Monthly Archives: May 2014

Everton 2013-14 – The Season Report Card

His football has been anything but grey

His football has been anything but grey

Tim Howard

Behind only Big Nev, Ted Sagar and Gordon West on Everton’s all-time appearances list for goalkeepers, he is at the peak of his powers and playing the best football of his career. He makes mistakes – which keeper doesn’t – but he commands his area, knows his angles and is as good a shot-stopper as ever he was. Under Martinez, he has been asked to become an auxiliary defender, making the manager’s beloved triangles and passing the ball rather than clearing it – the old dog learned these new tricks with surprising comfort.

Joel Robles

Another long, lean keeper of the type favoured these days, he has plenty to learn and, not yet 24, plenty of time on his side. Might play a lot more next season with the Europa League likely to see squad rotation all over the pitch, so his long term prospects at the club will be more clear come this time next year.

Seamus Coleman 

Enjoyed a golden spell around New Year when he seemed to score every week, but couldn’t maintain that kind of scoring touch, though his season’s return is commendable from right back. His marauding down the right side has troubled the best opponents (indeed, he has only been quietened by his team-mate, Gerard Deulofeu, occupying the space he needs) while his defending, though sometimes compromised by raiding upfield, has been solid. His end product, powered by an astonishing energy, has improved with the confidence that flows from the praise that has rightly come his way. Rightly made the PFA Premier League Team of the Season and also voted Player of the Year, he has set the bar very high for 2014-2015. Not bad for a £60k signing from Sligo Rovers – as must be quoted in every piece about him!.

Sylvain Distin

A scarcely believable 36 now, if anything he has improved this season with the trust shown in him by his manager. Always a solid defender, his discomfort with the demands of the passing game was evident in some nervy early season displays when opposing managers would plan to press Everton into using him as an outlet. To his great credit, his distribution improved beyond recognition (if still one-footed) while his fitness and pace would impress in a man half his age. Defensive wobbliness in the few games he missed revealed the extent of his impact on the team for anyone with doubts A very decent shout for Player of the Season (but not quite mine).

Phil Jagielka

The new captain, a centre-back who spent his formative years in midfield, was always likely to fit well with the new manager’s credo of ball retention and short accurate passing. But, after so many consistent campaigns, his season was affected by injury and two somewhat hurried returns in defeats against Liverpool and Manchester City. At the heart of the defence and the heart of the club, he had to get used to being a peripheral figure in the second half of the season and can expect to play a much fuller role in next season’s four competition schedule.

John Stones

Not many 18 year old Championship defenders get a £3M move to an established Premier League club, but that’s what David Moyes did for the lean teen from Barnsley. Whether by design or default, he is an almost perfect match for the Matinez Project: comfortable on the ball; willing to learn; and always playing with his head up, looking for the right pass, not just a pass. Having been deployed initially at full-back, he is clearly a central defender, with the potential to be England’s most complete since Rio Ferdinand. He has been inconsistent, but as he gains experience, the error count will reduce and his ball-playing will come to the fore. Next season, he should look to establish himself as a first choice and seek a first England cap

Leighton Baines

This time last year, he was the darling of the moneyballers, his stats up there with the very best in Europe. Though his output this year has been impressive (especially his dead-eye penalty kicks), he has not quite reached the levels of performance that ousted Ashley Cole from England’s XI. He missed his old mate Stephen Pienaar more than I expected going forward, and his lack of height  and occasional positioning problems caused some defensive issues. Will surely benefit from a summer unscarred by 2013’s tedious transfer speculation.

Bryan Oviedo

Surprised everyone by slotting into Leighton Baines shoes at both ends of the pitch before his season-ending leg break. Might not be of the highest class as either a defender or midfielder to warrant regular starts, but a very handy squad player, who can score vital goals.

Antolin Alcaraz

Looked off the pace when called upon to cover Sylvain Distin and a little short of the class expected of an Everton player these days. His bags of experience didn’t prevent a panicky header and a slot on every bloopers reel with his own goal at St Mary’s in a huge match that pretty much did for Everton’s Champions League chances.

James McCarthy

Having started the season in the Championship – and at Wembley for the Community Shield – he arrived at Goodison to something of a mixed reception. Within a few matches, the faithful were won over by his discipline, his running and his consistency. Though only 23, he has bags of experience and uses it to snuff out danger almost before it arrives, providing the screen for the back four and offering an option in attacks. Undoubtedly helped by Gareth Barry alongside him, he has become one of the best Defensive Midfielders in the Premier League and looks, contrary to many whispers at the time, a snip at £13M. My Player of the Season.

Gareth Barry

Though tiring a little towards the end of the season, he spent most of it keeping it simple, fouling when he needed to and providing the old head that could take the heat out of games when necessary. He popped up to score a few goals too, compensated for his lack of pace with an astute understanding of the possibilities Everton’s possession would yield. If called upon, he won’t let England down in Brazil, an environment that will suit the style of his game perfectly. 

