Friday, 20 December 2013

Mersey Paradox

It's a joke that has been doing the  rounds for quite a while now, David Moyes spent eleven years trying to get Everton above United in the table, turns out all he had to do was join them. While that has proved to be the case, Everton's resurgence is significantly more down to their new manager Roberto Martinez than their former one. And they aren't the only Merseyside club enjoying an upturn in fortunes. Local rivals Liverpool have emerged from a turbulent summer, spearheaded by the direct cause of said turbulence Luis Suarez, they are enjoying by far their most competitive season since 2008/09 and have very real top 4 ambitions.

Given the flurry of high-profile managerial changes over the summer, you'd have been forgiven for forgetting entirely that Roberto Martinez, forever linked with a move to a top team, had finally abandoned ship at Wigan and filled the spot vacated by Moyes at Everton.

Martinez's appointment slipped under the radar last summer

Transfer activity at Goodison Park this summer took a while to get going. Arrivals were limited to a couple of old Martinez favourites at Wigan and really the only time Everton were in the headlines at all where when they had snubbed another derisory bid from United for the duo of Baines and Fellaini. The giant Belgian would eventually leave for what now looks a particularly hefty £27.5m on deadline day. That same evening saw the landscape of Martinez's Everton side change drastically with the arrivals of James McCarthy (also from Wigan), Gareth Barry on loan from Man City and a surprising move for Romelu Lukaku, also on loan, from Chelsea.

His three deadline day captures, along with the loaning of the incredibly gifted Gerard Deulofeu from Barcelona have been inspired moves but it's not just in the transfer market where Martinez has excelled. Ross Barkley was given a total of 15 league appearances over the course of his three years in the first team under David Moyes. Martinez has shown incredible faith in the player and matched that number of appearances by Christmas of his first season. Barkley is repaying his manager in kind with some impressive performances. He's become on of their most important players, earned an England call-up and is surely a candidate for PFA Young Player of the Year come April.

Barkley has been a sensation this season

Injury to Leighton Baines has meant the introduction of Costa Rican full-back Bryan Oviedo to the side recently. He has been another revelation over the past couple of games, grabbing the winner at Old Trafford and following it up with an impressive display at Arsenal four days later. His form suggests Everton need not have had any worries about losing Baines over the summer. Elsewhere Seamus Coleman and Kevin Mirallas are two others who have developed further under Martinez this season.

Everton are playing a different style of football this season. They are more fluid, expressive and thoroughly more enjoyable to watch. I recall seeing a game at Goodison Park earlier this season where Everton had a free kick just inside the opponents half. Leighton Baines played a five yard pass along the ground rather than lumping it into the box and a very audible groan echoed around the ground. Martinez method of attack is centred around passing and incisive play rather than the more traditional 'hit and hope' method the fans were used to. Three months later and I doubt a similar scenario would generate the same reaction.

Upon his appointment in June, Martinez promised Everton he'd get them into the Champions League. After 16 games and just one defeat (fewer than anyone in the league) they find themselves just a single point off 4th place. It remains to be seen whether or not they can maintain this push until the end of the season, but just one mile away across Stanley Park there are another club with similar Champions League aspirations.

Luis Suarez has been a man on a mission this season. Having missed the first 5 games of the season through suspension, he's returned and looked better than ever since then. A Suarez-less Liverpool managed 5 goals in their opening 5 Premier League games (4 for Sturridge and an own goal). Since his return they've managed 34 goals in 11 games. Over two extra goals per game on average. Of these 34 he's scored 17 and assisted another 4. His form has ensured there can be absolutely no debate over who is the best player in the Premier League right now.

Suarez: Back, scoring and looking happy at Anfield

Suarez took up most of the Liverpool headlines this summer with his protracted transfer saga and desperate attempts to leave. The club didn't bring in a whole lot of players during the summer, instead investing in Daniel Sturridge and Phillipe Coutinho last January. This proved beneficial, particularly for Coutinho, in terms of adjusting to Premier League football in a low-pressure environment where Liverpool has essentially nothing to play for towards the tail end of last year.

Sturridge carried the team in Suarez's absence and did quite well. Steven Gerrard has been his usual effective self now playing a deeper role than in previous years. Alongside him Lucas is establishing himself as a top defensive midfielder and the often criticised Jordan Henderson is enjoying a fine run of form lately. The defence however is undeniably this team's weak spot.

Rodgers installed a 3-5-2 formation upon Suarez's return to the side in September in order to incorporate both he and Sturridge into his starting line-up. Whilst they looked impressive going forward, the three man defence was often exposed to pacey attacks, particularly at the Emirates where they suffered only their second defeat of the season. They've since reverted to the more traditional 4-4-2 but this has only garnished them a further 2 clean sheets in 6 league games with 8 goals conceded. They are deadly going forward, but the high-defensive line often leads to defensive frailties which may prove to be their undoing.

So, of the four Champions League slots available in the Premier League I think we can mark Manchester City down as certainties due to their sheer strength and Arsenal down as probable, barring a seismic collapse in the second half of the season. After them, Chelsea are the most favourable candidates for the final automatic slot which will leave Liverpool, Everton and Manchester United battling it out for the fourth slot. It may well prove to be a case of whichever Merseyside club finishes higher in the league, gets to dine at Europe's top table next season.

It's fairly hard to separate these two right now. On the one hand there's Martinez's Everton. An extremely well constructed and well balanced side, difficult to beat and amazing to watch. On the other hand there's Luis Suarez. Without him in the Liverpool side this wouldn't even be a debate. The game between the two this season was a thrilling 3-3 draw at Goodison Park. Everton looked the better team all-round, but Liverpool often looked more likely to win thanks to their more obvious superstar quality. It's just too close to call.

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