Everton, after a little over a month, finally picked up another league win this weekend. It wasn't perfect, and it was at home against a relegation threatened Newcastle United side, but it was a win.
Even more encouraging was the (mostly) comfortable nature of the win, which saw the Toffees dominate most of the match and create dangerous chances through attractive, possession-based football.
There are a number of tactical matters to discuss from this match, beginning with the starting XI Roberto Martinez elected to use.
Tom Cleverley got the start at left midfield opposite Aaron Lennon and in front of Bryan Oviedo at left-back, with an otherwise predictable lineup across the pitch.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was to see Oviedo at left-back ahead of Leighton Baines, who was healthy enough to at least make the bench. The English left-back started in the League Cup loss to Manchester City last week, after which he did not feature in the matchday 18 against Carlisle United.
It was no great surprise to see Baines rested against lower-league opposition, but to see him healthy enough to make 18-man roster for the day, yet not start, was unexpected. It is certainly possible that he's had a recurrence of or is still working through his injury, but why Martinez would then include him on the bench is puzzling.
This opens up the possibility that Baines is fit and prepared to play, yet was not preferred by the manager at his preferred position. Baines has no goals and one assist in nine starts in all competitions since his return from injury, during which Everton has conceded an average of 1.55 goals per game.
In the Toffees' 15 matches against Premier League opponents prior to Baines' return to the starting XI, they conceded an average of 1.4 goals per game.
So, Baines has not made significant, statistically evident offensive contributions since his return, and the team's defense has remained relatively constant. This isn't to say that Baines hasn't necessarily contributed positively, as there are lots of variables in these considerations that are hard to control for, but it seems safe to say that he hasn't been an overwhelming improvement over other options at the position.
It is too early to make too much of Oviedo's inclusion at the expense of Baines on Wednesday, but it is something to keep an eye on, particularly given Oviedo's play against Newcastle (about which I will say more in a little).
On the right, Aaron Lennon did exactly what he did against Carlisle United which led me to plead that he get a look at left midfield with Gerard Deulofeu on the right. The English winger used his pace to stretch the back line, pick the right times to get central, and was rewarded for his positional awareness.
Of course, Lennon may have had more than one goal if he was an above average finisher, perhaps the only criticism that can be leveled against the former Spurs winger after his last two matches.
There's little more to be said about Lennon past what I said about him last week, but the man who started at the position I was hoping to see Lennon at, left midfield, is worth taking a closer look at. Tom Cleverley played an important role in Everton's victory at an unnatural position.
In attack, Cleverley did well to actually maintain width on the left wing, something we have not seen a ton of this season. His heatmap (courtesy of EvertonFC.com) clearly shows this.
Yes, there were definitely moments of drifting toward the middle, but those were generally limited and well-timed. It was Cleverley's pass from the left that set Lennon free in the middle on Everton's first goal, so his offensive contribution was clearly positive.
Perhaps more important though, was his defensive play. It is tough to say whether Martinez knew that Newcastle would look to attack almost exclusively down their right (Everton's left) or whether he just got lucky, but Cleverley was the right man for the job needed by the left midfielder on Wednesday.
Below are the Newcastle team heatmap (minus the goalkeeper and center-backs) and Newcastle's player influence map (courtesy of FourFourTwo.com), which both show exactly how one-sided the Magpies' attack was.
Holy center circle, Batman!
As you can clearly see, Newcastle's attack consisted of Moussa Sissoko and Daryl Janmaat attacking down the right, and every other Newcastle player doing...something in the center of the field.
So, Everton's left midfielder and left-back were obviously going to be massively important to shutting down Newcastle. As the defensive maps of Cleverley and Oviedo show below, those players stepped up.
These reflect a total of 10 tackles, 11 recoveries, five clearances, and one interception, all while only conceding three fouls.
Combine these defensive totals with the fact that Cleverley assisted on the opening goal and Oviedo had three key passes, it is hard to argue that Martinez didn't put the right pair of players out on the left side, despite initial thoughts to the contrary.
I am not in any way convinced that this is the ideal combination going forward (I still very much want to see Lennon get his chance on the left with Deulofeu on the right), but credit to Martinez for finding the correct pair on the day.
Martinez did make one misstep in this match though, and it is something we've seen from him frequently this season. As his team started to sag around the 60th minute, the Spaniard stood by and did nothing, not utilizing either of his remaining substitutions after being forced to bring Arouna Kone on for Romelu Lukaku at half.
This is not the first time this season we've seen Martinez use only one or two of his three allotted substitutions, though this time he was not made to pay for his decision.
Substitutions are an important part of every manager's job, but perhaps more than most for Martinez. Keeping possession is so crucial for his side at this point, because the team's defense still looks as leaky as ever. The best way for the team to defend is to have the ball as much as possible.
For the first 60 minutes of the match, that plan was working. Everton enjoyed a 62-38 possession advantage in first half, and gave up essentially no chances as a result.
As tired legs started showing up in the second half though, mistakes started to appear in Everton's passing. Below is Everton's passing map from the 60th to 75th minute, the only period of the match during which the Toffees were in any serious danger.
Everton passed at 81 percent efficiency for the whole match, but during this crucial stretch was at more like 70 percent. Those turnovers come from central midfielders and wingers struggling to get open and players across the pitch trying to make passes with tired legs.
But, instead of introducing Leon Osman, Darron Gibson, Gerard Deulofeu, or Steven Pienaar, Martinez watched the players on the pitch struggle. The Toffees, who dominated up to this stage of the match, were lucky not to see Aleksandar Mitrovic equalize when he got a free header in the box in the 66th minute.
If Everton continues to defend somewhat questionably, the Toffees need their midfielders and attackers to be as fresh as possible and keep possession for their side, otherwise strikers will take chances like the ones Mitrovic spurned (as we have already seen this season).
In all though, that is one criticism in what was ultimately a pretty solid match. Martinez picked the correct wide players, and his reliable central midfielders helped Everton dominate possession en route to a relatively comfortable win, 15 minutes in the second half notwithstanding.