Coping without Gareth Barry the key for Everton if they're to beat Arsenal
If not for the meteoric rise of Leicester, Everton would perhaps be the story of the season simply for their ability to swing so readily from the brilliant to the bewildering. Roberto Martinez's men are living proof that merely scoring goals is not enough. Everton begin Saturday's early kick-off against Arsenal having outscored their opponents (51 to 46) despite playing a game less yet it is Arsene Wenger's side who sit third, nine places and 14 points better off.
In short, Everton remain a mystery. This is their third home game in succession, with a league defeat to West Ham and an FA Cup success over Chelsea showing both sides of this infuriatingly unpredictable team. The worst home defence in the league has somehow reached an FA Cup semifinal without conceding a single goal.
Games are entertaining if only to predict which Everton will turn up. Consistency has proven elusive throughout Martinez's second and third seasons, particularly at home. Only in recent weeks, with the team winning six of the last eight games in all competitions home and away, have results come close to expected levels. This upturn follows defeat to Manchester City in the League Cup semifinal.
Ultimately, Goodison remains the place where consistency is required most. While there were numerous positives in beating Chelsea (namely the team's approach without the ball), the preceding home league games saw defeats to West Brom and West Ham. Home form in the league makes for grim reading: seven defeats in 15 matches (including three losses in the last four), one win in the last eight and the only clean sheets against the bottom two, Newcastle and Aston Villa. Home results and a capacity to self-destruct in the closing stages of matches are issues clouding the potential within this squad.
With injury and loss of form (or both) impacting plenty of players throughout the season, Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley and Gareth Barry are the only players to feature in every league game; the first two have started every game while Barry's appeared in all bar one from the start. Yet Barry will lose his ever-present status on Saturday, beginning a two-match suspension following the late red card he picked up against Chelsea.
Replacing Barry should be relatively straightforward in terms of personnel, with the fit-again Muhamed Besic the obvious choice, but replicating his influence on the pitch appears a much tougher task. So much of Everton's play revolves around the former Manchester City player and statistics this season highlight his renewed importance. Usually alongside James McCarthy, Barry is the player who does the unseen work that creates an attacking platform for the likes of Lukaku and Barkley.
After an excellent debut season turned into a patchy and often-criticised second, this third season in royal blue has seen Barry back to his best. Collecting Everton's player of the season award would be a mere formality for Barry were it not for Lukaku's goalscoring form.
Not noted for his running ability (his lack of pace is the obvious talking point when Everton aren't in possession), Barry has surprised even his manager. Only Bournemouth's Andrew Surman has covered more distance in the Premier League this season, no mean feat for a 35-year-old with over 700 career appearances behind him.
Combating those ageing limbs is an impeccable reading of the game that ensures his lack of running power is rarely exposed, while his tackling and interceptions underline this ability to both read and react to danger. Barry has won 76 tackles this season, comfortably ahead of fellow central midfielder and next best teammate McCarthy (55). Young defender Brendan Galloway is the only other Everton player to win 50 or more tackles, no teammate has made more blocks than Barry has and only centre-back Ramiro Funes Mori (57) has registered more interceptions (46).
While his international career is long over, Barry's 76 successful tackles compares favourably to his compatriots. Leicester's Danny Drinkwater, who this week received an international call-up, is the only English player to complete more tackles this season (80).
Perhaps the most impressive aspect, and the one hardest to substitute, are Barry's passing numbers. Attempting 1,755 passes at an average of 63 per game, Barry is the third most frequent passer in the division behind only Surman and Chelsea's Cesc Fabregas. The midfield veteran is the only Everton player to attempt more than 1,500 passes this season, with Ross Barkley (1,441) and John Stones (1,122) his nearest competition. Barry is the starting point for countless attacks, always seeking possession. His underrated passing range is especially adept at setting Lukaku free in the opposing half.
How the hosts cope without Barry may go a long way to three points and improving on sustained poor form in this fixture, with Everton winning just one of the last 18 in all competitions, home and away, against Arsenal.