There’s a lot made of stats in football, until recently a sport rather neglected by the number crunching geeks. But a combination of Moneyball and football money soon opened the door to the management consultant types and the Football Manager gamers’ spreadsheets and suddenly (or so it seems to the likes of me) stats are everywhere, driving Leighton Baines’ putative transfer value and Sam Allardyce’s coaching.
Stats only really work if they back up the evidence of one’s own eyes and one’s opinion / prejudice about the game. And the stat that I like most now is Everton’s <em>Attempts At Goal</em>. Against West Ham, the Blues piled up 22, of which a dismal three were on target. Now I don’t deny that scoring is the hardest thing in the game – if not, forwards would cost less than full-backs – but is it that hard to get a shot into a space eight yards wide and eight feet high? Well, not 19 fails out of 22 hard.
And this is not a new problem. Even after today’s winner, it’s still only nine goals in the last ten league games with signs that the players are becoming anxious in front of goal, snatching at chances, blasting shots too high, lunging at the ball. There’s evidence of training ground routines all over the pitch: little triangles around the halfway line; Sylvain Distin’s much improved distribution; the interchanges between full-backs and wide midfielders to work space near the touchlines. But the shooting hasn’t come on – in fact, it’s gone backwards.
Maybe the players believe that the majority of possession enjoyed in so many matches (often a big majority) means that the chances will come (as they did in the Autumn). Opponents have their stats too and know that possession outside the final third doesn’t really matter, so they cede it to the likes of Barkley and Pienaar and challenge them to thread the ball through two lines of four. What results are a series of quarter and half chances that seldom trouble the keeper. One solution would be to practise converting these kinds of chances in training – do they?
Another solution is to play a man capable of finding the full chance where others find only the half. As soon as he stepped on to the Goodison turf, Romelu Lukaku looked like a man hungry for the game’s possibilities – rather different to the jaded figure who appeared a little burned out before his enforced break. A run down the touchline reminded me of a similar surge at Villa Park in October and now, as then, the late winner arrived, Lukaku finding space with an absence of movement to put his foot through Baines’ assist and secure the three points.
Everton’s late season will depend much on Lukaku’s fitness and renewed appetite. Everton’s 2014-15 season will depend much on keeping him or replacing him – and not on the dear old trier Steven Naismith.