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.
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.
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.