How has this man transformed Everton's fortunes?
It quickly became easy, and rather enjoyable, to mock Alan Hansen’s famous words, uttered on a 1995 episode of Match of the Day: “You won’t win anything with kids.”
This line was, of course, directed at Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, who was criticised heavily at the start of the 1995/96 Premier League season for not making any major signings, instead choosing to stick with his youth prospects, who included a certain Gary Neville, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt.
Slipping to a 3-1 opening day defeat to Aston Villa was enough for football pundit Hansen, who quickly laid into the squad, writing off any possibility of success, and condemning himself to a place in history reserved for those who now, more than ever, realise hindsight is a wonderful thing. The rest, as they say, is history, as Ferguson proceeded to lead his Red Devils to their second League and Cup double in three years, ultimately rewarding the Scot’s faith in his youthful players.
Nevertheless, their achievement—winning the title with six players under the age of 23 playing over 10 games that season—has been unrivalled ever since, with title-winning teams containing fewer younger players than ever before (Chelsea, last year’s Premier League champions, fielded just one player under 23 on a regular basis: Kurt Zouma).
With so many talented youngsters now plying their trade in England’s top flight, however, the right course of action seems to be finding that balance between youthful exuberance and the valuable experience of players that may have a few battle scars. Since his arrival at Goodison Park in June 2013, Everton boss Roberto Martinez has worked on bringing a team together with the best of both worlds, and this philosophy might just be about to bear fruit.
Undoubtedly, Everton seem to be experiencing a reversal of fortunes during Martinez’s third season in charge, but it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. The Spaniard’s arrival back in 2013 brought a style of play that was at once attacking and free-flowing, using possession-based tactics that made the Toffees look like Barcelona at times. The Merseyside club finished fifth, seven points adrift of the Champions League places, with a club-record points total of 72. Most importantly though, the fans had started to become excited again.
During the 2014-15 Premier League campaign, it soon became clear that Martinez was suffering from the fabled ‘second season syndrome’. Despite the club-record purchase of Romelu Lukaku for £28 million from Chelsea, Everton quickly fell off the pace, finishing in a miserable 11th place with just 47 points. Yet still the fans remained upbeat: there were signs, flickers of hope—the general consensus being that with a bit of clever work in the transfer window and a few tweaks, the team would quickly get back to fulfilling Martinez’s high expectations.
Despite being just a few months into this year’s campaign, it is clear that Martinez has come a long way towards developing his squad. The solution? Some crafty transfer dealings, a positive mentality, and perhaps most importantly a knack for blending youth and experience to create a team that is dangerous going forward and highly competitive.
Perhaps Everton’s only real constant goal threat over the past two and a bit seasons has been Romelu Lukaku, the Toffees’ big-scoring Belgian, who arrived on loan from Chelsea before a permanent deal in the summer of 2014. Showing why he arguably has the potential to be one of the best strikers in Europe, the 22-year-old has scored 49 goals in all competitions since his arrival at Goodison Park—including 15 Premier League goals while on loan, and another 10 last season. Recently, with his goal against Aston Villa in Everton’s comprehensive 4-0 win, Lukaku became the fourth-youngest player to score 50 Premier League goals. The exciting thing for Everton fans is he’s clearly only just getting started.
Lukaku has definitely hit the ground running this campaign, matching last season’s total of 10 league goals, but in just 14 games (with another three scored in the Capital One Cup). He sits second in the race for the Golden Boot award behind surprise leader, Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy, whose goal against Manchester United on Saturday evening broke the record for the most Premier League games in which a player has scored consecutively. For Lukaku to be in touching distance just shows how well he has already played this season, and the fireworks that are likely to come if Everton continue to improve going into 2016.
If Lukaku’s goals are getting the fans animated, Everton’s creativity in midfield has also got the Goodison Park faithful purring with delight, with the likes of Ross Barkley and Gerard Deulofeu currently flying the flag for Martinez’s attacking, free-flowing style of play.
Deulofeu, still just 21 years of age, seems to have made a wise decision to move to the Premier League, after struggling to break into Barcelona’s first team. With youth still on his side, Deulofeu, particularly this season, has really started to flourish under Martinez’s guidance, and is quickly becoming a familiar figure in Everton’s starting line-up. Even when Everton are at their most languid, Deulofeu consistently offers that creative spark to get his side going, and his statistics say it all: nine assists and three goals in all competitions—from just nine starts. His effective link up play with Lukaku has become instrumental, and the youngster is clearly going to be a vital part of Martinez’s plans going forward.
Another man that is at the centre of Everton’s plans for the future is Englishman Ross Barkley. Of course, the 22-year-old must deal with the added pressure that comes to all young English talents—that of early international selection and an inevitable increase in valuation—but Barkley seems to have a broad set of shoulders. With seven goals and five assists in all competitions this season, the youngster has impressed with his trickery and quick feet. Never afraid to take an opponent on, the sight of him slotting in behind Lukaku and feeding the channels is an exciting sight. Quietly maturing beyond his years, Barkley, with careful management, will soon be ready to take both the domestic and international scene by storm.
Ultimately, it becomes hard to look past the potential for future success on offer by Everton’s forwards, but their backline is also definitely worth taking a look at. It says everything of Martinez’s ambition for the club that in the summer they managed to bat away the persistent attention of Chelsea for their young centre-back John Stones. The 21-year-old has become a revelation at Goodison Park, settling in alongside the experienced Phil Jagielka as if he was born to play there. Before Jagielka’s injury—which will put the Everton captain out of action for a total of two months—the pair had developed an understanding that has allowed the Toffees to be mostly solid at the back. As a recent leakage of goals has shown, things aren’t quite right at the back for Everton, but could it be the remaining piece of the puzzle that would allow Everton to become a side capable of properly challenging for the Champions League places?
With players like 19-year-old Brendan Galloway coming through the ranks, not to mention Everton already having one of the best right-backs in the league with Seamus Coleman, the defence doesn’t need that much work. Perhaps Martinez’s biggest problem now is the challenge of keeping hold of his best players. Stones, Lukaku, Barkley and Deulofeu are already attracting the attention of clubs that can offer football at the highest level in Europe, and Martinez must deliver a place in the Champions League sooner rather than later. His ideas are gradually coming to fruition, and if Everton can continue to develop and strengthen their squad in the coming years, expect to see the Toffees soon becoming a major threat to the big guns near the top of the Premier League table.
Featured image: All rights reserved by Dan Westwell.