Premier League Preview: Everton
Lessons from last season
Last term, with new manager Roberto Martinez boosting the squad via an early influx of fringe players, the main transfer targets arrived on deadline day. This year, though, Martinez has secured his main targets in advance of the opening game. Steadily building up the numbers as the season nears, Everton are stronger than this time 12 months ago, which is largely thanks to the availability of Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku at the beginning of the campaign.
Instead of scurrying around for key players on deadline day -- the royal blue hallmark in years gone by -- the Blues head into the forthcoming season with a strong, settled group, albeit one still in need of further additions. Another plus is the squad having had 12 months to adjust to Martinez's methods.
Predicted starting lineup
There are two (old) new faces in the shape of Barry and record signing Lukaku, while Muhamed Besic, the other first-team recruit, signed on the back of a strong World Cup showing for Bosnia-Herzegovina. There have also been several new contracts, as key personnel committed their long-term futures, with Ross Barkley, Seamus Coleman, John Stones and Martinez agreeing to new deals.
In keeping with all things new, the three kits received their annual revamp -- just don't mention the socks -- and the latest club crest replaced last season's unsightly offering. Club legend Joe Royle also returned to Goodison Park, taking up a role within the academy, overseeing the progress of the stars of the future.
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One of the main strengths, and it was prevalent during former manager David Moyes' tenure, is the close-knit nature of the squad and their refusal to know when they are beaten. The approach may have shifted -- Martinez is more of a risk-taker than his predecessor -- but the steely resolve remains. There is a reason Everton score a high percentage of their goals in the latter stages of matches. It stems from a fierce determination within the players, aided by an ultra-positive manager hungry for success.
Arguably the biggest strength, though, especially with the re-signing of Barry and the addition of Besic, is the midfield. It is the area leading the rest in terms of quality and strength in depth. There is a well-balanced mix of youth and experience, with old pros such as Steven Pienaar and Barry making ideal role models for the likes of Besic and Barkley.
A cause for much consternation last season, the dreaded set piece is perhaps the biggest weakness presently. Aside from those within shooting range, with Leighton Baines and Kevin Mirallas both skilled exponents, Everton struggled at either end of the pitch with set pieces in 2013-14. Lacking a genuine goal-scoring threat in the opposing area, attacking set pieces merely became a means of conceding possession.
However, the real problems surfaced in the Everton penalty area. Mirroring the Moyes approach, bringing every player back inside their own penalty area, it was no surprise to see the same confusion and panic. Unsure of their roles, too many players back is a hindrance. To address this, attacking players have to be left in advanced positions, where they are comfortable and able to counter. This frees up space in the defensive third, making it easier to defend the incoming set piece.
The other weakness is chance conversion. Capable of dominating matches, normally monopolising possession, the goals column does not always reflect the supremacy evident during the 90 minutes.
Manager - ESPN FC profile
Surprising even those of an eternally optimistic nature, Martinez excelled during his first year on Merseyside, and the former Wigan boss will be looking to improve upon an impressive debut season. The strongest examples of his managerial ability came in beating Arsene Wenger's Arsenal and David Moyes' Manchester United at Goodison, as Martinez outfoxed both, subtly tweaking his approach to mastermind convincing victories.
Displaying creative thinking and tactical intelligence throughout last season, specifically when injuries hampered a squad thinner than most, those traits will be tested further this season; the return of European competition makes certain of that.
Favouring the bold positive approach whenever possible, there is no fear when it comes to tough decisions. One such example arose after a successful trip to Swansea. Ross Barkley scored the winning goal with a fine free kick but found himself on the bench for the next match.
With Martinez adding to his squad this summer, securing his number one target (Lukaku), supporters will keenly observe the Blues boss as he tackles domestic and European obstacles in the months ahead.
Key player: Romelu Lukaku
Finally, after countless misfires and mistakes, Everton possess the genuine goal scorer too often absent in recent years. For the first time in seven seasons, dating back to when the enigmatic Yakubu led the line, the Blues have a player -- of their own -- capable of delivering the necessary final-third firepower.
Another year older, with another year of top-flight experience under his belt, the onus is on Lukaku to break the 20-goal barrier in the Premier League -- the closest an Everton player has come to reaching that objective was Andrei Kanchelskis, who managed 16 in 1995-96.
Scoring 32 and assisting 10 in his past two seasons, Lukaku needs to continue on an upward trajectory. With the extra matches and the pressure that comes with that, the weight of expectation will rest firmly on the broad shoulders of the 21-year-old.
In addition, honourable mentions go to the midfield. Pienaar must put an injury-hit season behind him, as Baines (and Everton) tend to suffer in his absence, while those in central midfield are pivotal to the current possession-based style.
Predicted finish: Fifth
After a two-week period in which Besic signed, the club shattered their transfer record and Barkley and Stones agreed to new long-term contracts, there is a chance that expectations may skyrocket as the season draws closer.
But the addition of European football throws a significant curveball into the equation. It is something that Everton have not had to contend with in the past four years. For many of the players, this will be their first taste of European football with Everton. As such, the primary test is how the squad and their manager cope. Time will tell whether the squad is deep enough; whether the strength in depth is as prominent as it appears.
For Martinez, the toughest task is finding the correct balance while juggling the demands of an assault on multiple fronts. Though the challenge is unlikely to deter Martinez and his players, the pressures of Europe (and the improvement of others) could hinder this latest attempt at breaking the glass ceiling of the top four.