Monthly Archives: August 2014

Everton 2014-2015 – Three games; seven goals for, ten goals against; two points

(Oh) dear

(Oh) dear

Well I was worried, I really was. Scroll back a few posts, and you can see.

Let’s do the mitigation first. Arsenal and Chelsea are two Champions League teams with plenty to prove and, in Chelsea’s case, the hottest striker of the season.

But that’s it. Both were home games; neither followed Europa League matches; both included passages of play in which Everton did not just outplay their illustrious opponents, they dominated them. And yet, two points. Two points.

What’s happening?

Sylvain Distin, as fine a servant to the club as Everton have known, suddenly looks nearly 37 years old. He is half a yard off the pace, despite his still excellent positioning, which means that attackers can square him up and go past him on either side – he knows it and so do they. He is also a step or two too far from Phil Jagielka, which is the gap that class forwards need for the killer run and class midfielders for the killer ball. Jagielka, at 32 and with plenty of miles on the clock, might be half a pace short too, certainly deep in the second half.

It’s not all their fault of course. Just in front and just behind the central defenders, two more thirty-somethings, Gareth Barry and Tim Howard, are yet to bring their A games. Barry is being pulled around the field more than he appears comfortable with, while Tim Howard, after the exultant peak vs Belgium in Brazil, finds the ball going past him rather than hitting him (though it’s almost too much to think of those ten conceded goals and the saves).

Not good, not good at all, but is there something even worse lurking deep in Everton’s defensive dysfunctionality? James McCarthy was my player of the year last season, a whirlygig of tackling, blocking and screening, the base on which attacks were built. Is he covering the ground he covered last season? Is he seeing danger quickly enough to snuff it out? Is he fulfilling that enormous brief handed to him almost exactly one year ago?

Three games in is too soon to leap to conclusions, but Roberto Martinez is very close to Something Must Be Done territory. He might start by asking Distin to take a seat on the bench and asking John Stones to build a regular partnership with the captain. He might also seek to play Muhamed Besic as a 30 minutes substitute for Barry to give McCarthy less running in the last quarter of matches. And, in two days, buy or loan a centre-half from somewhere.

It’s not the time to press the panic button, but can Martinez afford another defeat and still expect to finish ahead of a very strong Tottenham squad? And if he doesn’t, surely that will mean a step back – despite the feelgood factor that suffused the club just a few weeks ago?

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The last mile is always the hardest

You'll find me sitting there

You’ll find me sitting over there

Can a team throw away four points in ten minutes of football and still reach its season’s potential? What was a hypothetical question just over a week ago, is now on the point, as victories became draws with late, late equalisers from Leicester City and Arsenal. Just ten minutes more effective football in the opening two fixtures and Everton would sit at the top of the table – but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is whether anyone can possibly make the case that Everton had four points in hand to toss away in pursuit of fourth place – the objective come May. I fear that place has gone – yes, already.

Before the season started, I feared the challenge of closing out games, but I forecast that the last quarters of games would hurt us once the Europa League games and Thursday – Sunday football kicked in – I didn’t expect to be “I told you soing” before August is out. So what went wrong?

I believe the defence unit is too old. Everton’s key players when opponents attack are are Tim Howard (35), Phil Jagielka (32), Sylvain Distin (36) and Gareth Barry (33) (and the one younger player, James McCarthy). They all have a lot of miles on the clock, which might just be catching up with them having chased, harried and (most of all) concentrated for more than 85 minutes of a Premier League match. It’s not that they are not fit, nor that their experience isn’t valuable – it’s just hard to concentrate when fatigue, aches and pains are gnawing away at the mind.

So what is the answer? It’s never good to take a defender off with team coming at you with nothing to lose, but John Stones was left sitting on the bench as Arsenal poured forward and he is a player universally expected to play for England this season. It’s not a good idea to change defensive shape either, so what should be done? When Kevin Mirallas was substituted late on (as he so often is) I’d have ignored Christian Atsu’s claims and brought Stones on to play at right back and moved Coleman a little forward into midfield, but still with a defensive brief. That is surely a wiser use of resources than having McGeady and Atsu on the field with a Champions League club in full flow desperate for an equaliser?

Fans despise managers who sit back and concede late goals, but all the matches closed out successfully are forgotten, described as routine wins or as games that drifted away, opponents fashioning just the one half-chance. It’s never good to sit too deep as the clock runs down (though sitting deep is often the result of being forced deep) but being able to retain possession in midfield is crucial, more crucial than five seconds with the ball at the corner flag – lots of triangles are the order of the day.

Four goals scored in two matches speaks of the potency of attacking options carefully acquired and coached, but they count for little if there’s four going in at the other end, especially those morale-destroying late equalisers. Closing out games in most sports is seen as a specialist’s role – in football, that specialism may come through specific tactics. It’s an argument that will need little making at Finch Farm next week.

