Monthly Archives: April 2014

Everton’s Champions League bid fails to take off

Everton at St Mary's

Everton at St Mary’s

An hour or so before Everton kicked off at 12.45pm (I’m sure travelling fans appreciated that little ankle tap from BT Sports) Ronnie O’Sullivan was in trouble at The Crucible. 11-9 down, having thrown a frame away with a schoolboy lapse in concentration, he knew that it was time to show what he was made of. The Rocket got it to all square, then powered over the line with two century breaks to show that he is not merely an excellent player – he is a great player. Greatness is defined in meeting challenges, not in mere execution of skills, and few possess it

In the windy, sunlit crucible of St Mary’s, Everton’s players – excellent though they may be – did not live up to the test of greatness (as, gallingly, our brothers from across the Park appear to have done). Right from the off, the Blues had, if not quite a lethargy about them, a definite lack of zip, perhaps lacking David Moyes’ inspiration of last week. Sure this XI were shorn of some first choices, but the team selected were good enough to get in and around a decent Saints outfit, good enough to impose themselves in the middle of the pitch, good enough to compete. They didn’t.

In defence, two own goals will provide comic amusement for the bantz, but they can happen to any team at any time. What was more worrying was the ease with which Southampton – without Jay Rodriguez – got at Everton’s last line of defence. You felt that Rickie Lambert (who must have enjoyed this 90 minutes as much as any in his career) and Adam Lallana could have gone up a gear for another goal had they needed to do so. Antolin Alcaraz and Seamus Coleman may have their names on the scoresheet, but it was a collective failure. Gareth Barry looked washed up at the end of a long season, lucky to stay on the field partly as a result of Michael Oliver’s eccentric refereeing and partly as a result of Roberto Martinez’s forbearance with the substitutes’ board. James McCarthy played his most ineffective game in a Blues shirt, rendering the season long (ex Anfield) DM screen invisible for much of the match. In a portent of life in 2015 and beyond,  the team missed Sylvain Distin’s calm influence at the back.

Going forward, things were hardly much better. “It doesn’t matter who Deulofeu plays against, he’ll have the beating of him” – I said to my son this morning. Well, he did not have the beating of Nathaniel Clyne, who enjoyed the sight of the mercurial one switching wings to try his luck against £30M man, Luke Shaw. Romelu Lukaku came up a poor second in comparison to The Litherland Lionel – Mr Lambert – whose velcro touch and judgment of a pass are well beyond the Belgian’s compass, for all his promise and power. Ross Barkley, on parade in front of Roy Hodgson, must have been bitterly disappointed to have been hooked at half-time, but, when he looks at the tape, he can’t argue.

So The Rocket revived at Sheffield, but Everton’s season has been brought down to earth at Southampton. The rarified atmosphere of the Champions League looks as distant as the moon right now. instead, an orbit around obscure Eastern European outposts in the Europa League seems more likely come next season.

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McCarthyism hunts out Everton’s enemies, as Moyes’ United crumbles

Probably half a beat behind Naismith - as usual.

Probably half a beat behind Naismith – as usual.

A football club, never mind a football team, can be a fragile ecosystem, a series of checks and balances that work in obvious – and less obvious – ways. Amongst a range of curious selections for the midweek game against an in-form Crystal Palace, demoting James McCarthy to the bench – injury twinge or not – was the strangest and the most damaging. Without his boundless energy, instinctive sniffing out of danger and, let’s be honest here, clever fouling to stop the play, Everton’s midfield looked short of nous and vulnerable to Crystal Palace’s power, with Bolasie and Puncheon simply too hot to handle.

Things were different for the match that most Evertonians will have looked for second – and only just second – at the start of the season (a season that got underway with James McCarthy playing against Manchester United at Wembley). As must be the case for his manager, his Wigan days must feel very distant now, as McCarthy feels as much a part of the Everton furniture as Martinez. Though Syvain Distin would be a popular choice and Seamus Coleman has a strong claim, James McCarthy should pick up Everton’s Player of the Year Award next month – not bad for a player whose £13M price tag raised a few eyebrows.

