Monthly Archives: October 2014

On possession and risk – Burnley 1 Everton 3

Now what?

Now what?

An early goal can put me on edge – and maybe it has the same effect on the players. There’s so much time for opponents to re-assess, draw breath and then come again with a freedom that might be lacking when there’s the point with which every team starts every match still in the bank.

I felt this unease just before Burnley scored, so the goal came as no surprise. Thinking harder about the source of my that unease (why worry one-nil up to Burnley?), I thought of Jose Mourinho’s reported unease about the merits of possession football. Attributed to him is a view that crystallises my anxiety with an early lead. If goals come from mistakes, then mistakes come when in possession. So the best way to avoid mistakes is to let the opposition have the ball in their own half where they can make the mistakes. Turnover ball, as in rugby and American Football, is a mighty weapon against drilled defences.

After Samuel Eto’o’s brilliantly conceived and executed opener, Everton fell into ten minutes of the nice possession football that we all know Roberto Martinez admires. Triangles formed, one-touch (maximum two-touch) passes beat out a rhythm and neutrals will have enjoyed a style seldom seen in England until ten or so years ago. But, but, but…

Everton’s terrible defensive record this season has many causes with individual errors high on the list. Sure enough, one popped up when Romelu Lukaku misplaced a pass (back into the defensive third) and three Burnley touches later, the scores were level. That sparked some unfair Twitter jibes at the big Belgian, but, well, you know… Twitter…

At his best, Lukaku suits the Martinez way. He’s available for short and long passes from midfield, can get on the end of a move and score (as he did, a little fortunately, to restore the lead he had to some extent squandered) and he is willing to learn. On the downside, he can look very raw, even now, the first touch more flaxen than silken, the ball seldom instantly tamed.

If that’s a technical shortcoming, his error at Turf Moor was, perhaps, rooted in the other challenge possession football sets – maintaining concentration. Creating those triangles in one and two touch combination play demands players run into the right areas and then know what their options are as the ball comes towards them. Smaller players, on the half-turn with a glance or two sideways as the ball arrives, don’t find this so difficult – Leighton Baines gave a fine demonstration of what I mean for 90 minutes and Steven Naismith’s blossoming “in the hole” is partly accounted for by his ability to pick the right options under pressure. Big Rom didn’t do that, passing the ball infield when he had 30 yards space into which to pass the ball towards the left touchline. His concentration had lapsed and he chose a risky rather than risk-free pass.

He is still 21 and he has played a lot of football, particularly since returning from his January injury -so it’s no surprise to see evidence that he’s not absolutely “on it” twice a week, 40 or so weeks a year. Of course, it would help if he had a naturally easy first touch to fall back on, but he hasn’t, something that Jose Mourinho will have noticed in agreeing to the summer sale.

All this is not intended to lay blame at Lukaku’s door (though plenty will, and their fingers will twitch over their Twitter accounts the next time Lukaku makes a mistake). It is a plea that we accept that with possession comes risk and that players are fallible, especially young players on whom big demands are made. Everton enjoyed almost twice as much of the ball as Burnley: twice as many chances to launch attacks and make those three lovely goals; and twice as many chances to cock it up and hand opponents the chances they crave.



On finding the right opponents – Everton enjoy accommodating Villa

Another one-eyed Irish author

Another one-eyed Irish author

It could hardly have fallen better for Roberto Martinez. Needing a win after too ften squandering points having played well this season, Aston Villa, early momentum lost after recent defeats, hove into view bringing a goal-shy attack and vulnerable defence. Soon the ball was being pinged around with Ross Barkley featuring for the first time since May, and everything was looking very Autumn 2013. Three points was the inevitable haul.

That said, it’s worth avoiding the temptation to take such a win for granted. Mistakes needed to be eradicated and they were. Tim Howard was decisive with his punches and showed the positioning that makes him such a great shot-stopper when Villa fashioned their few chances. In front of him, Antolin Alcaraz’s lack of pace was covered by James McCarthy, back fit and with concentration at 100% again and Phil Jagielka was given a relatively easy ride by Christian Benteke, back in a starting XI for the first time since March. Everton’s best players flanked the fourth centre-back partnership in eight league games – at least they did for the kick-offs.

Leighton Baines hasn’t quite been on his very best game for some months now, but, with Everton dominating possession as Villa dropped deep into a rigid defensive shape, he could play in the opposition half and not worry too much about being caught upfield (he was though – at least twice). Everton fans were relieved to see the familiar left-sided triangles, early on with Osman and Barry, later, the old gang reunited again, with Osman and Piennar. Baines still enjoys three options to inject the crucial change of pace into the possession football: his own indefatigable running; his crisply hit, arrow straight passes infield; and his sharp football brain. Two more assists – one a perfectly played right foot cross for his skipper’s opener – were his reward.

On the other side, returning from injury and not quite at full throttle, Seamus Coleman still gave an equally impressive masterclass in the art of attacking full-back play. Watch again how early he sees the opportunity that leads to his goal, how committed is the run (2-0 up and in open play) and how immaculately timed his arrival into the much derided POMO (Position of Maximum Opportunity) turns out. it’s no exaggeration to claim that he attacks space out wide as effectively as any Premier League player since Thierry Henry, his burgeoning goal tally laid in evidence.