Leon Osman

On the pitch more often than any other Blue in the first season under Martinez, a remarkable stat for a player who was around Goodison even before the Moyes era began. Neither quite strong enough nor quite fast enough to deliver consistent top performances over 90 minutes, he has been at his best as a substitute able to knit play together, finding gaps in tiring defences searching for the late goals that have been pleasingly plentiful or in shoring up the midfield when protecting a lead. He’ll be 33 next week, with a testimonial to recognise his superb service to follow, so will have one eye on his future. An ego-free, wholehearted Blue to his core, few men look better equipped to instill the right values in Academy players – a role I hope he will move towards next season.

Steven Pienaar

Started only half Everton’s Premier League games, but showed why he is so vital to the Baines-Pienaar axis so admired by other managers. Still has the quick feet and willingness to look for the killer pass, now allied to plenty of experience (though he retains a persistent propensity to get a little hotheaded). Another old head likely to pick and choose his matches next season, but also a vital cog in the Everton system.

Aiden McGeady

After looking a little chubby on his mid-season arrival, he soon showed that he has the exact traits that Martinez looks for in a player – ie, he looks “Spanish”. Comfortable off either foot, excellent close control and balance allow him to play in tight spaces and usually find a cross or pass to a man in a better position. More opportunities will come his way next season when he will look to have a big impact on both flanks.

Kevin Mirallas

Capable of spectacular goals, and spectacular misses, his Spring form rescued what would have been a disappointing season in which his finishing and passing had been shown up by colleagues. Unlikely ever to be mistaken for Thierry Henry cutting inside to stroke the ball home, his direct play and willingness to have a go provide a useful counterbalance to the occasional over-elaboration of colleagues. If he could just pause for a heartbeat and find the right pass, he would be some player.

Gerard Deulofeu

Some player! Never have I seen so naturally gifted a talent in a Blue shirt, including Wayne Rooney. The boy from Barcelona (at least before he ran into the much under-rated Nathaniel Clyne at St Mary’s) had the beating of every defender he faced, and often the one after that too. If he can just judge his next move once past his man, he will be a leading light of European football – but he still has much work to do on that final ball. If he stays and kicks on, he should be a delight to watch next season.

Steven Naismith

Were he blessed with Deulofeu’s talent, what a player we’d have! As it is, the Scot’s intelligence and discipline have combined to force his way into Martinez’s thinking for any match. Though not quick, he can float between the lines and bring others into the game either with his back to goal up top or by threading passes through the channels. Also reliable in terms of tracking back in midfield.

Ross Barkley

His highlights reel would suggest that he is the new Zidane, a long-striding, goal-scoring central midfielder marrying power and grace in the classic style of continental Number 10s. But he can be caught in possession, make poor decisions and drift out of games – at 20, what more can we expect? If he can bring his A game to more matches next season and isn’t burned out by too many minutes on the field, great things will come his way. That said, he will be a marked man in his second trip round Premier League grounds, with defenders getting in and around him to deny space, block off his runs and prey on a slightly suspect temperament. Next season will define him as a great player, or merely a very good one.

Romelu Lukaku

The big Belgian has ambitions to play regularly in the Champions League and his Autumn form suggested that he was not misplaced to think such. His injury in the nightmare at Anfield did knock him back and, towards the end of the season, his volume of matches spent playing alone, up top, began to tell – he is still only 20 after all. Runs all day and is exemplary in attitude, his main weaknesses are a suspect first touch and a tendency to snatch at finishes. Might not be exactly what Chelsea are looking for as they seek to re-build, but might just be tempted by the kind of wages and metropolitan life Tottenham can offer, but Evertonians will be hoping that the £25M or so a permanent move would cost can be cobbled together in the summer. If not, he’ll go with the cheers of thousands of Blues in his ears and a warm welcome awaiting him on every return to Goodison.

Roberto Martinez

Almost delivered on what seemed a rash promise of Champions League football and definitely delivered on a style of play that pleased every Bluenose. Almost as impressive as his tactics, positive play and confidence was his grasp of what it means to be Everton’s manager, manifested in his media appearances, his moving Hillsborough Memorial speech and his respect for the club’s history. He’s very much “our manager” and not going anywhere – at least not yet.

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Everton drift into fifth place and have much to ponder for 2014-15

Everton's youngsters approaching the end of the season.

Everton’s youngsters approaching the end of the season.

Of course it was a curious match – no Everton team in history has had the drive and success of Howard Kendall’s mid-80s nonpareils, but, with the Title secured, the last two games of 1984-85 were lost (though the corresponding games in the same situation were won in 1986-87). For all Martin Tyler’s and Gary Neville’s constant references to the crowd’s ambivalence, if anything, City’s performance was the more baffling – such lauded players seemingly so unsure of whether to attack or defend, perhaps showing Pellegrini’s lack of experience come squeeky bum time, Everton, in everything except the result, offered a miniature of our season as a whole.