If McCarthy is exactly the kind of player who opposing fans find difficult to appreciate – journalists who watch the Blues only a handful of times a season too – fans who see every game know exactly what he brings to the party. As usual, against Manchester United’s inexplicably ponderous midfield probings, he was everywhere: covering; blocking; tackling, never giving up a cause, never failing to track the runners. To Evertonians who lauded Joe Royle’s Dogs of War, he has something of Joe Parkinson’s best days about him – indeed, he shows every sign of becoming the player Joe would have become had injury not cruelly destroyed his career almost before it started. It’s a role Michael Carrick has played for Manchester United for years but he looked, like his colleagues, old and slightly fed up with the whole thing – the England man was no match for his opposite number.

Unusually, the Scotsman who turns out for the Republic of Ireland, was a bit tetchy, picking up a rare yellow card, perhaps even more motivated than usual after an hour on the bench in the midweek defeat. But he never lost his discipline, either in terms of temperament or positional play and, in a developing aspect of his game, got forward to make a few offensive passes too. He made Everton tick.

He’s still just 23 years of age, but has well over 250 first team games under his belt, the majority under the guidance of Roberto Martinez. He learns quickly, adapts to match situations well and allows his more mercurial team-mates the luxury of giving the ball away (Ross Barkley) or striding into space (John Stones). He appears to have none of the “Hey – look at me!” ego of so many Premier League players, if anything, his cameo in Everton’s Christmas video revealed a touching shyness. I doubt that his car of choice is a yellow Bentley.

He won’t be overly concerned about failing to make the shortlist for PFA Young Player of the Year (for which he was surprisingly eligible) but few Evertonians would swap him for another Defensive Midfielder playing in England – nor, if truth be told, in Europe. He really is that good at what he does.

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The Magnificent Seven halted, then ride towards the Europa League

Everton - plenty to have a shot, but where's the defence?

Everton – plenty to have a shot, but where’s the defence?

Nature is pleased by balance. Sometimes we don’t even know it’s there – think of a snowflake revealed under a microscope – and sometimes it’s bleedin’ obvious – think Ross Barkley or John Stones striding through a midfield, able to go off either foot. But balance in football is about more than the physical qualities of the players – it’s also about the make-up of the side.

Even with the Manchester City game looming – for which Gareth Barry is ineligible – it was a surprise to see Roberto Martinez leave James McCarthy on the bench to try Ross Barkley as the veteran’s partner in the DM screening role. It was even more surprising to see Gerard Deulofeu, Kevin Mirallas and Aiden McGeady together in the starting XI. Everton looked unbalanced between natural attackers and natural defenders on paper and, come the match itself, on the lush Goodison turf too.

Barry looked a little fatigued – mentally as much as physically – and he missed his hard-running Irish scrapper alongside him. Barkley had time on the ball, but his deeper starting position made his hip-swivelling dribbles less dangerous and exposed the weakest element of his game – picking a pass. When McCarthy did get a go as a substitute on the hour, he looked hungry for action and immediately bolstered Everton’s short-handed defensive effort.

But the real problems were up front. You can understand the reasoning – Everton were always going to have plenty of possession against a Tony Pulis team, so why not max out the number of players most likely to break down the wall of yellow shirts? Somehow – as Carlos Tevez, currently out of favour for Argentina (who have options up the field), is finding out – it doesn’t quite work that way. Chase the game, send the big fella up front for the last five minutes, go 4-2-4 – however it comes about, it seldom pays off to have men trying to jink past defenders right, left and centre. For all the flair players scattered across the pitch, Everton had just one more shot on target than their opponents, despite cornering 70% of the possession.

