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.
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.
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.