They are playing with freshness, inspired by a manager who has the courage of his own convictions, and with a big goal suddenly in their own hands. The talk of England might be Premier League leaders Liverpool, but that city also has another big story to tell. Everton, Liverpool’s neighbors on Merseyside, are causing a stir of their own.
Roberto Martinez has engineered an upsurge that has won Everton many friends, and many points, this season. Some wondered how the team would segue from David Moyes’s tough-to-beat fundamentals into the relentlessly upbeat ways preached by Martinez. It was reasonable to wonder whether his brave commitment to attacking football at Wigan, which sometimes bordered on reckless, would translate to a higher stakes environment. Everton have provided optimistic answers throughout this campaign.
Martinez changed the way Everton play overnight, and perhaps the most impressive thing is the way he has not been fazed in the slightest by moving to a bigger club. His genial managerial style seems to have rubbed off on everyone at Goodison Park, and the shift in mindset – to think and to play positively – has put a top-four finish in their sights. Arsenal have the know-how in terms of getting over the top-four line, and in theory the simpler run-in. Yet Everton have it in their hands, and the breeze of good form behind their backs. They go into next weekend’s showdown with Arsenal as the form team of the Champions League chasers. On a run of five straight wins in the Premier League, Everton have taken 15 points over that period compared to Arsenal’s meager return of five.
In fact, Martinez’s performance in his maiden season at Goodison has sent a broader message from Liverpool all the way down to north London. With Arsene Wenger’s future up in the air as a contract extension remains un-signed, Martinezâs name keeps cropping up in conversations about what the future holds at the Emirates Stadium. A little closer to home in the north west, the question of whether he would be a better choice to revive Manchester United also strikes a chord.
A perfect fit for a heavyweight club in need of an injection of something fresh, a new sense of purpose? Possibly, but Everton will argue they are enjoying their own happy marriage and would appreciate everyone else minding their own business.
Martinez has been a breath of fresh air at Goodison Park. The impact he has had on encouraging his players, both individually and collectively, has been so welcome. Steven Pienaar summed it up when he wondered whether Martinez is the most positive person he has ever met. Ross Barkley, one of a handful of kids whose raw potential has flourished so impressively, insists Martinez "doesn’t say anything negative" and has a tactical eye that makes it easy to learn from. American Tim Howard relishes the fact the focus is on what they can do, not the opposition.
The Martinez effect was seen in action again over the weekend, when he reacted to a flat first half by making changes to inspire a second half triumph at Fulham. Two of his substitutes, Steven Naismith and Kevin Mirallas, scored, and the other, Aiden McGeady, created a key assist. While across town, Rodgers is earning deserved plaudits for the versatility he has instilled at Anfield, in his own way Martinez is showing flexibility and the ability to re-control a game.
"We have a squad that can adapt to anything," said Pienaar. "That is something the manager is working really hard to promote. The only demand the manager makes of us is to go out and dominate a game. Keeping hold of the ball is not just about passing, it is about moving to find space and provide options, so you have to be fit. The work ethic of the team is unbelievable, though, and the manager is always relaxed. He never really gets angry, just more positive."
Howard, one of the most senior pros at Everton, has also been impressed. "We work on ourselves and it’s a difference. We’ll train on trying to exploit them, as opposed to ‘Here is what they are going to do to hurt us and this is what we are going to do to defend against them’. That is not in the manager’s nature."
It was interesting that when he was asked about his future recently, Martinez was a non-committal. This is a topic that might be thrown at him a little more intensely come the end of the season.