How so? Naturally, there was plenty of what will be the dominant narrative when Roberto Martinez’s first term in charge is written up – attacking, skilful, aesthetically pleasing football. There were threats all over the pitch, with pace out wide and through the middle; possession was retained well and used well – mainly; and goals came through patience and planning, rather than through shoving it in the mixer and seeing what turned up. Ross Barkley found the space he needed to play (sometimes it seems he needs that space for his morale as much as anything else) and scored another eye-catching goal and the Martinez inflected tiki-taka saw lots of movement to create triangles, with Lukaku and Naismith sometimes pulling wide and Coleman and Baines often ducking inside.

But the limitations of the side showed too. Jags was selected but not fit (again) and Alcaraz and Osman (when starting) looked off the pace; corners were simply looped in and cleared easily with free kicks not offering much more; the youngsters (Stones and Lukaku this time) looked tired, mentally as well as physically, the intense, intellectually demanding training telling now it’s May. And – this the crucial conundrum to solve to take the team to the next level – Everton’s final ball was often inaccurate; hurried or closed out: but our opponents seemed to have options when they looked for the killer pass. That back door (against top attackers) needs to be shut a little more tightly and the front door needs to be wedged a little more ajar.

Of course, Everton aren’t alone in needing to solve football’s hardest puzzles, but it rankles to see how good we can be between the boxes and how things can go a little flat in those last twenty yards of grass at either end. Harsh? Possibly, but City’s crucial third goal looked so easy – especially compared to Deulofeu’s one shot on goal, that needed him to channel the spirit of Messi before being denied by Hart’s fine save.

It’s impossible to know what will happen in the summer, particularly with the loans of Lukaku and Deulofeu, but Naismith and Barkley look very good as a pair floating between the lines and Mirallas’ late season surge has shown that he can be as direct as ever. What’s needed is a replacement for Lukaku who has the skills and intelligence of a Naismith with his back to goal and the thrust of an Aguero when facing up defenders. Yeah – and who doesn’t? But Lukaku might yet stay and might yet develop into his full potential – but if he doesn’t, I’d like Wilfried Bony, who might be prised away from Swansea if the price is right and if they feel Michu can repeat his last season next time round.

But let’s be very clear about it – an improvement on Martinez’ first season come 2014-15 will require a fourth place finish in the Premier League (very, very, very tough); a Europa League win (very, very tough); or a Cup win propelled by what will surely be weakened teams in the first few rounds. Let’s enjoy the football and let’s keep hoping, but let’s not fool ourselves that this season is a springboard to greater things.

 

Thinking inside and outside The Box (written September 2008)

That'll blue nicely

That’ll blue nicely 

Just three months ago, we could believe that the money was real, but we know now that the money was funny . As the world tips into recession, football is already finding empty spaces in the stands and on the shirts. Like every other industry, football must come to terms with what the credit crunch means for its future.

Even in the days when Tony Benn was the only man who advocated nationalising banks, Liverpool’s plans for a new stadium progressed glacially slowly and Everton’s plans to move to Kirkby were vigorously opposed. So it’s time to find the middle ground, financially and geographically – a shared stadium for Merseyside’s clubs is the solution and Stanley Park is the location.Many fans will never entertain such a thought, but those with open minds should read on and imagine this vision as reality.Capacity

The shared stadium must seat 80,000 fans with hospitality as impressive as that on offer at The Emirates. A variety of season ticket and multi-match packages should be sold to fans, with single match tickets sold over the internet using a sophisticated real-time price modelling programme (as used by airlines such as Ryanair) which varies prices with availability. Fans willing to buy tickets in packages or in advance for less popular matches would receive hard discounts helping to bring back the supporters, especially young ones, priced out of Anfield or Goodison.

Names

The stadium will have two names, one for each club. Though this would be awkward at first, fans would soon settle into hearing, “Over to (say) New Anfield, where Wigan have taken a shock lead” or “Stuart Hall has a fifth goal for Everton at New Goodison”. Stadiums without their club context are just buildings, so it would be The Stanley Park Stadium for conferencing etc.

Match day experience

The stadium must transform visually to create an “Everton” or “Liverpool” identity. Plain white exterior walls offer the opportunity to project giant images of “Dixie” Dean, Howard Kendall, Kevin Sheedy, and other Hall of Famers on to the Stadium (for an Everton match) which identify the seating areas (no more Section B16 Row 23 Seat 144, it’s Alan Ball Row 23 Seat 144). This identity is followed through on the website, in promotional materials and on tickets. Inside the stadium, screens, signage and staff uniforms etc are used to brand (sorry, but it’s the right word) spaces according to which team is at home. The transformation would be thoroughgoing and complete, with only the “away” derby feeling artificial.

This proposal honours the rich histories of the clubs, keeps both in a city that is identified by them and identifies with them, and allows the Boards to build the long-term financial stability success requires. Furthermore, it allows live football to be watched by twice as many fans as at present and at a lower price. My father, dead now, but a regular at Goodison for over fifty years, would like the proposal.

Am I alone? Not quite.