After almost a decade in Everton’s midfield, Leon Osman may finally be about to make the transition from first-team regular to perennial bench-warmer.
A serious injury to Darron Gibson last week has left Roberto Martinez short of options in central midfield but that doesn’t mask the Spaniard’s first-team plans.
Gareth Barry joined on loan from Manchester City in the summer on the promise of regular football, while the £13 million price-tag of fellow new boy James McCarthy – and his youthful exuberance – make him a natural partner for the defensively-minded veteran.
Osman has started every league game this season, with the first three fixtures coming before Barry and McCarthy put pen to paper on transfer deadline day. Since then he has maintained a spot in the team for a number of reasons – good form, to give the new players time to adjust, Barry’s loan conditions and because of an injury to Steven Pienaar.
Now the South African is back fit and firing – as he demonstrated with the winning goal against Hull on Saturday – leaving Osman, who filled in for him on the left of midfield against Newcastle and Steve Bruce’s side, Osman is set for a rare spell out of the team.
Martinez’s blueprint for success is based on possession – keeping hold of the ball, passing through teams and having patience. Lumping it forward to big Belgian Romelu Lukaku isn’t on the banned list but neither is it plan A.
From a passing perspective, Osman fits into Everton’s new style. He has completed 87% of his passes this season, the second-highest total of the club’s regular first-team players and a marginally better return than both Barry (86%) and McCarthy (85%).
But with Marouane Fellaini having followed David Moyes to Manchester United, the Blues needed someone to fill his boots and act as a defensive screen in front of the back-four – a role Barry had excelled in at City until new manager Manuel Pellegrini decided he was surplus to requirements.
The former Aston Villa man has won all nine of his tackles so far this season, giving much-needed protection to centre-back duo Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin. Osman has managed a respectable 65% success rate in his 20 tackles but is not a defensively-minded player, having often played out wide or behind a single striker during his time in blue.
The former England regular also manages an extra defensive action per game than Osman, averaging five interceptions, clearances or blocks every time he takes to the pitch.
Barry trumps Osman when it comes to getting on the ball and dictating play too – both key aspects of Martinez’s style. He has completed 227 passes in his four appearances, while Osman has managed 319 in eight. Last time out against Hull, the former Liverpool target controlled the game with a total of 81 successful passes and 88% accuracy – the best figures of any player to have graced Goodison Park on Saturday afternoon.
With Barry having already made the holding role his own, Osman is essentially battling with McCarthy to become his midfield partner. Ross Barkley, Kevin Mirallas and Pienaar make up the rest of the ex-Wigan boss’ preferred starting XI.
Unfortunately for the once-capped England midfielder, McCarthy brings an energy and drive to the side which, at 32-years-old, he simply cannot match. The Irishman’s game is based on getting from box-to-box, throwing in tackles in his own half and bursting forward to create chances for his team-mates.
Not only has he won an impressive 83% of his 18 tackles so far, McCarthy has also created six chances in his five appearances (three starts). Osman has made just one scoring opportunity in his eight games, although it was an assist for Mirallas’ opener against Hull.
Osman is a player who has polarised opinion over the years. A sizeable chunk of Evertonians believe his days as an automatic pick should’ve come to an end some time ago, while others see him as a key component in the progress made during Moyes’ tenure at the club.
But now, with a brave young manager at the helm and the natural blend of youth and experience, attack and defence with Barry and McCarthy, there’s simply no room on the teamsheet for a player who continues to look increasingly past his best.
There’s still a role at Everton for Osman, but from now on it’ll be on the substitutes’ bench and not in the heart of midfield.