John Stones (21) to Ross Barkley (21), Barkley to Romelu Lukaku (22), Lukaku to James McCarthy (25), McCarthy to Gerard Deulofeu (21), Deulofeu shoots, Barkley taps home the rebound. In the words of the commentator: “That is a wonderful Everton goal. They’ve cut through Aston Villa.”
If ever a goal encapsulated the youthful exuberance and immense potential of a football club, it was Everton’s opener in the 4-0 victory over Villa. When 25-year-old James McCarthy is the senior citizen in a flowing five-man move, there is most certainly cause for optimism.
Everton looked effortless in beating Villa 4-0 yet, by Saturday evening, it wasn’t the most resounding result in the Premier League; it wasn’t even the most resonant in Liverpool. Despite still ranking higher in the table, Everton’s neighbours have a habit of stealing the limelight, be that through excellence or ineptitude.
With Tottenham long since ceding their ‘under the radar’ crown, Everton have wilfully accepted that mantle. In the midst of a Premier League season where Leicester are top after 13 games, Jamie Vardy has just scored in a 10th consecutive match to equal a record set by Ruud van Nistelrooy, Spurs are fielding a team of toddlers in their quest for Champions League football and reigning champions Chelsea are staving off relegation, Everton occupying seventh is a firmly un-sexy development.
After all, Everton have finished no higher than fourth and no lower than 11th in every season for the past decade. They are the darlings of the also-rans, the perennial leaders of the chasing pack. Could this season herald a change?
Perhaps. Only Leicester – the one team above them in the table they have yet to face this season – and Manchester City have scored more Premier League goals so far this season, while only the Foxes, Manchester United and Tottenham have tasted defeat on fewer occasions. There is a chance of silverware with Middlesbrough waiting in the quarter-finals of the Capital One Cup, and just eight points separate them from the top of the table.
Then again, perhaps not. Only two sides in the Premier League’s top half have conceded more goals, while they have won more games than only eight teams. They have yet to beat any of the six sides above them in the table, losing by an aggregate scoreline of 7-1 in games against Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United. Eight points may separate them from the top, but the same gap divides them and Norwich in 16th.
Everton are once again perfecting their tried and tested ‘there or thereabouts’ routine, but they are nurturing a nucleus capable of considerably more. In Brendan Galloway, Stones, McCarthy, Barkley, Deulofeu and Lukaku, they have a spine more auspicious than any other side in the Premier League, including Spurs’ much-heralded core. Coupled with the experience of Phil Jagielka and Gareth Barry, it makes for a combination that is potent and promising in equal measure.
Daniel Storey recently praised Everton’s ‘fountain of youth‘, but it truly is an exciting time to be a Toffee. Of the 24 outfield players under the age of 22 to have started at least ten PL games this season, Everton boast five. No other club can lay claim to more than three. Six sides have none, and nine have just one. In Stones and Lukaku they have two young players who could already command fees upwards of £40million, while Barkley will be courting the attention of every elite club in the country. Barcelona will be watching the ever-impressive Deulofeu with an increasingly keen eye, too. Does any English club possess a more promising quartet already in their first team? For that matter, does any club in Europe?
A word on Barkley, who I have been perceived to have criticised recently. The England international recorded his best ever return for a single match with two goals and an assist against Villa and looked his dynamic best. Barkley’s talent has never been questioned, merely whether he warrants a) the praise and comparisons with Rooney/Gascoigne, or b) the ‘free’ role granted to him at club level. More performances of that ilk, and the second question will disappear.
To the manager. Roberto Martinez is the fourth-youngest boss in the league, as well as the fifth longest-serving. The Spaniard inherited a side that had finished 6th, 7th, 7th, 8th, 5th, 5th and 6th in their previous seven campaigns under David Moyes, but it was a squad with problems. In Moyes’ last game, a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea in May 2013, their starting XI had an average age of 28 years and six months, with Seamus Coleman the youngster at 25. Against Villa on Saturday in a 4-0 win, the starting XI had an average age of 25 years and six months. In just two-and-a-half years, Martinez has transformed an ageing but trustworthy side into an exciting team bristling with precocious talent.
For an example of the progression under Martinez, look no further than Leighton Baines. The left-back saw his start to the season curtailed by injury, but the continued progress of Galloway, 11 years his junior, mean that Martinez could use Baines in midfield instead. Moyes could have boasted a teenage David Alaba within his ranks, but would have found space for Baines in his favoured position nonetheless. For Martinez, good performances are rewarded with faith, regardless of age.
Five players (Barry, McCarthy, Howard, Barkley and Lukaku) have played more than 1100 minutes so far this season; no club can boast a more settled squad. The flip side to such an established core group of players is that an injury to any could prove detrimental. If Lukaku is sidelined, Arouna Kone could replace him, but the Ivorian then leaves a gap himself as a left-sided forward. Lose Barry or McCarthy and is Darron Gibson an able deputy?
Everton’s first team has immense talent, but the squad is still not without deficiencies. Martinez is playing his own personal game of Jenga with Everton’s squad but, more than a third of the way through the season, he is winning the precarious game. And with January on the horizon, so comes the opportunity to strengthen; fans are hoping for a Landon Donovan, rather than Aiden McGeady.
Everton’s next six Premier League fixtures before January are away at Bournemouth, Norwich and Newcastle, with Crystal Palace, Leicester and Stoke visiting Goodison Park in between. At least four of those games look eminently winnable – Leicester are the only side above them. Separated from the Champions League spots by just six points, the Toffees are primed to launch yet another assault on the top four places.
The Premier League’s Young Player of the Year award could well have an Everton theme this season. If the club can fight off potential suitors as they did with Chelsea and Stones this summer, just imagine what this group will be capable of in two years.