The Barry or Gibson dilemma

With back to back victories in the Premier League for the first time since October, Everton Football Club appear to have secured their league status for another season.

And as the 2014/15 campaign’s end rolls into view, manager Roberto Martinez has much to contemplate as he bids to revive the Blues’ fortunes ahead of next season.

One such difficulty he will face will be that of who partners James McCarthy in the centre of midfield.

Gareth Barry, Darron Gibson and Muhamed Besic will all have eyes on being a regular for the Toffees come the 2015/16 campaign, but it is the former two who look the more likely to secure a starting eleven berth, despite Besic’s bright debut season in England.

After penning a three year deal with Everton last summer following a successful spell on loan from Manchester City, 34 year old Barry has not managed to hit the heights of last season’s form during the current campaign.

Too often this season the midfielder has looked lethargic, sluggish and, at times, a yard off the pace in matches he has figured in, and the veteran has frequently opitimised the fundamental flaw in Martinez’s tactics throughout the course of the season: too many sideways or backwards passes, and not enough forward ones.

All of which makes Gibson’s inclusion in the team, in recent weeks, a much more logical solution to Everton’s troubles for the vast majority of Evertonians.

The Republic of Ireland midfielder’s vision and ability to pick a forward pass was instrumental in helping Everton overturn a 2-1 deficit at home to Leicester City a month ago and, an average performance against Queens Park Rangers at the weekend aside, the 27 year old has certainly staked his claim for a starting berth as the 2014/15 campaign begins to wind down with a number of efficient displays.

This dilemma will be a difficult one to ponder for Martinez as he begins to plot how to restore Everton in the upper echelons of the Premier League next season.

The Spaniard sees Barry as one of his most trusted, experienced leiutenants on the field of play, with his nous and positional expertise providing a defensive base to allow for full backs Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines to involve themselves in the attacking third of the pitch, as well as allowing midfield partner McCarthy to roam about the pitch with his all action style.

Gibson, on the other hand, would act as a deep lying playmaker to set Everton off on the attack with his pin point passes forward into players like Romelu Lukaku – thus allowing the Toffees to spring attacks quicker and higher up the field in a bid to stretch opposition back lines.

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Both players would likely start as Everton’s centre midfield pairing if it were not for McCarthy who, having played under Martinez at previous club Wigan Athletic and now at Everton, is one of the Catalan’s first names on the teamsheet due to his tenacious, combative and consistent performances.

So who does Martinez start alongside McCarthy for the last eight matches of the current season?

The 41 year old could opt to play both as part of a midfield three alongside McCarthy but, whilst the Blues have played three across the middle in a few matches this season, the triumvate of Barry, McCarthy and Gibson have only started two games, as a midfield three, this season – the 3-1 victory over Young Boys, and the 2-0 defeat to Stoke City – a relevant point as it would take time for them to adapt to playing such a system recurrently.

Another option would be deploying Barry as part of a back three with Phil Jagielka and John Stones, allowing Gibson to partner McCarthy and allowing Baines and Coleman license to join attacks on a more regular basis. Martinez was noted for his use of a back three at former club Wigan, whilst Barry has been stationed at centre half on a couple of occasions this season – most notably following the substitutions of Sylvain Distin and John Stones in the home defeat to Crystal Palace, as well as the dead rubber Europa League group match against FK Krasnodar.

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Such a set up would allow Martinez to play Gibson and Barry in the same side, with the added bonus of not bearing witness to Barry’s lack of agility in the centre of the park. However, the former England international would walk his usual disciplinary tightrope and could cause an increase in the number of penalties against the Toffees in his own area – particularly against speedy opposing players such as Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero and Alexis Sanchez.

These two alternatives aside, the question still remains as to who Martinez partners with McCarthy. On current form, and with a view to the future, Gibson should be the man to start alongside his international team mate but, couple the Irishman’s injury record with Martinez’s preference for Barry, it would appear that the former Aston Villa captain may figure much more prominently than Gibson as an Everton player.

Whatever Martinez decides, the Spaniard has eight matches of the current season remaining to experiment, test and mull over this quandry. It is a decision that could be one that, eventually, keeps him in his job as Everton manager.

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Tuesday Thoughts: Stalwarts paving the way for Everton revitalisation

The likes of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin Mirallas, James McCarthy and Steven Naismith may have drawn most of the plaudits from Evertonians over the course of the 2014/15 season.

But it is two of the Blues’ most trusted lieutenants who could prove to be integral as Everton head into the last two months of the campaign, with Roberto Martinez’s side looking to distance themselves from a relegation scrap and progress further in the Europa League.

The timely return of Leon Osman to full fitness is of significant importance to an Everton side that has been desperately missing a calm, level headed influence in the attacking third of the pitch.

The 33 year old’s ability to intricately link up the play for the Blues, particularly down their left flank, has been conspicuous by its absence in recent months and the midfielder’s first start in nigh on three months – Sunday’s win over Newcastle United – was a telling reminder of how essential Osman’s link up play is.

Indeed, the veteran’s seeking out of left back Leighton Baines was the number one passing combination between two players in Sunday’s game, with Osman finding the full back successfully on 13 occasions. Compare that to previous league outings against Arsenal and Stoke City, where the best pass combinations where between John Stones, Darron Gibson and Phil Jagielka, and it’s clear to see the impact that Osman has a creative outlet for the men in Royal Blue.

