The art of possession: How Roberto Martinez took Everton to the next level

A win against Arsenal will lift the Toffees to within a pint of the Champions League places with a game in hand

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The Independent Football

If one goal summed up Arsenal's transformation under Arsène Wenger, it came on a Sunday afternoon against Everton. It was in May 1998, the day that Wenger secured his first Premier League title with a 4-0 victory capped by Tony Adams breaking on to a through-ball from fellow centre-back Steve Bould and finishing like a centre- forward. George Graham's defenders, it turned out, could actually play a bit too.

Today, as Everton and Arsenal meet at Goodison Park, there is a fresh story unfolding of an erudite foreign manager building on a Scotsman's legacy at one of English football's grand old football clubs: for Wenger and Arsenal then, read Roberto Martinez and Everton now.

It is a tempting parallel to draw, and while nobody is expecting Martinez to win the Double inside 18 months, the fact he has got fifth-placed Everton challenging for a Champions' League place underlines the smooth, swift transition made since he replaced David Moyes. Should Everton win today they would climb within a point of Arsenal in fourth with a game in hand.

As midfielder Leon Osman said last week: "People probably thought there would be a transitional period when the new manager came in, and that probably led to a bit of a slow start in our first three games, but once we got to know the manager a bit better – probably faster than anyone expected – we have done really well."

The easy assumption is that Martinez has added a new attacking dimension to Everton's play, yet former Everton manager Joe Royle says the change began further back. "It's a possession game they play and the difference is primarily at the back – it is the same players but a different attitude to the build-up. They take the ball at the back more readily. As soon as the goalkeeper gets the ball, the centre-halves split and they want it. With [Phil] Jagielka particularly, his first option [used to be to] control it and launch it diagonal."

Those Evertonians who worried that their team would start defending like Martinez's previous club, Wigan, should note that after 31 games they have conceded six goals fewer than under Moyes 12 months ago. According to Royle, Martinez "is playing the same football he played at Wigan, only with better players", which means taking more risks than Moyes did. "He actually started off a game recently with three players who all run with the ball; that means you've got three players all taking a chance of losing it as well."

That Martinez's gambles tend to pay off is illustrated by his substitutions. There have been times in recent years when Wenger's substitutions have been booed by the Arsenal fans, but Everton substitutes have scored nine goals this season – last season's total was three – and won the team an extra 15 points.

This was summed up last Sunday at Fulham when Steven Naismith and Kevin Mirallas both stepped off the bench to score. Kevin Kilbane, the former Everton winger, cites Naismith's subsequent explanation of his impact in that game. "Roberto Martinez actually said to him, 'Have a look, you might be able to see spaces that you can exploit because you could have an impact at some stage during the game'. From my experience, managers are only concentrating on the 11 on the pitch, but he is actually in dialogue with his substitutes."

Kilbane was in the Everton team which nine years ago finished fourth with 61 points – a total Martinez's men would surpass with victory today. Osman, a survivor of 2004-05, believes today's Everton are stronger. "No disrespect to the team back then but we were a team out of possession. We'd basically let them have the ball, defend, and score on the counterattack."

For all the subsequent evolution under Moyes, Osman adds that Everton have improved further under Martinez: "We have taken that next step. You look at the teams at the top end and they are about getting results and also getting possession in games.

"Maybe last season in half the games we would have possession and in the other half we wouldn't. This season we are a possession team whether we win or lose. We live and die by that."

And they are a team who believe. "Our manager has a lot of self-belief that you can't help but buy into," Osman continued. "It's just whether we can go out and do it on the pitch in the final few games."

Everton v Arsenal is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm