After Everton signed Aaron Lennon on loan at the end of the January transfer window last season, he featured in every single league match until the final day when he was ineligible to play against his parent club. By all accounts he acquitted himself quite well during that stretch, sparking some discussion of a revival of a career that had seemingly stagnated after tremendous early promise. His deal was made permanent on September 1.
Four months later, Lennon had appeared in just over a quarter of all available league minutes this season. The emergence of Gerard Deulofeu as a fearsome attacking force had mostly relegated Lennon to the bench and substitute appearances. Given the glut of attacking options at Martinez's disposal, a natural perception was that Lennon was more or less second choice--just a nice bit of depth for when fixtures got congested.
Things have changed recently, though, with Deulofeu dropping to the bench, and Lennon enjoying a nice run of starts. At the same time, the squad has experienced a bit of consistent form for perhaps the first time all season. Maybe it's not a surprise that Lennon would provide more solidity than a brilliant lunatic, but it must raise at least a few eyebrows that Martinez has stuck with the Englishman for five straight matches.
Lennon has long been lauded for his work rate, but in recent years especially he has somewhat reinvented himself as a winger willing to defend when necessary. This alone makes him particularly useful to a team that has struggled mightily all season to protect it's own goal.
While tackles are not the most useful statistic for determining how good a player is at defending, they are somewhat useful in examining how involved a midfielder or forward is in working to recover the ball for his team. Amongst Everton wingers, Lennon is second only to Tom Cleverley in terms of successful tackles per ninety minutes this season, and one suspects that the latter's numbers are boosted somewhat by his time playing in the center of the midfield.
(data from Opta/Whoscored.com; Premier League only)
It's no secret that Lennon and Cleverley generally bring more defensive effort to wide positions--both have been Martinez's preferred starting wingers in recent matches, and the manager has a habit this season of picking at least one of them for games against top opposition.
In addition to his defensive contribution, Lennon has become useful to Everton for his smart positional sense. Using the Bournemouth match from the weekend as an example, RBM's Adam Braun does a wonderful job here breaking down Everton's attack with Lennon on the field. What he provides arguably better than any other winger in the squad is balance--Arouna Koné and Kevin Mirallas love to constantly cut inside from the left, whereas Deulofeu prefers to hug the right touchline as much as he can.
Lennon offers a nice mix of both. We know he can dribble around opponents on the wing, but he also has a habit of popping up in central areas when the space presents itself. Recent goals against Newcastle and Carlisle demonstrate this well.
In playing a more defensively-minded and positionally aware winger, one would generally expect at least some drop off in attacking production from that player. For Lennon thus far this has not been the case.
Paul Riley's expected assists model seeks to identify the degree to which players create quality chances for their teammates, independent of whether or not their teammate finishes the job. Lennon currently leads the team in expected assists (xA) per ninety minutes, and is posting a number equal to or better than likes of Christian Eriksen, David Silva, and Alexis Sánchez. Of course the huge caveat here is that all of those players have logged over twice as many minutes as Lennon this season. So I'm not trying to convince you that Lennon is some sort of elite playmaker, just that when he has played this season he has executed his job at a high level.
In addition to providing scoring opportunities for other attackers, one thing you'd generally expect from a productive traditional winger is for him to have success dribbling the ball. So far for Everton this season only Deulofeu and Ross Barkley have completed more successful dribbles per ninety than Lennon.
Putting it all together, it becomes clear that in his limited minutes Lennon has excelled at demonstrating the desired traits of a winger:
(data from Opta/Whoscored.com; Premier League only)
A side note: while it certainly helps that he has added some goals in recent matches, there's not much precedent for that to continue. He's never scored more than five goals in a season in his career, his current rate of 0.40 goals per ninety is over twice as much as anything he's ever posted, and he's significantly out-performing expected goals at the moment. So while it's easy to focus on the fact that he's found the back of the net a few times recently, his finishing ability probably shouldn't be the takeaway from his recent good form.
Lennon's performances this season are especially interesting in light of the last five to seven years of his career. There's been a growing feeling surrounding him for a few seasons that he peaked too early and that his best days were perhaps behind him. This in part explains why his market value dropped from £16.4 million in the summer of 2011 to £4.7 million by the time Everton bought him, according to Transfermarkt.com. Indeed, both key passes and successful dribbles had been on the decline for a few years by the time Lennon came to Goodison for his first spell.
As the years have gone on though, Lennon has maintained a steady rise in his defensive contribution, as measured by successful tackles. What's remarkable about this year is that he's managed to combine all three aspects of his game in a way he hasn't managed before.
(data from Opta/Whoscored.com; all numbers rated per 90 minutes of Premier League play)
Unfortunately I don't have data prior to the 2009/10 season, but it would appear that Lennon has managed to turn the tides on his would-be decline. He's dribbling like a young man again and adding defensive work to boot.
It's worth stressing again that his sample size this season is still quite small. However, I think it's fair to say that there are at least some signs that Lennon's career has a bit of life left. He's still only twenty-eight years old, even if it feels like he's been around forever.
While Deulofeu has been extremely productive this season, he doesn't offer nearly the positional sense or work rate of Lennon. In this sense, Martinez is truly spoilt for choice at right wing. The young Spaniard still deserves minutes, but Lennon should perhaps be favored when up against a more attacking side, especially if the opposition's left winger and/or left back are particularly forward thinking.
At this point it feels as if the Lennon/Cleverley wing pair represents stability and solidity to some degree, whereas Koné/Deulofeu or Mirallas/Deulofeu represents the chaos that has characterized much of Everton's season thus far. Despite the obvious talent of the latter pair, it would be hard to blame Martinez if he keeps the current team in place for the near future.