As was the case at Goodison Park last season, Everton exploited Arsenal's left side in Saturday's meeting between the two teams. Nacho Monreal came in at left-back for the injured Kieran Gibbs, while Mesut Özil was drafted in on the left of the four-man midfield to support Alexis Sánchez. The German was making his first Premier League appearance since the 2014 World Cup and was understandably rusty.
It was no excuse, however, for how exposed he left Monreal, with Özil offering little defensive cover for his teammate. Unsurprisingly, Everton capitalised. Özil failed to pick up Seamus Coleman for the Toffees' first, while the second came as a result of some excellent work by Romelu Lukaku on Everton's right-flank.
The Belgian was a thorn in Arsenal's side prior to his 76th minute withdrawal as the visitors struggled to contain him. While the 21-year-old did not pose as big a goalscoring threat on the right-wing as he does when he spearheads the attack, this opened up space in central areas for the industrious Steven Naismith to exploit. Outside of Goodison Park, the Scotland international isn't quite the household name that Lukaku is.
Nevertheless, after the opening two games of the season, Naismith is Everton's highest rated player (7.50) having scored in each of their opening league games against Leicester and Arsenal. The Toffees have been lethal in front of goal, scoring 4 goals from just 5 shots on target, while Naismith has netted twice from 2 shots on target. At this early stage of the season, the 27-year-old has once more proven just how dependable a performer he is.
In Roberto Martínez's high pressing system, the Spaniard requires his attackers to defend from the front and Naismith adheres to his manager's demands. Last campaign, the Scot averaged 1.8 tackles every 90 minutes he completed, a relatively high return for a player in his position. Naismith has maintained this impressive defensive form, averaging 1.5 tackles per game in the Premier League this season, helping him develop a WhoScored strength of 'defensive contribution'. This hardworking mentality is clearly ingrained in him and it's obvious he does not shirk from his defensive responsbilities.
Kevin Mirallas, Aidan McGeady and Steven Pienaar may be technically superior attackers, but Naismith has outperformed the trio so far. It's difficult to believe that 12 months ago, the Scot was not a regular feature in Martínez's starting XI, little more than a bit-part player at the beginning of the 2013/14 campaign, though he still had an impact. The Scotland international bagged the winner in the Merseysiders' 1-0 win over Chelsea just under a year ago, and his display against the Blues was his highest rated performance (9.03) in the Premier League last term.
The goal epitomised the player Naismith has become at Everton. The former Rangers star was able to break free from his marker and his insistance on not giving up presented him with the chance to head past Petr Cech. This approach saw Naismith score a number of vital goals for Everton last season. Not only did he net against Chelsea, he also opened the scoring in the 3-0 win over Arsenal, fired Everton in front in their 3-1 win over Swansea and drew them level in the 2-1 win over Aston Villa.
His performance in Everton's 3-1 win over Fulham was lauded as one of the best substitute appearances in the league last season. Martínez's side were struggling to break down a staunch Cottagers backline at Craven Cottage before Naismith was introduced at the interval for the injured Ross Barkley. In the second half, there was a noticable tenacity in Everton's attack and it was little wonder they netted three after the break, with Naismith getting on the scoresheet late on, in the process earning a WhoScored rating of 7.92.
Again, his 87th minute goal all but personified the player he is. Leighton Baines picked up the ball following some good work by Mirallas on the left, before the left-back found an unmarked Naismith to tap home from 6-yards out. That he had ghosted into the box highlighted how clever a player he is and the knack he possesses in finding pockets of space in dangerous areas.
With Lukaku and recent acquisition Samuel Eto'o happy to pull to the wings and drags defenders out of position, space will be freed up in the final third, and Naismith can capitalise on the confusion in the backline, demonstrated by his goal against Arsenal at the weekend. His strike against Leicester on the opening day of the season, a left-footed drive that left Kasper Schmeichel grasping at thin air after Pienaar's wild swing at goal, exhibited the opportunistic side of his game.
This trait has seen him force his way into Martínez's first-team plans and has won him the admirers he deserves. The Everton boss has an abundance of midfield talent at his disposal, but Naismith's graft means he is - at present - one of the first names on the team sheet. His attacking instinct has aided his cause to secure a regular starting berth and he will have a big part to play if Everton are to enjoy further success under Martínez.
Do you consider Steven Naismith to be Everton's unsung hero? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com where you can find yet more stats and player ratings.Suggest a correction