Everton progress but Martinez must end Chelsea hoodoo
John Stones could count himself fortunate as he halted Raheem Sterling in the penalty area in the final moments of Everton's battling 0-0 draw against Manchester City on Wednesday night.
Whereas the previous injury-time Stones lunge proved costly in the 4-3 loss to Stoke in the final match of 2015, this latest tackle escaped punishment and Everton became the first team in almost a year to stop City scoring at the Etihad.
Those two Stones challenges neatly bookend the progress evident since Stoke snatched three points at Goodison. In league draws against Tottenham and Manchester City and a League Cup semifinal win against the latter, the Blues displayed grittier qualities rarely seen under Roberto Martinez, a manager with such an aesthetic style. There has been a better shape, coinciding with the use of natural midfielders on the left and the return of Leighton Baines on that same side, with the England full-back excelling at cutting out those often-problematic crosses into the penalty area.
The midweek clean sheet is a string in the bow for Everton's defensive improvements, against a City team with the best home record in the division. Manuel Pellegrini's team had 24 points and 29 goals scored from 10 home games before this rare goalless draw.
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The away side owed a debt to Tim Howard, with the American goalkeeper making several vital saves and doing what he has not done enough of late: help his team earn points when they are up against it. In truth, his shot-stopping ability has never been in doubt; it is the other aspects attracting criticism. The sight of Howard commanding his penalty area and beating Sergio Aguero to a loose ball in the first half carried a greater significance than the saves.
There was something almost therapeutic about the returning Phil Jagielka hacking the ball clear under pressure from a City player -- sometimes the basics must come first. The odd satisfaction felt at this usually taboo sight highlights the defensive nightmare endured for much of this season.
A clean sheet in both matches since Jagielka returned reflects the leadership and organisation the club captain adds to a defence that has missed his no-nonsense defending and willingness to prioritise the fundamentals above flashier aspects.
Another at the centre of this newfound resilience is the marauding Muhamed Besic, providing the energy and aggression lacking without the injured James McCarthy. The Bosnian is developing a well-balanced partnership alongside the classy and consistent Gareth Barry; the differing styles of the two complement each other well.
Unafraid of reputations, having unceremoniously left Aguero, David Silva and Yaya Toure in a heap at various points across the two matches against City this month, Besic's fearlessness is a lesson to his teammates.
Everton played with a belief and intent echoing Besic for the majority of the League Cup tie at Goodison and for 45 minutes of this league draw. However, the key is maintaining this for the duration, particularly against a team as vulnerable as the Chelsea side waiting on Saturday. The 3-1 win in the reverse fixture at in September should be inspiration enough for the visitors.
No team has dropped more points from winning positions than Chelsea this season, with all 12 squandered at home, though Everton must be conscious of the corresponding fixture in the last two seasons. Two bright starts fading en route to last-minute concessions and a pair of 1-0 defeats acts as a cautionary tale.
Two goals conceded in four matches since the turn of the year underlines efforts to shore up a leaky Everton defence. The trick is combining this with the attacking football prominent earlier in the season, with only five goals scored across these last four games. Goals flowed until recently, although the main issue was that they flowed at both ends of the pitch, especially at Goodison. Only the top three teams have outscored Martinez's men this season, but only the bottom seven have conceded more.
Everton must strike a balance between the entertaining and frustrating team witnessed earlier in the season and the more robust and determined one visible so far in January. While there was plenty to admire about the defence in midweek, the slick football of the first half disappeared in the second. Ball retention dropped and the visitors wasted the few attacking opportunities available.
Ross Barkley's contrasting performance typified the decreasing attacking threat. At the heart of the brighter moments and arguably the best player on the pitch in the first half, the young midfielder suffered after the break as teammates failed to retain possession long enough to provide Barkley with the same platform from which to influence the game.
Proving they can defend and attack effectively, though not always in the same game, the task now for Everton is delivering these two qualities simultaneously and consistently, starting (ideally) with the end of a run of 20 Premier League games without a win at Stamford Bridge.