Taking charge of an Everton side regularly battling for a European place, Roberto Martinez has no need for a comprehensive overhaul and the order of the day should be an occasional tweak here and a subtle change there, as the squad builds towards the new season. Intent on implementing a studious passing style, this fresh approach can help Martinez get the best out of his creative players.
Everton found themselves in eleventh place on the pass percentage list last season (79.4%) with Martinez’s Wigan three places higher (82.5%). Using pre-season as an early indicator, the Everton passing is sure to improve under a style conducive to ball retention.
Often infuriating, occasionally baffling, there is one aspect certain to decrease under Martinez – long balls. The three main culprits in 2012-13 were Tim Howard, Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka; the trio accounting for 50% of Everton’s 2,042 long balls.
Needing to cut down on this unnecessary trait, recent signs are pleasing. Those three featured at Blackburn on Saturday – their first match together this pre-season – and the willingness to play out from the back was prominent throughout the first half.
Allied to this, the midfielders are thriving now. Clearly, following instructions, the movement is sharper and the players are taking responsibility. Instead of watching aimless passes drift over their heads, the midfield players are dropping deep to retrieve possession and build from the back.
As mentioned earlier, the changes required are minuscule. In terms of attacking percentages, Martinez is inheriting a carbon copy of his former team. Last season, 42% of Everton attacks came down the left side. This percentage, matched by Wigan, was the highest in the Premier League.
Likewise, 30% of Wigan attacks originated on the right side; Everton recording 31% – these were the two lowest right side percentages last season. Given the undoubted success of the Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar pairing, there is unlikely to be major alterations in this department next season.
Employing a 4-2-3-1 setup in the pre-season fixtures to date, Martinez is sticking to the formation favoured during the David Moyes tenure. Although Moyes was regularly criticised for his unwavering dedication to this setup, it remains the one best suited to the players available.
The two full backs are a constant threat, working in tandem with the midfielders in front of them, while the sitting midfielders screen the defence and offer the platform for the creative talents in their vicinity. After all, the problem for Moyes was the finer details, such as the timing of substitutions or his apparent aversion to blooding younger players, not the formation. More proactive in his approach, Martinez would do well to stick to this current formation or a similar alternative.
Nevertheless, the first hint of experimentation surfaced during the second half at Blackburn. After a raft of half time changes, Everton switched to a 4-3-3. The formation had John Heitinga sitting in front of the defence, with the full backs offering the width, as the attacking players pushed infield.
Similar to the 4-2-3-1 formation, the second half setup looks a viable alternative, though time would help to tackle any teething issues. Another tactic mooted is a three-man defence; something used by Martinez at Wigan, but Everton lack the players for such setup.
While there are signs of the Everton defence adapting to the new Martinez methods, a three-man defence requires centre backs at their best in possession; something the first choice duo of Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin struggle to master, neither known for their distribution.
Switching to a three-man defence would also have a knock-on effect on the highly praised full backs. The main reason for the success of Baines and Seamus Coleman is the linkup play with those ahead of them, and the chance to overlap into space.
Altering the formation would leave each full back isolated, thereby creating further defensive work and potentially limiting their impact in the opposing final third. In addition, and this is probably the strongest reason for retaining the current formation, a back three would result in the breakup of the Baines – Pienaar partnership.
Everton fashioned 483 chances in 12-13 and 198 of those came from the acclaimed left-sided pairing. Any tactical changes leading to Pienaar switching positions would be ill-advised especially as the pair are such an influence on the team. Furthermore, with the left back forming one-half of the duo responsible for 41% of Everton’s chances last season, it is little wonder that the club are keen to hold onto Baines.
Speaking earlier this week, Martinez spoke of his desire to use various formations: “I want the players to be flexible and take on many systems”. Over time, the mastering of several formations could prove a useful weapon. However, with the Martinez era in its infancy, the current setup is the one capable of allowing this group to flourish.