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Everton put in their most complete away performance under Roberto Martinez to return from a potentially troublesome trip to Southampton with three points and a quite surreal level of optimism given early season grumblings.
The 3-0 win came courtesy of a Romelu Lukaku first-half, counter-attacking brace, before Ross Barkley capped an excellent display with a curved finish after the break. Both had arguably their best games for the Toffees.
A week after salvaging a point with a shift to 4-4-2, Martinez learned his lesson, and added a significant tweak.
Everton lined up in a 4-4-2 diamond with James McCarthy and Tom Cleverley between Gareth Barry just in front of the back four, and Barkley at number 10. It worked perfectly, though with the considerable asterisk of Southampton being totally undermined by Morgan Schneiderlin’s departure.
McCarthy and Cleverley compacted off the ball and charged forward with stirring haste when Everton countered.
With Arouna Koné pulling right, Lukaku occasionally drifting left, and Steven Davis, fine midfielder though he is, simply unable to cope defensively, Barkley was afforded a staggering amount of space. He started well and improved throughout.
Two up-field surges eventually finished smartly by Lukaku validated the selection completely. The first, 12 seconds after a Southampton corner, arrived after Barkley gathered the ball on the edge of his box and released Koné down the right.
A vital run from Tom Cleverley, which on first viewing looked good enough for at least a bronze medal in the Olympic 100 metres, gave Koné the acres he needed to move into a crossing position, and drew José Fonte away from Lukaku who headed superbly following the Ivorian’s almost pinpoint centre.
The second was exactly the sort of goal Evertonians want to see. Lukaku robbed Maya Yoshida on half-way, found Barkley in space that shouldn’t exist in a Ronald Koeman midfield, and charged forward with Cleverley-rivalling determination.
Barkley’s neat flicked pass meant Lukaku had to break stride only slightly before slotting a firm, left-foot finish beyond Maarten Stekelenburg.
The Belgian was outstanding in the first-half and his clinical finishes and powerful runs freed Everton from the tense, miserable atmosphere that all 2015 league matches have been played in. After the break however, Barkley took centre stage.
Any manager in their right mind would build around Barkley and Martinez now appears to have found the formation to do that. Two men in front and three men behind, with wing-backs stretching the play, gives him options going forward, and protection from deep.
Similarly, Cleverley and McCarthy’s drug test-provoking energy levels made Barry’s job a lot easier. Under far less pressure in possession, he invariably found whichever central midfield teammate was available and took stock of the situation.
Space is Barkley’s enabler, which is why he performs better away from home. His burgeoning confidence was clear in one particular second-half incident when, undeterred by crowding Southampton midfielders, he turned, held the ball, waited for a run and calmly released McCarthy.
Even last week against Watford, he failed to lift his head or make his mind up quick enough – a world apart from his St Mary’s display, in particular his win-sealing strike to cap another lovely Everton move.
Seamus Coleman, quietly effective like increasingly impressive Brendan Galloway, exchanged passes on the right before a one-two with Lukaku found Barkley free inside Saints’ box. He cut inside smartly before curving wonderfully beyond Stekelenburg.
Kone and Cleverley: Godsends
Koné and Cleverley’s addition has, in the one and a half game sample we so far have, been a godsend for Barkley and Lukaku. Koné’s ability to occupy defenders who’d otherwise be smothering Lukaku, combined with Cleverley’s propensity to run beyond the frontman has created a lot more space for Everton’s key attackers, allowing their physical strengths to override mental weaknesses.
Cleverley has created the most chances for the Toffees so far this season (four); Koné has the most assists (two).
After flogging a dead 4-2-3-1 for most of last season, Martinez’s shift to a 4-4-2 diamond provides Everton with the framework to make the most of their dynamic young attackers’ best qualities.
Written by Chris Smith
Follow Chris on Twitter @cdsmith789
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