Everton enjoy a weekend off as many of their Premier League rivals switch their focus on to the FA Cup fifth round. If results go in favour of the clubs at the bottom of the table then, when the Blues return to Premier League action on Sunday 22nd February, they could be just two points clear of the drop zone. Despite enjoying something of a return to form over recent weeks, they are now facing the prospect of becoming embroiled in a relegation battle following their 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in midweek.

Just One Win

Having lost four straight games over the festive period, Everton went on a six-game unbeaten run, including two draws with West Ham in the FA Cup and league draws with Manchester City and Liverpool. The run may have ended Everton’s losing streak but it only contained one win. This was a tense 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace, and Martinez’s men are now 12th in the Premier League table. The victory over Palace is Everton’s only win since their 3-1 win at home to QPR on 15th December.

Taking Heart

If Roberto Martinez is to take any heart from recent performances, then it will be from the Blues’ defensive improvement. Having seemingly continued David Moyes’ record of building a Goodison Park team around a solid defence last season, this campaign started disappointingly for Toffees’ fans. At the midway point, Everton had conceded 31 goals, the second worst record in the Premier League but, in the six league games since then they have conceded just four goals. During their recent unbeaten run they kept three clean sheets and, before Willian’s late winner for Chelsea, had gone more than 300 minutes without conceding a goal.

Number of Factors

The turnaround in Everton’s defensive performance can be put down to a number of factors. The team is playing with more confidence and they appear to be more certain of their roles within the defensive structure. Muhamed Besic and Gareth Barry have formed an effective partnership in front of the back four and the pair appear more comfortable alongside each other. Besic, in particular, looks like he could be a real asset in years to come. Arguably the biggest factor in Everton’s improvement has been the return of John Stones.

Struggling Sylvain

Former Barnsley man Stones had played his way into the England set up earlier in the year but then suffered a nasty ankle injury during the Toffees’ 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford in October. The ligament damage kept him out of the first team until late December and meant an extended run in the team for Sylvain Distin. Distin has been an outstanding Goodison servant over the years but now, at 37 years of age, time appears to be catching up with the Frenchman and he no longer has the legs to cope with the best in the Premier League. Stones’ return to the centre of defence has brought a solidity that has been lacking in recent months, an assuredness on the ball and a calming influence. Despite being just 20 years of age, Stones is a leader in the Everton team and has already been highlighted by Martinez as a potential England captain.

Problems Going Forward

Having resolved his defensive issues, the next priority for Roberto Martinez must be to find a way of breaking opposition defences down. Whilst Everton were struggling to prevent goals at the start of the season, they were at least scoring themselves. In the first half of the season they scored 29 goals, eight more than any other team in the bottom half of the table. In their last six Premier League games, Everton have netted just twice, and have not scored more than once in a league game since the 3-2 defeat at Newcastle on 28th December. Now that Martinez has sorted his defence out he knows that, if the his squad are to avoid interest from betfair punters backing in the relegation market, then he must resolve his problems up front.

Full-Backs Stifled

In solving his defensive problems, Martinez has restricted the free-roaming tendencies of Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman. The full-backs who provided a hatful of goals and assists last season have been less willing to advance this year and have been more wary of being caught on the counter. It seems that other Premier League teams have worked out Everton’s weak spot and have pressed higher up the field on the wide men this season. This has left Everton with a lack of threat down the flanks. The likes of Kevin Mirallas and Aiden McGeady are still coming inside and expecting the full-backs to overlap. Martinez must ensure that they hold their width and keep the opposition full-backs in the game.

Mirallas Attitude

As for Mirallas, he is a man that Martinez needs to get the best out of. The Belgian can be devastating at times but his attitude in recent weeks has been poor. He nominated himself as first-choice penalty taker against West Brom, and then missed, and publicly stating that he is ready for a new challenge will not endear him to the fans or to his team-mates. If Mirallas’ heart is no longer in it, Martinez must have the courage to drop him. The addition of Aaron Lennon into the squad should allow him to do just that.

Lukaku Threat

Another Belgian who Everton must get more from is Romelu Lukaku. His strength, power and finishing ability are obvious but his first touch can be poor and his work rate is not always as high as you might hope. Everton must ensure that he stays in the game and play to his strengths. Everton must make defences think more than they are at the moment. Similarly to Mirallas, Martinez may feel that he is risking losing face if he removes Lukaku. But, with Arouna Kone on the bench, he has a proven Premier League striker ready and willing to step up and replace him. If Everton do not start to produce goals soon, Martinez must be willing to take drastic action. That includes benching Lukaku if he is not doing the business.

by  Ben Sutherland