Everton’s impressive shift in philosophy under Roberto Martínez continued to sparkle on Saturday, as the Toffees battled past Aston Villa 2-0 at Villa Park to ensure they’re now two points (18) better off than what they were at the same stage last season.
An inspired substitution from the Spaniard early into the second half ultimately made the difference, with Leon Osman replacing Ross Barkley after 60 minutes and the midfielder instantly set up Romelu Lukaku for his fifth goal of the season before putting the game to bed with a left-footed strike just after.
Having kept no cleansheets in Villa’s backyard since 2004 ahead of the game – and with a mouth-watering ‘Battle of the Belgians’ clash between Christian Benteke and Lukaku also to consider – goals were expected, but it was Everton’s evergreen defensive partnership of Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin that was as crucial as ever in burying that wretched statistic and improving upon their last display against Hull City.
Structure & Position: What Martínez Wanted and Got From His Everton Players
Since his arrival this summer, Martínez has deployed an open and possession-heavy 4-2-3-1 formation with Everton and the same system was again used against Aston Villa.
Paul Lambert’s side are often dubbed as the best counter-attacking side in the Premier League due to the heavily effective pace and energy they contain in youth, but that regime doesn’t tend to suit them at home as opposition teams are always going to travel a little more reserved when playing away, and won’t commit too many men to attacks for Villa to exploit.
The first-half was frantic and end-to-end, with each side pushing forward in numbers, and both USA international goalkeepers Brad Guzan and Tim Howard were equally busy in their nets.
Villa’s high-tempo midfield of both Ashley Westwood, who created three chances throughout the match, and Fabian Delph didn’t allow Barkley any time or space to receive the ball and swivel in his usual one movement, thus he was changed for Osman which in turn paid dividends.
Martínez, who swapped Osman in a similar situation against Hull last weekend for eventual match winner Steven Pienaar, has now won back-to-back games thanks to vital decision-making on the touchline and that sheds light on how he intelligently interprets what is going wrong in a match for his team and isn’t afraid to try and solve it through early substitutions.
Whilst both James McCarthy and Gareth Barry, who made 17 ball recoveries and 10 successful tackles between them, grew stronger in the second-half as a pairing, Everton showed that they now have more tricks up their sleeve in order to win football games under Martínez than in previous years, with both assists for their goals coming from central midfielders rather than typical wide players.
All eyes were on the return of Benteke because of what he brings to the Villa team through his sheer size, power and link-up play with team-mates, but both Jagielka and Distin were resilient and successfully kept the influential striker at bay for the full 94 minutes, although Howard surely earned a 10/10 rating from most supporters observing following a sumptuous first-half exhibit which saw him save a Benteke penalty after 8 minutes of play.
Nitty-Gritty Work and the Tussle with Benteke: Why Jagielka Was ‘Captain Fantastic’ for Everton
Whilst the excitement to see a better brand of football being played in the royal blue shirt was brewing upon Martínez’s appointment, new orders were always going to come with that for the ever reliable and sturdy partnership of Jagielka and Distin, with many people unsure of how well they would cope when playing less direct balls and instead playing out from the back.
Against Hull for example, there were a few shaky moments for both defenders when pressurised but although the odd gap appeared when jostling with Villa, Jagielka and Distin were comfortable in defence, with the England international in particular producing a solid performance against the presence of Benteke.
Part of Villa’s attacking gameplan was to aim for Benteke, who was relentlessly peeling away from the centre and moving in-between Jagielka and Seamus Coleman, and hope for the 22-year-old to control the ball and feed runners such as, Andreas Weimann, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Delph through lay-offs.
But Jagielka stood up to that challenge exceptionally well by making 14 clearances – the most in the game – in total, with eight coming with his head and he also won 100% (7/7) of his aerial duels, which is impressive when considering the stark difference in height and physicality between the two.
Benteke, who received the ball 36 times but failed to significantly link-up up with anybody by completing just 58% (19/33) of his passes, only won 2/12 of his aerial duels on the day and with Jagielka remaining colossal at the back against him, Everton therefore gained the impetus to go on and win the game as Villa’s play simply wasn’t sticking upfront with any vigour.
