keeper. Very rarely do you see him take on a defender or create a shot for himself. Much of his play is centered around his ability to find the gaps and finish calmly, which he’s very good at.
The other aspect of his game is that he’s very good at tracking back and willing to employ the pressing game that Martinez likes his side to play. He’s a much better defensive option than Lukaku or Kevin Mirallas, which is why you often see the former come off late in matches and the latter come on late in matches.
More so than Lukaku, it’s Naismith that’s been their main goal threat, especially with the ability to link up as a second striker or taking advantage of the delivery from two of the best fullbacks in the Premier League when it comes to crossing.
James McCarthy is the midfield player that makes them tick.
One of the more astute, yet unheralded, signings of last season was the purchase of James McCarthy from Wigan. His partnership with Gareth Barry and a healthy Ross Barkley has been key for Everton, particularly because his energy allows Barry to not have to run as much, hold a position in the center of the park where he can play as a deeper passer, and it allows them to press from the front and put teams under pressure.
Against Arsenal, it was that pressing from McCarthy that really disrupted Arsenal’s ability to play out from the back, thus cutting off the passing game that they wanted to employ, particularly since Alexis Sanchez is not really an out ball to play it to long. It’ll be interesting to see if that level of pressure works against Chelsea, especially since it looks like Didier Drogba is set to start for the injured Diego Costa. He will provide an out ball for the Chelsea defence that Arsenal lacked, and it may allow them to bypass the pressing out of the midfield.
How do you beat Everton? Ride the early storm, put their center backs under pressure, and test their fitness.
If Chelsea have improved in one area, it’s their ability to play possession football when needed, providing the passer with many options and keeping the ball ticking over. If Arsenal proved anything last week, it’s that Everton’s pressing game requires a lot of energy. While it’s effective in disrupting the opponents, allowing Everton to have long spells of dominance, it’s also very taxing physically, and Everton have the penchant for tiring. The problem for Arsenal was that they were so bad at the back in the first half that a two-goal deficit was too much to overcome after Everton began to tire, and they were only able to muster a draw. Chelsea have to be very aware of that fact, particularly since they have a much better back five and a similar ability to possess the ball, albeit with more options in terms of style of play.
The other factor is what I’ll call the Sylvain Distin factor. For years, Phil Jagielka and Distin formed a partnership that was one of the best in the Premier League. However, Distin’s getting older, and over the last few years, has shown that his ability to read the game is beginning to no longer compensate for his declining physical skills. This is a particular weakness, especially since Leighton Banes and Seamus Coleman are not known for their defence at fullback and Gareth Barry isn’t really a defensive beast either. If Chelsea can get to Distin and get Drogba one-on-ones with Distin, Drogba still has enough class to get the better of that matchup. That could prove vital, especially since Everton have a penchant for defending deeper once the pressure is bypassed.