Everton extended their Premier League winning streak to six games after comprehensively dispatching Arsenal 3-0 on Sunday, putting themselves in the driving seat for Champions League qualification.
Goals from Steven Naismith, Romelu Lukaku and a Mikel Arteta own-goal gave Everton the three points at Goodison Park in a magnificent display that boss Roberto Martinez described as ‘perfect’.
Below we highlight 5 Talking Points in the wake of the Blues’ victory which sees them just one point behind fourth placed Arsenal with a game in hand.
Naismith is thriving between the lines
It doesn’t seem to matter where Martinez deploys Steven Naismith; the Scot will find space.
Whether it’s popping up to head in the winner against Chelsea from right midfield, contributing two goals from the bench in the number 10 position at Craven Cottage or playing in the centre-forward vacancy against Arsenal on Sunday, Naismith’s game comes down to one thing: finding space.
In a constant state of stealth mode, Naismith is adept at evading the attentions of defenders (and midfielders). Part of his knack of popping up in the areas between defence and midfield -not to mention his ability to anticipate the break of the ball in the box- comes down to his never-ending supply of energy: the man just doesn’t stop.
Against Arsenal, Lukaku lined up in an advanced position on the right of what looked like a three-pronged attack, with Naismith patrolling the centre-forward position. But he didn’t play like a centre-forward and I doubt that he was instructed to by Martinez. Instead the Scot was often dropping back into a number 10 position, tempting Per Mertesacker out of his back-four.
This worked perfectly for the opening goal. Naismith came towards the ball, leaving space for Lukaku to run into before receiving the ball from Baines. Meanwhile Naismith didn’t stop and running back towards goal anticipated the rebound from Lukaku’s shot finishing calmly.
Martinez challenges and inspires
On Sunday, Everton’s leading scorer was pushed wide-right to accommodate a diminutive Scottish ‘misfit’ who, even as early as the start of this year, was one of the Gwladys Street’s favourite boo-boys. The front-three was completed by Kevin Mirallas, who after an inconsistent run of form since the New Year was forced to watch from the bench in the previous two fixtures.
Lukaku had scored four times since his return from injury against West Ham, while his return all but condemned Naismith to his ‘rightful’ place on the bench. So why against Arsenal, arguably Everton’s biggest game of the season, did Martinez push the Belgian out wide in favour of Naismith?
It would appear Martinez has for some time had his starting XIs and strategies planned out for each of Everton’s remaining games. No doubt Arsenal’s centre-back pairing would have spent the week training to defend against the towering Belgian. What better way to unsettle your opponent by starting a 5ft 8in Scot instead?
But it’s not just about confusing his opponents. Martinez sets out to inspire his players and in Lukaku’s case, this came in asking him to perform an unusual role. He set the forward a challenge, asking the Belgian if he can still help the team outside his own comfort zone. The answer was clear for all 39,000 inside Goodison Park.
Similarly with Mirallas, the winger has been forced to watch frustratingly from the bench recently. So used to being a regular, the Belgian has grown hungry on the sidelines and his impact from the bench against Fulham was as game-changing as Naismith’s while he backed that up with a fantastic 90 minutes full of work-rate, endeavour and skill (and a goal…kind of) on Sunday.
If the armband fits
One of Everton’s more insular figures, Baines is evidently more at ease describing the intensity of Matt Helders’ drumming on the latest Arctic Monkeys album than he is about his own marauding wing-back play.
The England full-back shuns the spot-light and has garnered a reputation for being the Mr Nice-Guy on the football pitch, choosing to ensure the well-being of his opponent following a heavy tackle rather than get mixed up with on-pitch squabbles.
But against Arsenal we saw a Baines who seemed to suddenly realise his maturing role at Everton. I can’t remember the last time the left-back had a poor game or had left the field without giving 100%, and this is exactly how he demonstrates his leadership: inspiring team mates through his performance.
However, Mr Nice-Guy was nowhere to be seen on Sunday, especially when the Kirkby-born Blue stepped into the Barkley-Arteta spat. Protection of his team mate was top of his agenda as captain, but just as pleasing to see (and in such a high stakes game as this) was his willingness to throw past friendships and fraternity aside, casting a menacing stare and finger in Arteta’s direction, while what we can only assume to be a putrid bark of foul language and personal affronts spat out of his mouth.
I’m sure the pair are off-field chums and the reconciling at the final whistle suggested this. But on the field, when the glory of a Champions League spot lies within your grasp and the only way to get it is to tread over your ex-team mate and friend; that is when you want your captain mean and insulting. Like the unforgiving riff of an early Monkey’s track.
Goodison may have to accept a blunder now and then
There were at least two moments on Sunday when the hearts of Evertonians were very much in their mouths.
Seeing a short back-pass or a Tim Howard miss-hit gift the opposition a simple chance on goal has been more than an occasional feature of most home games this season.
But Martinez has made no secret of his insistence that his players over-come any fears they may have of playing the ball out of the back and continue to play in this way regardless of the occasional slip up.
In the first half John Stones’ side-ways pass to Howard was a much better through-ball for Olivier Giroud and the Everton keeper just about slid in to clear. In the second half, Mirallas almost went one better, doing well initially to dispossess Bacary Sagna but needing the help of Howard after dribbling into Giroud in his own area.
Blues will recall Howard’s gift to Samuel Eto’o in September which required the saving tackle of Gareth Barry to prevent a certain goal. And how could we forget Leon Osman’s criminal back-pass on Boxing Day which resulted in Howard being dismissed, Sunderland scoring from the spot and the surrender of a near perfect calendar year without a home defeat.
But this is the occasional price the Blues will have to pay for their style of play under Martinez, which not too many Toffees will complain about on day’s like Sunday.
Show-boating just confidence manifest
You know you and your team are having a good day when you leave Arsenal’s very own trickster, Santi Cazorla left befuddled by your ingenuity.
The Irishman, being forced back towards his own half, dragged the ball back before swiftly scooping it round the Spaniard with his instep. Cazorla’s answer was to stop, look at Nacho Monreal with outwards palms and inexplicably pass the blame onto his countryman.
No Evertonian needs to be told just how good Seamus Coleman is, but did we all know he had this in his locker?
Before that the Irishman could be seen juggling the ball out of his own half under the attentions of Monreal and later Ross Barkley demonstrated the almost ballet-like bounce of a boxer in the Arsenal penalty area, shifting the ball from left foot to right foot before flashing a shot across goal.
It’s been easy to forget for Evertonians that football can occasionally be entertaining and under Martinez, there is certainly more room for expression. The flicks, the tricks and the mazy runs are simply manifestations of a team brimming with confidence.
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