It was another disappointing afternoon, where Evertonians were concerned, as the Blues drew 1-1 away to Sunderland, with both the result and performance leaving Roberto Martinez with much to ponder.
One of the more pressing matters should be whether to start Ross Barkley or Samuel Eto’o behind Romelu Lukaku, because yesterday’s encounter at the Stadium of Light did reveal something: the Spaniard cannot start with both.
Both Barkley and Eto’o are extremely gifted footballers, with the former a budding starlet in this new exciting, enterprising Everton side, and the latter needing no real introduction after being a world class striker for many years and winning countless trophies during his glittering career.
At 33 years old, Eto’o, though, is entering his twilight years as a footballer, and as a result the Cameroonian has had to adjust his style of play to accomodate the fact that his legs aren’t as spritely as they once were. Now, the forward drops deep to receive the ball, to link up play through the middle of the pitch, to float around the attacking third of Everton’s play and create opportunities for others in the team to take advantage of.
This is where the problem lies, as Barkley performs this same role in the team.
True, the youngster’s game is more reliant on his physical stature than Eto’o’s, as well as his technical ability, with his surging runs from deep causing panic in opposition defences and opening up spaces for other players like Steven Naismith and Romelu Lukaku to exploit.
That doesn’t detract from the issue that both Eto’o’s and Barkley’s style of play are extremely similar, as well as the fact that both players like to occupy the same positions out on the pitch.
This was particularly evident in the match in the North East yesterday afternoon, with Barkley deployed on the left side of an attacking three playing just behind Lukaku, and Eto’o occupying the traditional number 10 role.
Of course, the interchangeable nature of the three players in behind Everton’s Belgian international allows Barkley and Eto’o to swap positions, in an attempt to confuse defenders and pull them away from their natural positions, but there were numerous occasions when the young England international would drift inside from the wing, thus congesting the middle of the field and occupying a similar position to Eto’o, and in turn made the Blues narrower when in approaching Sunderland’s defensive third of the pitch.
Barkley drifting infield also prevented Leighton Baines from having a team mate to link up with on the left wing (an issue that was brought up in last week’s column on this blog), thereby preventing one of Everton’s best attacking outlets from making his traditional marauding runs forward, as the full back had to be aware of the Toffees being vulnerable to the counter attack down his flank.
All of this leaves Martinez with two main options. The Spaniard can start Steven Pienaar, Leon Osman or Naismith out on the left wing as foils for Baines’ darting runs from deep, to give the England international someone to link up with, and allow either Eto’o or Barkley to float in and around Lukaku from the position behind the striker; or Martinez can opt to play Barkley off Eto’o and allow the pair to interchange positions, so that only one of the two occupies the traditional number 10 role at any one time.
This latter arrangement would, obviously, mean that Lukaku would have to be content with a place amongst the subtistutes in some matches, whilst Barkley and Eto’o would likewise have to make do with a spot on the bench if either player did not start, but all three players would get game time in a season where Martinez has to rotate his starting eleven, and eighteen day match squad, due to the demands of three domestic competitions as well as a Europa League campaign.
With the last international break of the year looming over the next ten days, Martinez has time to ponder over what his first choice eleven will be when West Ham United visit Goodison Park in just under two weeks time and, for the balance of the side to be correct both offensively and defensively, as well as giving his team the best chance of taking maximum points on home soil, his side must contain either Barkley or Eto’o, not both.