Yes, yes, but had you offered Roberto Martinez two goals at the start of the match, he would have taken them, backing his hitherto outstanding back four and keeper to keep Palace to two goals or fewer and thus seize back fourth place. To their manager’s credit, when they did get the ball, Palace were direct in attack and finished with no little skill “doing a job” on Everton in – dare I say – Moyesian style. Everton – for once abandoning the balance that has served them so well for the season’s 33 previous games – have their work cut out now the sequence of seven straight wins has been halted and momentum dissipated. Fourth is still on, but Martinez needs snookers from here.

Everton – up the pitch to get lucky

The magician asks his manager to play his cards right

The magician asks his manager to play his cards right

I’m unconvinced that luck evens itself out over a season, but karma turned up at the Stadium of Light, as Everton were as fortunate to get a 0-1 win on Wearside as their opponents had been in securing their 0-1 on Merseyside on Boxing Day. Fourth, with five matches to play and a record Premier League points tally in the bag, is more than any Blue could have hoped for in August, but there’s improvement required if the coveted Champions League spot is to be secured.

Defence

Under pressure from a lively, if blunt, Sunderland offence, Tim Howard made some routine saves, but the best of the match came from a retreating John Stones, who sensed the danger, engaged the turbochargers and blocked the hardworking Borini’s shot. Stones caught the eye less frequently than in recent weeks, but his positioning and instinct continue to develop almost minute-by-minute. He’ll have his work cut out against the two Manchester teams, but he’s probably the first choice partner for Sylvain Distin right now and on his way to an England cap in the Autumn.

Seamus Coleman appeared a little cramped for room with Gerard Deulofeu ahead of him, but was defensively sound – which he needs to be, as he gets little help from the Catalan conjurer. Leighton Baines’ curious season saw another curate’s egg of a performance – he is the only player whose form has dipped under Roberto Martinez. Perhaps Everton’s more offensive style means that there are fewer blue shirts behind the ball when the left back makes those familiar charges upfield, but he’s getting caught on the wrong side of his man too frequently these days. He’s also being targeted with high balls that exploit his lack of height. Baines will still go to the World Cup. but he’s a notch or two below his best.

Midfield

Though Gareth Barry chugs about disrupting play and keeping it simple in possession, the much younger James McCarthy has grown into the senior partner of Everton’s DM duo. Sunderland away is very much a McCarthy match – and he reveled in getting around the pitch to tackle and block, as well as to distribute thoughtfully. Week in, week out, he’s been Everton’s most consistent player this season, looking a steal at £13M – not something many Evertonians said on his signing. Man of the Match.

Ahead of the screen, Leon Osman – none the worse for his bash in the eye last Sunday – buzzed around, but looks half a yard short of pace and a touch lightweight to warrant a regular start in a team with Everton’s aspirations. Given over half an hour to make an impact, Ross Barkley was quiet but disciplined, outshone by the ever more lean, ever more productive Aiden McGeady, who looks a very handy man indeed when briefed to run at tiring defenders.

Attack

In another innovative move from the sideline, Roberto Martinez deployed a three man attack, with Steven Naismith just off Romelu Lukaku and Gerard Deulofeu wide on the right. Big Rom showed his power in what’s becoming trademark runs inside and shots on the half turn, but he was a little flat – though he never stopped working. The Scot had the better chances, showing that he can twist and turn as well as pass and harry, playing a full 90 minutes, linking play in the gaps between the lines.

The mini-Messi infuriated and delighted in equal measure. There are times (in fact, it’s most of the time) that Gerard Deulofeu acts like the kid who is the best footballer in the playground – he seems determined to beat everyone and score himself, eschewing options his teammates’ efforts in supporting his attack have created. And yet, he has the beating of just about every defender in a one-on-one whether over ten, twenty or, crucially, one yard. Not since Anders Limpar on a very good day, have I seen a Everton player create that space that makes the difference so consistently.

