With the Spurs game being crud and the trip to Palace not exactly tickling anybody’s trout I thought a brief synopsis of the key themes of our first 10 games under the Martinez would be a better read. So lets briefly take a look at the key strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the season so far……
Maintaining the solid defensive unit he inherited from Moyes would have been one of Martinez primary targets even if it was just for his own credibility and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he has not only maintained the status quo but also strengthened it.
This is demonstrated by our ability to keep 5 clean sheets already (we had 1 at this stage last season) and we have also conceded slightly fewer shots per game. (fig1). Interestingly, the % won of individual defensive duels including take-ons, aerials, fouls and tackles are all up on last season’s figures – equating to a 5% overall improvement on 1 v 1 defensive duels. Defence then remains a core strength.
2. ‘We won the passing’
OK, now try and forget about creepy Brennys winning the passing nonsense for just a moment.
The pre season narrative was all about us upping the ante in terms of passes made and completed. This has pretty much been realised – at the Hull game for example we completed 581 passes which is the highest figure we have polled since such stats were produced. Over the 10 games we have averaged 73 more short passes per game (369 to 442) with long passes down from 14% of the total to 12%. Our 56.6% share of the ball and 83.2% completion are both up around 4% on last season’s figures too. The key thing here isn’t how many passes you make, but influencing the game. As the Spurs game showed, when we started finding our men better this allowed us to control the game and we became the better side to the tune of 3 times more passes in the 2nd half to the first and the knock on effect this has in alleviating pressure on a backline which was overworked in the opening 45mins.
3.Less Reliance on Baines
In recent seasons the over reliance on Baines creativity hasn’t been healthy. Putting all your eggs in one basket is a risky strategy especially given the incessant speculation surrounding his future and any potential injury associated with a player approaching 30.
We’ve noticeably evolved our style this campaign and making less crosses per game (26 down to 20). Whereas last season Baines created 25% of our chances this season the figure is just 10% with Mirallas the main creator – the Belgian has created a third more chances yielding 4 assists (the most in the league) with Baines yet to register one. Fig 2 gives a decent indication of how more chances are being created centrally from outside the box and from the right flank.
Part of this is down to the forwards in that Lukaku likes to camp out on the right near Mirallas whilst Barkley plays predominantly through the middle. Last season Fellaini was the main ‘outball’ but he preferred to position himself on the left which led to us servicing the left flank quicker.
4.Its a lot more expressive
Unlike his percentages predecessor, Martinez approach to youth is to enable them to mistakes and learn from them- as a result we’ve already blooded more teenagers this season (3) than any side in the top flight with Lukaku (20) only a few months older than Barkley so it’s clear embedding youth is a big thing for Martinez.
Last season we were firmly ensconced in the bottom six for dribbles compared to this season when we have already made 133 – the second most behind Spurs. Whereas young Barkley has weighed in with a sizeable quota of these (31) colleagues Coleman, Lukaku and Mirallas also feature in the top 25 players in the division for take ons and its only game time which has prevented the slaloming Deulofeu being in the mix here too.
Clearly the threat here is that there will be issues with form as the season develops and this is when senior players will need to step up and support the young pups. Lukaku for example has been superb, but has issues to iron out in his game in linking play with midfield whilst Barkley and Deulofeu both need to learn when to release the ball quicker, however these are both opportunities for us to exploit as the season unfolds.
5. Less chances, better conversion
So far this season we have averaged 9.8 chances per game which is a drop on last season’s 12.6 chances per game, albeit the amount of quality chances from open play has improved with less reliance on set pieces and getting the ball ‘into the mixer’ at the earliest opportunity. Crucially, whereas last season it took us 11.5 shots to score (the 3rd worst in the division) this season we take just 9.8 shots – the sixth best in the league (fig 3)
6. Away days are more fun
Martinez hasn’t provided free ale on the Happy Als buses or much needed repairs of their hydraulics but he has injected more of a kick to the away days for travelling toffees.
We all know about our home form and how Goodison is a fortress with just 1 defeat in over 18 months or so. What has been consistently mediocre however in recent seasons is the comparatively low yield of points on the road and making us more dynamic to pick up points away from L4 was Martinez biggest challenge for me. So far the results have been impressive. Last season we averaged 1.10 points per game on the road and so far we have scooped 1.6. Over the course of the season this improvement would accrue 9.5 extra points per season which would be the difference between top 6 and top 4.
7. Were taking more chances at the back
The approach of the two centre backs splitting with usually Barry slotting in between them when Howard has the ball has sometimes left us a bit out of sync centrally and at times in the early games in particular we looked a bit open if possession was lost in our own half. Martinez has been vocal in the past about how he likes to take chances in terms of committing bodies forward and anyone who watched Wigan overload sides will understand this.
This often maverick approach has resulted in us conceding the 2nd most penalties in the league and making the most last man tackles (7) of any club in the top flight – this is already the same figure as we accrued in the whole of last season. In fairness, we have not been required to make any such last ditch challenges in the last 3 games which may indicate the new methods are becoming more rapidly embedded, however it is a weakness opponents will look to exploit.
8. Pressure Management
The new playing out from the back approach has worked well although there is pretty much one incident in every game (usually involved Howard and Distin) when either due to the players not being comfortable or through opposition pressure we can look a bit silly recycling possession in our own half. The Spurs game in particular showed the problem and other opponents with high energy levels will look to follow suit in forcing the issue in our half.
The problem I guess is that whilst very good players, pros like Distin and Coleman can struggle with the concept of anticipation and then moving the ball accurately with one touch. When pressured it can look horrible and panic can ensue in our own half. It’s exactly this reason why Barry and McCarthy were recruited as they can receive in tight zones under pressure and move it on quickly and accurately. I’d imagine future recruitment will look to remedy this but its certainly a threat which we need to manage.
9. Second Half Strength
A sizeable 7 of the 8 away goals we have scored have come in the second half of matches and its noticeable that we have come on stronger as games have gone on at home too with 150 more second half passes per game than first half passes in our last batch of home games.
James McCarthy in particular has shown in each of the last 3 games that he is a player who gets better as the game goes on and whose influence on the ball grows more when opponents tire in the latter stages of games.
Perhaps it’s because were not pressing as much as we did last season (see fig1), but with the exception of the City defeat there definitively seems to be more gas in the tank as games develop. Martinez substitutions have also made a big impact here and we have gained more points already this season via the impact of substitutes as we did in the whole of last season.
10. In Summary…..
Last season Moyes squad finished with 1.65 points per game which was the highest during his 11 year reign. This season that figure is up to 1.9 per game which is a decent gain. In terms of the threat provided elsewhere in the league, after 10 games last season we sat in 4th with 17 points and whilst we are 2 points better off now find ourselves 3 places further back albeit its very congested. Its early days but you could draw the conclusion that the bar has been raised across the division.
In general the start made by Martinez has been very good with the attacking approach more dynamic and varied and the defensive resilience maintained. Overall we are a side with few weak points and as the style continues to be polished the threats which do exist will continue to be ironed out.