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Likewise, Baines and Gibson found Osman successfully 8 and 11 times respectively over the course of the encounter – further alluding to Osman’s team mates knowing that the diminutive midfield man is essential to getting the Toffees moving towards the opposition’s goal.

Osman’s knowledge of floating around the pitch was notable as well, with the two-times capped England international’s heat map against Newcastle showing that he covered ground across the centre of the park, the attacking third of Everton’s right flank and the entirety of the left flank – movement on and off the ball that is additionally underlined by similar heatmaps during his substitute appearances against BSC Young Boys, Stoke City and Dynamo Kyiv recently.

Criticism of Osman’s end product – the midfielder only has two goals and one assist to his name so far this season – has been levelled at him in the past, but what the Billinge-born footballer offers Martinez’s team cannot be understated. When Osman performs, Everton performs.

On the opposite end of the footballing spectrum, the no-nonsense, steadfast approach adopted by club captain Phil Jagielka has, at times, been criminally overlooked by certain sections of the Everton fan base due to the opinion that the 32 year old is not ‘Everton captain material’.

The centre back has been accused of not being vocal enough on the field of play, of not rallying his team mates during a Premier League sequence of results that – before the victory over Newcastle at the weekend – had yielded just one win in twelve and, perhaps a tad baffling, was even blamed for not stepping up during the Kevin Mirallas penalty debacle against West Bromwich Albion two months earlier.

And yet, when Everton needed their captain to step forward and lead his charges forward on what was turning out to be another miserable night at Goodison Park – this time the Europa League match against Dynamo Kyiv – Jagielka took it upon himself to wrest control back for Martinez’s men.

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Two barnstorming runs forward from inside his own half, one of which teed up Luke Garbutt to fashion a cross into the box, and the other ignored by Romelu Lukaku as the Belgian attempted an audacious 35 yard strike at goal, helped ignite the touch paper and was the platform upon which the Toffees secured a round of 16 first leg victory over the Ukrainian league leaders.

And it wasn’t just going forward that the England international dragged his team mates through the clash. Defensively, the defender made 3 crucial blocks in his own penalty area, 3 interceptions down his left flank in tussles with Andriy Yarmolenko, and made 62 forward passes – out of a total of 71 – to help kickstart attacks during an overall dominant 90 minute display.

That Jagielka was even more impressive against the weekend’s visitors to Goodison – winning 100% of his tackles and aerial duels, as well as making 1 crucial block and 16 interceptions to help record a first league clean sheet since the Merseyside derby draw – showed how much self belief the former Sheffield United man garnered from his midweek performance, and went some way to dispelling the notion that he is not fit to lead Everton both on and off the field.

The veteran duo may not have been fan favourites for the entirety of their Everton careers to date, but their experience, knowledge and attitudes will be key in aiding the Blues finish the season on a relative high.

And then, just maybe, the pair will receive the plaudits they deserve.

The weekend reflection: Shore up the channels to improve defence

It goes without saying that Everton’s defensive record has been somewhat abject this season.

The Toffees have already conceded more goals in the Premier League during the current campaign – 41 to be exact – than in the entirety of last season, when a final total of 39 goals were shipped in a campaign that saw Roberto Martinez’s men defy expectations and finish in fifth position with a Premier League points record for the Goodison based side.

Undoubtedly, scoring more goals would alleviate the pressure on the defence and aid the Blues in turning defeats into draws, and draws into victories but, with the current first team squad have drawn blanks in nine of the past fifteen league encounters, and with confidence low amongst Everton’s attacking players, it is up to Martinez to ensure that his defensive tactics are as robust as possible.

One particular area of concern for the Spaniard to consider is the amount of goalscoring opportunities that the Blues concede from the centre of the park.

This season alone, Everton have shipped 53% of the goals against them via the centre of the field of play – 24% down their inside right flank, and 29% down the inside left.

This prominent area of the pitch was the subject of 57% of the goals conceded during the Catalan’s debut season in charge of the Toffees last season too (36% down the inside right, and 21% down the inside left), which lends further credence to an area of the 41 year old’s tactics that is exploited by opposing sides time and time again.

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One logical explanation would be the lack of defensive cover that the Blues’ wingers, or inside forwards, offer their full backs when Everton are not in possession of the ball, resulting in Everton’s central midfield pair, for any particular game, having to aid their defensive colleagues in preventing crosses from the wing positions.

It would not take much to determine that this, in turn, leaves the Toffees vulnerable in the central positions to shots on goal – a conclusion backed up by the statistic that Martinez’s charges concede almost two thirds of the opposition’s overall attempts on goal from the middle of the park compared to the flanks and byeline.

In an attempt to combat this, the Blues boss could instruct his wide players to increase their defensive duties which, naturally, would allow the defensive midfield pair to shield the central areas much more effectively, and cause opposition offensive players to think twice about how to break down such a stubborn resistence.

Of course, such a tactical move would leave the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Arouna Kone isolated up front, and could result in Everton becoming hemmed in their own half. However, the Blues are not without pace in their side, and are an outfit that are known to execute counter attacks with devastating effect ever since Martinez took charge almost two summers ago – as shown in matches against BSC Young Boys, West Ham United, Wolfsburg and Astona Villa over the course of the season.

This one slight tweak to Martinez’s overall tactics won’t make the Blues world beaters overnight, or rectify what has been a disappointly poor season compared to last season’s standards, but if shoring up the inside channels provides a solid platform for Everton to go out and get positive results in the league and, in turn, secure mid-table safety by the campaign’s end, it might be an adjustment worth making.