And, in keeping with the game- indeed the games vs Sunderland – that bit of luck decided the match, Wes Brown deflecting a cross past a wrong-footed Mannone. But the ball would never have arrived in the six yard box had Deulofeu not found that crucial patch of grass on which to play and had Everton not had men in the box away from home.

In those Manchester matches to come, Martinez will need solid performances from the 14 men we can expect to take the field – but he’ll need the magic that pulls the rabbit from the hat too. The man whose the feet possess the wonder of a wand will be the most likely candidate to break open a tight match – but does Martinez play him from the first minute, the sixty-first or the eighty-first? He hasn’t got many decisions wrong this season, but the manager’s biggest calls are yet to come.

The Toffees – as sweet as a box of choccies

The Everton squad pictured on Sunday morning

The Everton squad pictured on Sunday morning

Eyebrows would have been raised by the exclusion of Everton’s two young guns – Ross Barkley and Gerard Deulofeu – for the visit of the Gunners. Roberto Martinez preferred the prosaic Steven Naismith and the mercurial (well, mercurial and experienced) Kevin Mirallas, both of whom had played so well as second half substitutes last week at Craven Cottage. Around me, sages sucked on thoughtful tooths and said, “Got to keep it tight early on. No point going expansive and falling behind. Pragmatic choice – let’s not lose the game before we can win it”. Not for the first time, the Catalan in the brown shoes and the tight coat surprised us.

Even before Leon Osman was replaced by Ross Barkley, Everton were committed to an open, expansive game, identifying Arsenal’s continuing perverse absence of an effective holding midfield player as a weakness, and pouring forward. Ossie wasn’t far off with a Goal of the Month contender before, like King Harold, he took one in the eye that necessitated his leaving the field of battle. With so many players in form, the captain was not missed.

We’re told that football is a squad game these days – and it obviously is – but it’s also a selection game too. Kevin Mirallas had looked a little stale (only two weeks ago, I read a long time Blue suggesting that he was marking time before a post-World Cup move away from Goodison) but a couple of early substitutions and some starts on the bench appear to have focused his mind – the Belgian is back to his best. Steven Naismith, playing just off Big Rom in a position that clearly suits his penchant for linking play and arriving late in the box, was magnificent in the first half, an unlikely fans’ favourite. There’s something of a Paul Power (ask you Dad) about his maximising of output from a (comparatively) less expansive skillset in a squad not short glamorous options.

Roberto’s resource allocation decision brought one goal (Naismith) and two assists (Mirallas) – and three exceptionally important points, with another notch added to his tally of match changing decisions. The Toffees’  has as tempting a box of chocolates as any manager at Goodison since Howard Kendall’s class of ’87. It must be tempting to reach into that second layer to pull out the Strawberry (blond) Delight that is Gerard Deulofeu, but sometimes the Coconut Cream that is Steven Naismith is the better option. The Martinez magic is still working – every decision is just so sweet.

Martinez trusts his First XI and his bench. And it’s not 1986. 30 March 2014

Three across the middle

Three across the middle

Returning from Craven Cottage on a beautiful Spring day after a beautiful Everton win (well, beautifulish – none are ugly), only two blots could be spied on the horizon. South London gave every indication that its recession was in the past (and the Tories hence electable) and Liverpool were, if anything, even more unstoppable than the Blues. Had I been 40 kilos lighter, I could have made a case for it being 1986.

But it wasn’t just the number of red boots worn by Everton players that would have surprised a time traveller from 28 years ago – it was the crisp football played not just by the team challenging for Europe, but also by the team rock bottom of the Premier League. In the second half anyway.

I was surprised to see both Everton’s young midfield guns in the starting XI after the attention paid to them as a result of their excellent performances in the 3-0 midweek shellacking of Newcastle – I’d have rested Ross Barkley and probably Gerard Deulofeu too, but Roberto knew that they are in his strongest available XI and start they did. Though Everton’s best work in a disjointed first half display came through the cute Catalan, he was often a peripheral figure as Fulham buzzed around his supply lines (especially Leon Osman, as poor on the bank of the Thames as he was good on the bank of the Tyne). Ross Barkley picked up a knock early, but had never got into the game and did not emerge for the second 45 minutes.