Ross Barkley – a crisis or an opportunity?

Some things to do on a rainy day

Some things to do on a rainy day

If the news of Romelu Lukaku’s signing was akin to Christmas morning for Blues, the grim prognosis about Ross Barkley’s injury is the tipsy dad standing on the favourite present, shattering (literally) all the childish joy before Morecambe and Wise have emerged from that curtain.

Or is it? Second seasons, like second albums, are notoriously tough gigs: opposition coaches have worked out a weakness or two; life off the pitch has become very complicated; and, more than any other factor, expectations have been raised in the febrile world of football to the usual unrealistic levels. But the air has now spluttered out of the Barkley balloon as he faces, for the second time in a young career, an extended period of rehabilitation.

And this is where crisis turns to opportunity. If the young man is as conscientious a listener as his manager suggests and if he is as keen as he should be to explore his potential, the rehab will teach him much. He has now grown into his rangy frame and he should talk and talk and talk to his medical support team during the long physio sessions that will fill the Autumn about how he should treat his most precious gift – his body. Though British players are much more engaged with an holistic approach to fitness (it’s seen as a 24/7 job) than they were even ten years ago, a feeling persists that European players are more understanding of the impact of a night on the booze or a failure to stretch properly, never mind poor diet.

Barkley might also watch a lot of football (maybe even read about it too) and not just from the stands at Goodison. Wouldn’t it be great to see him spending a weekend taking in a couple of Bundesliga matches? Or at the Camp Nou or Bernabeu on a European night? I recall reading about a young Arsenal player who was told to sit in the stands and simply watch Steve Bould as a intensive lesson in defensive positioning – Barkley might do the same watching James Rodriguez.

And, when he returns for a fifteen minute cameo sometime after Christmas, the applause that will greet him will not be overly infected with false hopes. Nobody – outside the more clickbait-oriented websites – will expect him to “…rescue Everton’s season”; “…lead The Toffees to an FA Cup, twenty years on”; “…add a touch of magic that might secure a Champions League spot.” The talk will be more of the start of a long process, the benefits of which will show next season – of building towards an Aaron Ramsay maturity rather than a Jack Wilshere inconsistency.

Who wouldn’t want to sign a £30M player in the January window? That, if the young man makes the most of his misfortune, will be Barkley’s impact come the sharp end of the season. Things ain’t so bad after all.

The first game of the season – McGeady and Naismith stake their claims

 

M and N - sweet squad options for Martinez

M and N – sweet squad options for Martinez

David Moyes spotted a good one in Steven Naismith, who arrived from Rangers in the summer of 2012, somewhat unheralded, and wasn’t much more than a bits and pieces player until Roberto Martinez got hold of him and identified that his speed lay between the ears rather than over the ground. Cue a switch from a Dirk Kuyt lite (in more senses than one) harassing opposition midfielders to no great effect, to a Tim Cahill de nos jours, running in late from those awkward spaces between the lines.

With the confidence that Martinez seems to inject into everyone with whom he comes into contact, the almost transparent Scot grew into not just a certainty for the matchday 16, but a very handy first XI player, as he proved today popping up to score a goal in that vital spell just before half-time. Moreover, he speaks well, an articulate and well rounded man who makes friends for Everton with each interview he gives. The most solid of solid pros.

Aiden McGeady pitched up in the quieter transfer window from a strange sojourn in Russia having been something of a star in the backwater of the Scottish Premier League – a bigger name than Naismith anyway. He looked a little chubby and somewhat nondescript, so Evertonians, wary of the source after the Bilyaletdinov debacle (£8.9M!), were underwhelmed but soon saw that the bustling Irishman could find a yard and see a pass and had more discipline in his game than the mercurial Deulofeu.

With Ross Barkley unexpectedly missing after a Friday Finch Farm injury, McGeady was given the job of providing the creativity in an awkward banana skin of a game away at newly promoted Leicester – and it wasn’t long before he threaded in the first goal of the season. That’s pretty much the job description handed to McGeady when Martinez asked him to sign on the dotted line – but it’s one thing to talk it and another to walk it.

Opposition fans won’t fear names like Naismith and McGeady on a teamsheet when they have Lukaku and Barkley to catch their eyes, but Everton’s manager – and, increasingly, Everton’s fans – know exactly what they get when these two Celts, both experienced players in their late 20s, turn out for The Blues. And there’s plenty of managers in the Premier League would envy such resources at Roberto’s disposal – one down to his predecessor, a cannier Scot than he is given credit for, the other a reminder of his own eye for a player, a deal and a role in the squad. It won’t be the last time these two will prove their worth in the long season to come.

The result – and no weekend gives more unreliable results than the first one – shows potential with two goals away from home: and cause for concern, with a lead twice conceded. The need for defensive cover I identified in the season’s preview has been worryingly borne out at the first time of asking.

