Last season, Roberto Martinez and Everton struggled to break down sides determined to bunker with 10 men behind the ball. The Toffees picked up only one point out of six against Hull City, two out of six against Leicester City, and one out of six against Sunderland.
So, Evertonians could be forgiven for being concerned that the Toffees might not be at their best in matches against league-bottom Sunderland and Aston Villa, particularly after struggling against some of the Premier League's top clubs.
Two matches against clearly inferior opponents and 10 goals later though, those concerns are a distant memory. This week, Villa was Everton's victim, suffering a 4-0 defeat in a thoroughly dominant performance by the home side at Goodison Park.
Tactically, Martinez stuck with what he clearly feels is his best XI and was rewarded for valuing that consistency and quality.
As has been the case every time Arouna Kone as started on the left wing, the Ivorian striker made a habit of shading toward the middle, often times playing as a faux second striker.
Remi Garde sent his side out in a 4-5-1 with the clear objective of sitting deep and being hard to break down, while hoping to find a chance or two on the counter attack.
Some have suggested that against teams that line up with a clear bunkering mentality that Ross Barkley should play deeper in the midfield alongside James McCarthy. In theory, this would allow another attacking player to get into the lineup while giving Barkley more space to operate.
Martinez has only opted to do this one time, in a 3-1 home victory against QPR. Barkley scored in that match, but only played in a holding role because Martinez literally had no other options with McCarthy, Gareth Barry, and Leon Osman all injured.
However, Barkley's performance this week clearly showed why he belongs in the No. 10 role, regardless of the opponent. In fact, his presence in the attacking midfield role may be even more crucial against teams that bunker.
From the opening kick, it was clear that Villa was lining up with a block of four at the back, a block of five in the midfield, and very little space between them. Just 80 seconds into the match, this was evident.
Notice how little space there is between Villa's five midfielders and four defenders. Garde's goal in setting his side up in this manner is to eliminate Everton's ability to build slowly through the central channel, which is the preferred path for Martinez's side.
There are a number of ways the Toffees could work around this. They could try to play direct, over the top to Romelu Lukaku and Kone, which they tried occasionally in the first 15 minutes.
They could try to stretch the field by playing long-balls from side to side, which they did throughout the match. When facing an opponent trying to bunker and make the field compact, using width is crucial to create scoring chances.
A look at the long-balls that Everton played during the match reflects the side's commitment to whipping the ball from side-to-side (image courtesy of FourFourTwo.com).
Passes of this nature force opponents to come out of their shape, which over time will create space for attacks. While none of the goals Everton scored came directly from this kind of field-stretching pass, consistently using it as a weapon keeps the opposing defense honest, making it a little easier to work through the center of midfield.
The ever-dangerous Gerard Deulofeu was the primary source of concern when the Toffees got the ball into wide areas. Brendan Galloway deserves credit for creating width in the absence of Kone on the left, but the true danger coming from wide positions was Deulofeu's on the right, as is evident from looking at the young Spaniard's passes received.
Deulofeu was key in multiple Everton goals, but would not have been able to have as great an effect if the match did not open up more after Barkley's opening goal.
This brings us to the final way Everton could break through the Villa defensive wall--relying on its best central playmaker to find the deadly pass. On the first goal, Ross Barkley did just that.
The play starts with Barkley getting between the lines, that is, finding space between Villa's midfield block and defensive block. This is the role of the creative central midfielder, or No. 10. More often than not, he isn't going to have a ton of space to operate in here, but if his team wants to create chances through the middle channel, Barkley has to make plays here.
And my goodness, does he make a play here! His quick touch to Lukaku gets the Toffees through the midfield block with ease, and Lukaku's perfect ball into McCarthy gets Everton in behind the defense.
Barkley doesn't stop there either. As soon as the ball gets out to Deulofeu, he recognizes the space into where the ball may be coming.
He is the first player to get to the crucial area, and he makes no mistake with the finish.
No other Everton player can do what Barkley does on this play. A player like Arouna Kone or Steven Naismith cannot make the initial pass that starts the play, while other midfielders like Darron Gibson and James McCarthy would not have the nose for goal to be in the right place at the right time.
Barkley must be the No. 10, both finding the space between the lines and providing a consistent goal threat.
Of course, the other central midfielders deserve credit as well. Both James McCarthy and Gareth Barry were excellent in this match and deserve to keep their place in the side against lesser opponents.
McCarthy, surely in recognition that his play-making ability was more needed in this match than his defensive ability, got involved in the attack frequently. He played the ball out to Deulofeu in the buildup to the first goal and generally kept possession and kept play moving forward, as is reflected in his passing map (courtesy of EvertonFC.com).
Barry had a much less attractive, but no less important, job. With McCarthy moving forward, Barry held down the fort in the center of midfield. He was a constant option to pass to, kept a sound defensive shape, and generally did exactly what you want from a holding midfielder. The giant, central, green blob that makes up his heatmap reflects this.
After the first goal, much of Everton's attack came from down the right wing and through Deulofeu. This is important, but not exactly a new development. In recent weeks, Everton have gotten much better at getting the ball to Deulofeu when he has space down the right, and the presence of Kone and Lukaku in the middle creates danger every time they can get the ball to the Spaniard.
Instead though, I've chosen to focus on the center of the pitch. The performances of the central midfielders against Aston Villa proved that Martinez is right to continue using Barkley as a No. 10 with Barry and McCarthy behind, rather than slotting Barkley into a deeper position and bringing on another attacking player against inferior opponents.
There simply is no one in the squad that can do what Barkley can in that creative role, and Barry and McCarthy will boss matches against teams with less talent that choose to bunker against the Toffees. With matches against Bournemouth, Middlesborough, Norwich City, and Newcastle United coming up in the next month, Martinez's gameplan against less talented opponents will be crucial for Everton's success.
After this weekend's thrashing of Villa, there seems to be no doubt as to what that gameplan should be--use Barkley as a No. 10 and use Deulofeu to stretch defenses.