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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