[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t is fair to say that most Everton fans will be relatively underwhelmed by how their side has performed this season, with last year’s promise failing to be replicated or surpassed this term.
At the time of writing, Roberto Martínez’s men sit in 12th place on the Premier League table having only won a quarter of their domestic fixtures this season.
Six victories in 24 games is a relatively poor return for a side with realistic top-six ambitions, but a negative goal difference and the fact that the team’s usual scintillating brand of attacking football has been largely absent this term is more concerning.
Everton lacked real quality in the final third during their 0-0 draw against Merseyside rivals Liverpool on Saturday, with Ross Barkley’s very late cameo baffling given that the hosts were crying out for attacking inspiration.
The 21-year-old is widely acknowledged as one of the shining lights of English football’s current young generation, with inclusion in Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad a deserved reward for some outstanding displays for the Toffees last season.
Such is Barkley’s potential and natural ability, the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea have been regularly touted in the British newspapers as having the attacking midfielder in their sights.
However, Barkley has seemingly fallen victim to Steven Naismith’s progression at Goodison Park, with the versatile Scotland international featuring as the furthest man forward against the Reds at the weekend.
The fact that the home-grown star was only introduced with five minutes left in the clash was something of a strange move by the Spanish manager given that the deadlock was yet to be broken.
Despite only having the dying minutes of the game to make an impact, Barkley almost set up the winner for Seamus Coleman with a precision pass and immediately offered the hosts more direction in Liverpool’s half.
Martínez’s tactics in the derby were questionable, with Naismith playing as a removed central striker while the power and pace of natural number nine Romelu Lukaku was negated by the Belgian operating from wide.
With three central midfielders in the form of Gareth Barry, James McCarthy and Muhamed Bešić, surely replacing one of those with Barkley earlier in the second half, switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation, would have been the attacking impetus Everton needed to go on and win the game?
In the bespoke 4-3-3 system that Martínez started with, Barkley would either have to start from wide or operate in the three-man midfield in a deeper position to have a place in the team, which would have limited his natural attacking instincts.
As such, the selected formation ostracised Barkley and meant he started on the bench.
Interestingly, the former Wigan boss also brought on Antolín Alcaraz at the same time as Barkley, with the Toffees changing to a 5-3-2 when the attacking midfielder was introduced.
This indicates that the Spaniard could view Barkley as an attacking luxury player, but one that needs additional defensive reinforcements deeper in the pitch to accommodate his presence.
Why Martínez didn’t be brave and start the game in a 4-2-3-1 set-up, with Barkley in the hole behind Lukaku and Naismith on one of the flanks, is a puzzling question.
Starting with Naismith in the team makes sense given his inclination to close down the opposition high-up the pitch and his admirable work-rate, but sacrificing one of the central midfielders would have allowed Barkley to feature in an advanced role also.
From a neutral perspective, visitors Liverpool looked the more likely to break the deadlock and took the game to an Everton team that lacked direction and is seemingly low on confidence – strange given their eye-catching, possession-based football from last season.
Getting the best out of Barkley, surely the club’s most technically gifted player, will be key to Everton’s potential march up the table, but for the time being it remains to be seen just where in Martínez’s team the gifted playmaker fits in.
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