Roberto Martinez must show faith in the players elevating Everton's game
This Premier League season has turned full circle for Everton. Just as failure to capitalise on a stretch of winnable games earlier in the season gradually eroded optimism and confidence, the Blues are amid another appealing run set to reinforce recent improvement.
West Brom visit Goodison Park on Saturday, followed by an FA Cup tie at Bournemouth, with a home fixture against West Ham sandwiched between matches against relegation-threatened Aston Villa and Sunderland. Three wins in a week and successive league wins for the first time in 10 months has supporters looking up the standings rather than over their shoulders. There can be no excuses or missed opportunities this time.
In this most disjointed season, league wins over Newcastle and Stoke in the span of four days has Everton within striking distance of a European place. That says as much about the standard of the division as it does about Roberto Martinez's men.
Recent meetings favour an Everton side unbeaten in six, home and away, against Tony Pulis' well-organised opponents, including a 3-2 win from 2-0 down in September's reverse fixture. Results at Goodison show five games unbeaten against the Midlands club, albeit with a goalless draws accounting for the past two games on this ground, but the hosts must be wary of a visiting team primed to spoil the Everton party. While the Baggies failed to impress in their FA Cup replay win against Peterborough in midweek, Pulis is an expert in frustration and more than capable of pinching points, evidenced by a 0-0 draw on his first Goodison visit as West Brom boss.
For the home side the general task is much simpler: continue the much-welcomed, more-balanced methods evident in a trio of 3-0 victories in the previous week. "It's one thing being a team that wants to score goals and create chances but there are other things in football that we also need to focus on to get a good result," Martinez told the club website. At long last, those "other things" are more than just words on a page, they are visible on the pitch.
The shift in approach is relatively straightforward; the quality in attack remains but without unnecessary risks taken in defence. When to play football and when to prioritise the basics is a noticeable shift within a spell of more than 300 minutes without conceding a goal. So too is the uplift in tackling, work rate and overall application without the ball.
Balance on both flanks, industry beefing up an occasionally brittle midfield, centre-backs putting defending first and a goalkeeper adding composure are among the factors behind three wins and a thorough dismantling of Stoke. Recent matches prove this is possible without losing attacking verve in the process.
That is why stability is the way forward, keeping upheaval to a minimum. If there is no breakage, no fix is required. Tim Howard and John Stones are closing on returns from injury, although both remain doubtful for this weekend's fixture. Both saw their performances scrutinised prior to injury. Errors began to creep in for Stones, who became slack defensively and too casual in his decision-making. As for Howard, well, his position has long forgone explanation.
Martinez recently spoke on Bryan Oviedo and how the Costa Rican has grasped his chance while Leighton Baines recovers full fitness after an injury-hit season and a knock keeping him out of the FA Cup win at Carlisle. The Everton boss should afford that same chance to Ramiro Funes Mori and Joel Robles, the two players who would inevitably drop out if Howard and Stones immediately returned to the starting XI. Like those on the fringes waiting for their opportunity, those returning from injury should receive the same treatment.
Funes Mori offers a brand of minimal risk, no-nonsense defending similar to fellow centre-back and club captain Phil Jagielka, while his aerial ability is an added strength in both penalty areas, with the Argentinean showing a knack for goals thus far. In other words, exactly what this team needed.
These so-called fringe players are proving highly influential because of an obvious desire to grasp an opportunity and hold onto their place, epitomised by the endeavour of midfielders Tom Cleverley and Aaron Lennon.
The pair endured stop-start campaigns until recently; Cleverley had a promising start to life on Merseyside disrupted by injury while Lennon sat patiently as Gerard Deulofeu turned various left-backs inside out. These two are making up for lost time. Both graft and scrap for everything and are perfect examples of the balance required in an attacking midfield setup. Despite playing in positions where defending can easily be ignored, the two never shy from the task. All this without damaging their attacking output; Lennon has scored a career-first three games in succession while Cleverley assisted two of the three goals scored in the 3-0 win at Stoke.
Martinez has shown signs of adapting his idealistic methods (for the better) in recent matches, displaying much-needed flexibility and a willingness to tackle the issues hindering this team's potential. Retaining faith in players who have earned their place would be another step forward, further indication of a manager willing to change in search of consistency.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.