It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish – or is it?

Bring me the head of Richard Scudamore

Bring me the head of Richard Scudamore

Is the sequence of clubs and points differential defined in the current Premier League table the one which would satisfy most fans – something of which Jeremy Bentham would approve?

Barclays Premier League Table

 
Team P W D L F A GD Pts
Last updated 9 days ago
Arsenal 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Aston Villa 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Burnley 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Chelsea 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Crystal Palace 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Everton 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Hull 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Leicester 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Liverpool 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Man City 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Man Utd 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Newcastle 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
QPR 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Southampton 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Stoke 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Sunderland 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Swansea 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Tottenham 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
West Brom 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
West Ham 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

 

So Arsenal win the title, and Tottenham get relegated. There is no sequence which could possibly satisfy the fans of both clubs and Arsenal have the larger fan base. This would constitute their dream season.

Villa and Burnley fans will be ecstatic over their Champions League finish. Prince William and Alastair Campbell equally happy – which can’t have happened too often.

Chelsea at least get in to the Champions League, and miss out on the title on goal difference – the gob on Mourinho would be worth a look.

Palace fans would accept their second best ever season – Tony who?.

Everton always finish sixth.

Hull and Leicester will be perfectly happy with a top-half finish.

Fans of Liverpool, Man City and Man Utd will be distraught. However fans of all other clubs would be delighted and there are in total far more of them – something of which Stalin was aware. 

Newcastle fans enjoy being (well, certainly looking) disappointed, and can console themselves that one place behind Man Utd wasn’t so bad.

QPR, Soton, Stoke, Sunderland and Swansea will all be delighted to avoid the drop and in most instances surprised.

Tottenham we’ve already dealt with.

West Brom and West Ham fans both know it’s coming, and at least they had a chance at the last game of the season.

What’s not to like?

Thanks to Pete Smith for all the best bits of this post.

 

Everton’s 2014-15 season previewed – or is it?

Coral - I tell you it's coral.

Coral – I tell you it’s coral.

Can one really preview a season before the transfer window has, wait for it, slammed shut? Maybe not, but some themes (and one gigantic shadow / opportunity) can be identified and, well, what else can one write about in mid-August?

This time last year, I was fretting about the defence and I’m still fretting now. Tim Howard may be the biggest name at Team USA after his World Cup heroics against Kevin Mirallas and co, but how many games will he be able to play on top form at his age? I’d like him to sit out the Group Stage of the Europa League giving that job to Joel Robles – but you’ve already identified the flaw in that little ruse.

But that’s not the biggest hole in the squad. Just who is going to play all these games at centre-back? John Stones is too young to play every game at the considerable peak of his powers and can expect to be playing for England too – he only has two legs! Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka are model pros, but they’re both well into their thirties and have played a lot of matches. They won’t be able to shake off the knocks younger men play through – as last season showed. However, at least we have Antolin Alcaraz to step in. Ah…

At full back, Bryan Oviedo provides classy cover, but the high energy game played by both Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines will have to be rationed if they are to produce at both ends of the pitch – we may have got a bit used to their extraordinary performances week-in, week-out.

All is not lost! The midfield looks impressively stocked, particularly with DMs. The Barry-McCarthy axis will be expected to pick up where it left off and the returning Darron Gibson and new boy Muhamed Besic will give them relief when needed. We might also see Gibson dropping in as a central defender, particularly if we have a two goal advantage in the second half.

Up front, much depends on the resilience of Romelu Lukaku, who will also be withdrawn for Steven Naismith as often as possible. If a club of Everton’s means pays that kind of money for a player, much should depend on him. We should not forget his age, if he shows signs of being jaded by the Thursday / Sunday grind, though his transfer fee will surely be mentioned on the 6-0-6 shoutfests if he does go off the boil.

Will the Catalan conjuror pull a rabbit out of the hat, a 20 year-old commanding centre-back, short on game time for Barcelona or Bayern Munich, so on loan at Goodison? It seems doubtful. Will an Academy player step up and bloom? After John Stones’ and Ross Barkley’s breakthrough seasons last time round, that may be asking a little too much.

So whither the Blues in 2014-15? I’d like to have a real go at fourth in the Premier League – we could surely finish ahead of Liverpool and Manchester United, though Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal look too strong. And, if we don’t prioritise the League, I can’t see Louis Van Gaal allowing himself two transitional seasons, and the chance of fourth may be gone for another five years almost before it’s arrived. I fear that the Europa League campaign will impinge on Premier League matches, particularly in the last 15 minutes, and we’ll slip behind those five clubs mentioned above and Tottenham to drift into 7th or 8th, with too many draws at the likes of Palace and Burnley. And then we’ll lose in the semi-finals in Europe and finish the season deflated having played good, but gradually tiring, football.