When fans saw Everton's lineup for the weekend match-up against Aston Villa, surely the first thing that jumped out was the lack of wide players. No Aiden McGeady. No Cristian Atsu. No Steven Pienaar. No Kevin Mirallas.
The lack of wide options that injuries and poor form have left Martinez with are not new news. Romelu Lukaku and Sameul Eto'o at times have been forced from their central attacking positions out to wing to accommodate this lack of outside players, but both struggled with the shift.
Finally (and mercifully), that experiment seems to have ended, with Martinez trying out a new solution.
This week, the attacking midfield three consisted of Ross Barkley (hooray!), Leon Osman, and Steven Naismith, with, on paper anyway, Barkley and Osman shifting between left and middle, and Naismith on the right.
In reality though, these three players had a tremendously fluid understanding, which involved all three drifting left, central, and right at times. To see exactly how this played out, let's take a look at the influence of the three players in question, courtesy of fourfourtwo.com.
Osman has certainly struggled at times this season, but arguably put in his best performance of the campaign this weekend. He completed 49 of 53 passes and drew four fouls, but perhaps what jumps out from this graphic most is how spread across the pitch the lifetime Evertonian was, with approximately half of his passes coming from each side of the pitch. This is a trend we see continue when looking at Ross Barkley's day.
Barkley had a wonderful day at the office after a long injury layoff. He completed 31 of 38 passes, including three created chances, one of which led to Romelu Lukaku's goal. The budding superstar spent most of the match operating from the left and middle channels, playing the majority of his forward balls down the right, which brings us to Steven Naismith.
Naismith missed more passes than his English companions in the midfield, but given that the Scot is not a particularly good distributor of the ball, 32 of 43 is nothing to be disappointed with. Naismith's play was more concentrated to one wing, the right, than Osman's or Barkley's, but there is clearly still some action from him down the left as well. To get a sense of exactly how involved Naismith was though, take a look at his passes received.
Naismith was on the receiving end of two created chances, as well as constantly involved in attacks down the right.
Effects on other players
Putting Osman, Barkley, and Naismith together in the midfield helped get the best out of each of the three, but also provided a boost to other players.
First, and most directly, Romelu Lukaku was the beneficiary of this change. The big Belgian was allowed to play centrally, as a lone striker, with several playmakers behind him. These were the keys to his success last season, and led to success for him against Aston Villa as well.
With the team comfortably in possession and three attacking midfielders playing well together, Big Rom was able to focus on making runs behind the defense and getting into attacking positions, rather than trying to be a hold-up, back-to-goal striker.
The result? A goal. Albeit, the finish was less than spectacular, but the buildup surrounding the attack played perfectly to Lukaku's strengths, and given more opportunities of that variety, he will score more goals.
Second, the full-backs benefited greatly from the presence of 'wingers' that were not attached to staying particularly wide. All three of Barkley, Osman, and Naismith are prone to pulling centrally when starting from a wide position, which opened up space for Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman to get into the attack.
Coleman completed 49 out of 56 passes as a result, as well as 10 of 13 passes in the attacking third, with one created chance. Obviously, he also contributed a goal.
Baines completed 54 out of 65 passes, with 16 of 24 in the attacking third. He created six (!) chances, two of which led to goals.
Of course, we must acknowledge that Steven Pienaar came on for Barkley in the last 25 minutes, but Pienaar has had so much success with this club for the exact reasons that Barkley, Osman, and Naismith did on Saturday. The South African is happy to drift to the right or center, and leaves plenty of space for Baines to make overlapping runs down the left.
With no Mirallas or Pienaar (at least as a starter), Baines and Coleman are the best playmakers in the wide parts of the pitch, and the numbers from the Villa match clearly show how effective they can be.
The attack needs playmakers beyond just those two though. Barkley, we know, is just that. Osman, when utilized properly, is as well. Naismith, though at times not exactly pretty to watch, makes things happen in the attacking third. And as previously noted, Coleman and Baines can, have, and will win matches for Everton Football Club.
To get all of these, Martinez needs to be sure to send out Osman, Barkley, and Naismith until Pienaar is absolutely 100%.