Everton are my favourite team in the Premier League right now.
They may not be top of the table, or even in the top half. They may concede far too many goals. They may, as so many fans and pundits point out, be a soft touch. But no other side is as capable of beating the opposition as they are in my opinion.
When Everton appointed Roberto Martinez as David Moyes' successor, they signed up to invest in an attractive, attacking and progressive style of football. You could call it risky - compared to the solid, pragmatic approach that Moyes adopted.
The way Martinez sets up and instructs his players is designed to bring out their ability on the ball first and foremost. To go ask at least 3 of your defenders to be creative outlets more so than destructive or defensive ones sets the tone and indicates just how postive he wants Everton players to be.
Playing out from the back means being controlled but ambitious with what you do in possession in your defensive third. Not "get rid", not direct and not aimless long balls into the opponents' half. It requires defensive players to use the full width of the pitch, to be patient in possession and to take a few more risks in order to advance further forward whilst retaining control of the ball. It means being brave in possession of the ball. Martinez demands than John Stones, when the time and opportunity is right, drives forward with the ball at his feet, effectively becoming a central midfielder for a short time.
It's much easier to drill a team to defend first and only try to play when they have the ball further up the pitch. To ask the full backs to play narrow and ensure the distances between all defensive and midfield players are small so that you create a low block and deny the opposition space - the more pragmatic managers do it well. But when they win the ball, they have less options to attack with, less of the pitch is available for them to use and the chances of losing possession are much higher as a result. It's a percentages game, and not a particularly ambitious one.
Martinez prefers to utilise the attacking strengths of his players, so the likes of Seamus Coleman, Brendon Galloway and Leighton Baines are asked to play in more advanced positions and pose questions of the opposition down the flanks. This is harder to coach but for me it separates the best players from their peers to a large extent. Hard working and disciplined combative players are ten a penny. Players with attacking flair that create chances in the Premier League despite defensive organisation beuing such a hallmark of the modern game are worth their weight in gold. Obviously if they can do both you have the golden ticket.
You could argue that by not focussing primarily on defending, Everton can play great football for 89 mins but the minute they switch off due and concede is down to a lack of focus defensively. I certainly think there is some validity in that, and there are many examples that would support that view. Leighton Baines in particular does not stop crosses enough for me and John Stones is prone to taking the odd risk too many in possession or in trying to get on the ball finding himself out of position and unable to recover when the opposition win the ball back.
The modern trend of defending from the front and pressing means that defensive "combat" in and around your own box does not happen as often as it did in years gone by. The skills required to get first contact or if not, block the path to goal whether that's on the deck or aerially are not required as often if you win the all back in the opponents' half and that is one of the reason's why these basic defensive attributes do not get fine tuned as quickly these days. The emphasis on pressing as a team is also coached more than individual and unit based defensive work in and around yoiur own box - which concerns me to be honest!
But I guess my point is crystallised when you look at Stones. He is still developing, and by no means the finished article. But he will be England captain and the best defender in the world in the next 18 months. And part of the reason for that is that Martinez is developing the attributes that are truly world class, or perhaps it's more accurate to say he's allowing those attributes to develop naturally rather than stifling them. Composure, temperament, resilience, athleticism and technical excellence on the all - he's truly a one in a million kind of player for me. As an old clogger of a centre half, it's unusual for me to go so far in my praise of a centre half who is still learning ut that's how good I think he is.
He needs to be a better defender in and around his penalty area, to get first contact when the ball comes into the box and to position himself to block more shots, crosses and runs. But that will develop and soon - it is an inevitability. The lad is 21 and he's already been a Premier League player for 3 years. Between Stones' own approach to learning and Martinez' analysis of his team's strengths and weaknesses, this will be addressed. I'm sure Martinez is aware of the improvements individuals and the team unit need to make to ensure they are a more effective defensive unit. I'm sure he is addressing them.
But he will not allow that challenge to affect the way he wants the team to play, the confidence he instils in his players and the faith he has in them.
With the outstanding attacking options at his disposal like Barkley and Delofeu, a goalscorer in Lukaku who is proving himself now to be one of the very best in the Premier League and a defensive unit who set up attacking opportunities better than any other in the league, the Martinez brand of football is proving to be very exciting to watch. In Gareth Barry (who in my view is a player they need to replace soon) and James McCarthy, Martinez has players in midfield who add balance and control to complement the attacking qualities of the team.
A little fine tuning, maybe an upgrade on Tim Howard and maybe some old fashioned drilling of the defensive players to cement their understanding of defending in and around the box, and Martinez has a team that for me beats any side in the country.
Some Everton fans want the pragmatism, the clean sheets and the defensive efficiency they saw in the Moyes era. I understand that, and at times with my own sides, it's the path I've gone down because I think it suited the players best. Football fans want both ideally - but that just ain't gonna happen. Martinez is fine tuning now and having to address the marginal gains achieved by efficient and effective defending. It's a lot easier to do that than add flair, attacking intent, team understanding and patterns that allow you to attack and penetrate against some of the best defensive units anywhere in club football.
To underline why I think so much of Martinez's Everton side, I'll leave you with one question - would a player like John Stones realise his full potential under Van Gaal at Man Utd? The Dutchman has proved himself to be a great coach over the years, but I think Martinez is a special kind of coach who players like Stones, Barkley and Galloway will develop into outstanding players under.
As an England fan I know who I'd rather our talented youngsters were learning their trade under.