As is the way with 21st century managers, Martinez does not see the bench as a set of insurance policies for hobbling players, but as set of cards to be played as he sees fit. Steven Naismith slotted in off Romelu Lukaku (sometimes interchanging with the point of the attack the better to stand up Fulham’s pace-free centre-backs) and carried a threat throughout. As soon as Ashkan Dejagah showed his potential, Deulofeu was withdrawn in favour of Kevin Mirallas, who duly took the pass of the match (maybe, the season) from the third substitute, Aiden McGeady, to kill off the game. Tim Howard may have been Man of the Match, but the three substitutes won it. 

For the crunch match vs Arsenal next Sunday, Roberto has to consider another careful balancing of his resources. Does he bring back the club captain whose fitness is likely to permit him to start? Or does he stick with Everton’s best outfield player, the precocious John Stones, whose game, especially in possession, is developing rapidly? I’d pick Stones – he really is that good already – but the Boss may have other ideas. Whoever does get the nod, we know that he, and 17 other Evertonians in the matchday squad, will enjoy the complete confidence of a man who has brought back a swagger last seen when Aha told us that “The Sun Always Shines On TV”. It’s shining on Merseyside now too.  

History, Luck and Leadership – Tim Howard and Sylvain Distin 22 March 2014

Captaincy - Bad, Bad and Brilliant

Captaincy – Bad, Bad and Brilliant

Swansea City just don’t beat Everton – that’s what history tells us, but nobody would have been surprised if a new page had been written at Goodison Park on a windy Spring afternoon. In a free flowing game of few fouls and no cards, much good football was played between the penalty areas but, despite five goals, the football inside the areas was of a markedly lower standard. Swansea were, with the influence of Roberto Martinez still evident, more like Everton than Everton – enjoying possession, creating chances and finishing feebly. It was a lucky three points for the Blues in a match that could have ended 3-5 on another day.

If that’s the history and the luck, what about the leadership? Well, I groaned when I saw that, in the absence of Phil Jagielka and with Leon Osman on the bench, the armband had been given to Tim Howard. I’ve nothing against the American stopper – he’s been excellent all season and a worthy successor to Neville Southall and Nigel Martyn and should soon go past Gordon West’s 402 appearances to ascend the third step on the Blues’ goalkeepers list behind only Big Nev himself and Ted Sagar – but is he a captain? Is – with all due respect to Dino Zoff, Peter Schmeichel and and Oliver Kahn – any goalkeeper a captain?

One school of thought claims that football captains’ work is done off the field, in PR exercises mainly, and that there’s little influence a captain can bring to bear on the field for all the eulogising of Tony Adams / John Terry type figures with their supposed Henry V like powers to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood. Usually I would agree – but not today.

When, having dominated the first twenty minutes, a Leighton Baines penalty gave Everton a deserved lead, Swansea City – fighting for their Premier League lives, lest we forget – committed men forward, played with a hitherto unseen freedom and dominated the game. Everton looked tired, slightly offended at the affrontery of these upstarts and a touch complacent – somebody needed to “have a word”. Howard, isolated in goal and with plenty to do himself in getting the defence organised (a wall disintegrated when Swansea forced a free kick within shooting range) needed to be a captain in the thick of it – he wasn’t. 

Gareth Barry and Leighton Baines are quiet lads and may not fancy the captaincy duties; James McCarthy seems quiet too and is still a junior pro (though he will captain the club one day). But playing alongside our injured club captain week-in, week-out is a model pro with 180+ appearances for Everton and experience of captaincy in the Premier League. Syvain Distin should have worn the armband and should have been responsible for geeing up the team during Swansea’s long periods of dominance. It’s what he deserved, but more importantly, it’s what the team needed and didn’t get.