Alongside his aerial tests, Jagielka won 100% (4/4) of his tackles, made three interceptions and one block in an overall solid showing from the 31-year-old. But although he has made three last-man standing tackles in nine games so far, the images above show that Jagielka won all of his tackles and made a good chunk of his clearances high up the pitch – stressing how Martínez not only wants his defenders to build from the back, but how he also wants them to press higher and roam from their positions far more than what David Moyes wanted during his Everton tenure.
[sws_blockquote_endquote align=”” cite=”Steven Naismith explained perfectly ahead of the Villa game that Martínez’s tactics have allowed Everton to flourish in certain zones of the field” quotestyle=”style02″]For me there’s probably a bit more freedom the way he [Martínez] plays with one main striker and more supporting players. That gives you more freedom to go about and find spaces on the pitch. Under the former manager [Moyes], we were a bit more set-up and organised and you had a role you had to play, rather than being more free to express yourself. That’s the biggest difference for me. [/sws_blockquote_endquote]
Having all of a sudden risen to being his country’s first-choice centre-back going into the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and also picking up the captain’s armband from Phil Neville at the club this summer, Jagielka, who also made five ball recoveries against Villa, has recently had a lot on his plate and the transition of keeping the ball on the floor will take time for him to suitably adapt to.
But whereas the shift to stepping up as skipper was incredibly natural for him, the Villa game proved that Jagielka’s warrior-like qualities haven’t faded away in Martínez’s new organisation and that he is more than capable of distributing the ball into space a lot crisper over time – just like Distin.
How Distin’s Composure When on the Ball Against Villa Was Pleasing to Watch
With both sides amassing a total of 29 shots between themselves in the game, Everton had the better share of the ball with 53% and showed tactical flexibility in order to prevail in the game.
Whilst Martínez craves having all of his defenders show comfort when in control of the ball, in a bid to pick out passes with an apparent ease, Distin was fantastic in his mobility and his willingness to find a man in space – whether that required a short-range pass or a longer ball.
Distin received the ball on 41 occasions from his team-mates and completed 78% (35) of his 45 attempted passes, with 30/40 going forwards and also making three backpasses. Jagielka received the ball far less times (24) than his partner, but was marginally better in his distribution by completing 79% (31) of his 39 passes.
As the images above show, Distin, who admitted himself after the visit from Hull last weekend that he was slightly disappointed with his own performance against the Tigers despite winning the game, massively improved in his delivery of the ball against Villa – finding Pienaar for example six times throughout.
The athletic Frenchman has always had the brains alongside the brawn in his game by knowing when the right time to stand-off a striker or to put a challenge in is. Distin, who completed his only attempted tackle in the game, also made 13 clearances in total with eight coming with his head, whilst winning 83.3% (5) out his six aerial duels.
Distin’s speed and know-how is second to none and thus he doesn’t need to dive into tackles – clearing up why he only needed to make one successful tackle and one blocked cross against Villa.
The 35-year-old is one of the most experienced defenders in the league, and although he will need time to acclimatize himself with Martínez wanting both him and Jagielka to spread out and utilize the ball better, the likes of Coleman and Leighton Baines will still be heavily involved in Everton’s new style because of it.
Both Coleman and Baines have always been two of the best full-backs in the Premier League in terms of how they affect a game in the attacking third, and when looking at where Distin won his only tackle and his overall influence in the game, Everton can still get their prominent full-backs greatly involved further forward – with Baines drawing the most fouls (5) against Villa – because of the amount of space Jagielka and Distin now cover in defence.
On the whole, it was another strong and exuberant win from Everton who look far more clinical upfront with Lukaku and although Martínez is correct in saying the 2-0 triumph over Villa was not them at their best yet; it was still a stylish and promising performance.
The likes of Kevin Mirallas, who created three chances and 50% (2/4) of his take-ons, and Pienaar were both lively in the game, whilst Lukaku’s cutting edge and Osman’s difference split the sides in the end and kept up Everton’s radiant start to the 2013/14 campaign going.
But it was both Jagielka and Distin who were resolute as always in defence, and the fact that they were a lot more improved when in control of the ball was one of the most pleasing things to supplement three more points earned.