Chelsea host Everton Wednesday night in a match that both hope isn’t a repeat of their tussle last August. While exciting for the neutral, I’m sure it gave both managers sleepless nights, particularly because neither team could defend on that evening.
Regardless, both teams come into this match a bit differently than they were six months ago. Everton were buzzing off of the signing of Romelu Lukaku and looking forward to building on their fifth-place finish last season, while Chelsea were looking to integrate their new players into the side and make a serious push for the Premier League title.
Now in February, Everton look far from the side that pushed so hard for fourth last season, injuries and defensive lapses costing them points and leaving them in 12th place. Meanwhile, Chelsea are still pushing the pace at the top of the league, but look far from the dynamic side of the early season but are still grinding out results.
Has Roberto Martinez started to transform Everton into Wigan?
This is one of those unusual questions for a manager in their second season at a club when they enjoyed some success in their first season. Was the first season down to the remnants of the old manager, or was it down to new ideas? We’re beginning to get that answer this season.
Under Martinez, Wigan probably overachieved to avoid relegation as many times as they did. But during his tenure, there were two main things everyone took from watching his Wigan teams. One, they can play a very good passing game through the midfield, but don’t really have a plan B when that fails. Two, against good teams, they lacked a cohesive defensive plan and could have their lines yanked apart very easily because of that lack of cohesion.
Chelsea found that out against Wigan back in 2010 on the last day of the season when the Blues effortlessly fired 8 past Wigan en route to the Premier League title, and it was comfortable enough at the end that Didier Drogba started firing shots in order to guarantee he won the Golden Boot.
This Everton side is starting to suffer some of the same criticisms that Wigan did under Martinez. Yes, they’ve had injuries to James McCarthy in midfield, Tim Howard in goal, and all of their back line has missed some time this season. But the fact is that they just haven’t defended well, as a whole, and have been too easy to play through if you move the ball at pace. Those problems were shown over the Christmas period where Everton failed to gain a single point and lost to Stoke City, Newcastle, and Hull City.
Granted, they have rebounded as of late, keeping three clean sheets in their last three matches. But until they start showing that they can defend consistently, comparisons to Martinez’s job at Wigan will remain.
Does Roberto Martinez know how to get his best 11 on the field?
Martinez does have a bit of a conundrum in team selection. He can pick a side that can attack the opposition and he can pick a side that can contain the opposition. The problem is that they’re two completely different sides and the one that can attack, can’t contain, and vice versa.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a very talented Everton team. The problem is that given the players at Martinez’s disposal, it’s very hard to strike the right balance because there are a few players that require special considerations, especially against big teams.
For example, Ross Barkley is clearly Everton’s most dynamic player and most influential creative player. He’s most effective playing a number 10 role behind a striker. However, Romelu Lukaku tends to suffer greatly when asked to play up front on his own for a variety of reasons and almost requires Steven Naismith to play in support to cover his deficiencies. Then comes the domino effect. You either play Barkley in that role and hope Lukaku plays well or you play Naismith in that and have to decide where to put Barkley, potentially playing him out of position.
It’s a real conundrum, in part because no matter what 11 he selects, his side is always weak in some area. It’s never a well-balanced 11. The Merseyside Derby was a perfect example of this. Everton were crying out for creativity from Barkley, but he had to start on the bench. Why? Because Everton couldn’t play him deeper in midfield because they needed the added protection against Liverpool’s pace, and they couldn’t play him behind the striker because he doesn’t give you the width that Kevin Mirallas does and he doesn’t give you the support runs off of Lukaku that Naismith gives you. So he starts on the bench, doesn’t play until late in the match, but when he does, he nearly creates the only goal.
That lack of balance is a worry for Everton, and it’s something that may have to be addressed eventually, particularly because of how influential Ross Barkley’s been.
Chelsea are laughing all the way to the bank at the moment.
Whoever is doing Chelsea’s transfer negotiations should get an award. Selling David Luiz for £50M is looking like a stroke of genius, and so far this season, the £28M for Romelu Lukaku isn’t too far behind. Last year, amidst all the lack of goals from our strikers, many were calling for Lukaku, saying he was the future, he would get goals, etc.
I, for one, never really subscribed to that theory.
Yes, while on loan, Lukaku was scoring goals. But many of his goals at West Brom came from substitute appearances, while his goals last season for Everton came against lesser opposition or late in matches. When we sold him this past August, I had no problems in doing so because I felt he lacked two main things – intelligent movement off the ball and inability to use his size properly.
This season with Everton, I think you’re seeing some of his limitations. One thing I’ve noticed is that while Lukaku is over 6-feet tall, he plays like he’s about 5’9”. He’s more comfortable running at fullbacks in wide areas and sprinting through channels than he is holding the ball up or trying to move center backs. When you play him as a lone striker then, you’re basically playing a striker who wants to always look for the ball over the top or through the channels, but just sits on the shoulder of the last defender and isn’t comfortable coming deep.
It makes Lukaku very easy to play against if you’re a side robust enough in the back line. When he’s a lone striker, you can do two main things. You cut off that ball through the channels so he can’t get behind you and you force him to come deep to collect the ball, which he’s not great at doing.
It’s part of the reason why Everton get so unbalanced. Steven Naismith is forced to play as his partner because he covers for Lukaku’s deficiencies. Naismith is very good at making darting runs around the center backs that are disruptive and sometimes pay off, and he’s very good at coming deep and linking the play. It allows Lukaku, especially against big teams, to go and play wide where he can generally bully the fullback, essentially freeing him of having to lead the line, which causes all sorts of selection headaches like I just mentioned.
I’m not saying Lukaku won’t be a great player in the future, but for the time being, he’s very limited in what he’s effective at doing, and after seeing him for six months in a position where he is that main striker with a price tag, you can see a bit of why Jose Mourinho was willing to let him go.