Further up the formation, if not the field, Romelu Lukaku will accept his somewhat fortunate goal, but still displays more anxiety than confidence, not quite the player he was this time last year. Steven Naismith was all over the pitch, giving everything for the cause as usual, but did not look the same threat moved wider to accommodate the returning Barkley. The ageing legs of Leon Osman and Gareth Barry were not tested by the approach favoured by Villa manager Paul Lambert and his assistant, literary giant Roy Keane. They desperately need more pace in the side, if they wish to play on the break starting 80 yards from their opponent’s touchline.

With the goals average back up to two per game and just a couple short of Manchester City’s aggregate of 18, Evertonians can look forward to floating up the table as winter draws on, playing positive football and scoring lots of goals. That’s if – and given August and September, it’s a biggish if – the error count can be slashed.


And his signature song was originally done by The Village People and The Pet Shop Boys

And his signature song was originally done by The Village People and The Pet Shop Boys

Two very clear memories of Duncan Ferguson are etched on my mind. With Everton rock bottom of the Premiership, drifting under the dubious direction of Mike Walker, just 14,505 pitched up at Selhurst Park to see the Blues play Palace. Early on, just in front of me, the new long, lean, angular centre-forward, accepted
an awkward throw-in instantly, turned, beat a man and whipped a cross into that area between the six yard box and the penalty spot. A murmur went round the fans – this was an upgrade on the previous month’s Number 9, one Brett Angel. The“chewing gum feet” on the end of so intimidating a physical presence had me thinking of Marco Van Basten – and I wasn’t alone.

Fast forward six months and I’m in the frenzied back room of the General Smuts
pub, reputedly the largest in London, the atmosphere acrid with cigarette smoke and heaving with Evertonians. Players names are chanted and cheered, but when it comes to Duncan Ferguson, out comes the full “Go West” and off come the shirts – hundreds
of them – swung above heads in tribute to the already legendary celebration of
his goal at Goodison the previous month that was enough to secure the points against
Manchester United.

These two events capture the paradox at the heart of the man’s career. We lost
the game against Palace, but, without the big man – suspended or injured as was
so often the case – we won the game at Loftus Road (with a sensational last
minute free kick from Andy Hinchcliffe). As I once heard at Goodison late in his
career when he was hooked an hour into another lacklustre performance, “Some legend you are!” – acknowledging both Ferguson’s consistent inconsistency and his undisputed legend status.

So who was this most opaque of players? What compelled him to be such a compelling yet frustrating presence through some of Everton’s most difficult and
dangerous seasons? And where is he now, literally and metaphorically? Some
answers, but not all, can be found in Scottish journalist and long time Ferguson pursuer Alan Pattullo’s biography, which teases more than it delivers.

Or rather it delivers both too much and too little. The author has done his research and he’s damn well going to use it – so we get lots and lots of stuff about Jim McLean, Ferguson’s first manager at Dundee United and a long diversion into contemporary Finnish classical music, amongst other sidelines to the main narrative. That’s partly down to the subject’s non-cooperation with the author, a member of the long-snubbed press pack (a snub that bothered journos much more than it bothered fans) and partly down to the author’s unwillingness to rein in his verbosity.

If a certain long-windedness is forgivable (though there’s at least 100 pages could be edited from the text with no loss of clarity), the failure to deal with Ferguson’s many contradictions is a greater fault. He is both a rebel and a leader, sometimes described as quiet and sensitive, sometimes described as loud and insensitive. He is the obsessive trainer whom more than one colleague describes as not really liking the game. These strands needed pulling together and a stance taken.

The book ends with Ferguson’s bravado – for once considered rather than reactive – in his claim that he would take a break and then return to manage his beloved Everton. As unlikely as that sounded five or six years ago, Ferguson took that break, did his badges and has rapidly ascended to first team coach forming an unlikely alliance with the media-friendly, postgraduate degree holding Roberto Martinez. Precisely nobody would be surprised so see him move forward in the dugout when Roberto gets the call from a Champions League team and become Boss in title as well as reputation at Goodison.

Maybe, like so many footballers held in a state of arrested development, Duncan Disorderly has jumped from wild teenager to thoughtful middle-aged professional in one bound. And, like many of the managerial greats, his unfulfilled playing career may spur fulfilment off the pitch.

Watch this space.

On taking away the positives…

More please...

More please…

That, of course, will be the line as Everton head into the international break hovering above the relegation places. Does the line have any value beyond maintaining morale? It does, but not much.

My big concern at the start of the season was the defence and, ironically given the rate at which goals are being shipped, there is some encouragement there, as my primary anxiety is proving unfounded. The squad does appear to have enough defenders of Premier League quality.

Tony Hibbert, far from being finished, has shown that he can come in and still do a job – a limited job, but a job all the same. Tyias Browning, in a couple of cameos, looks to have all the tools required to succeed as a Premier League defender, including, already, a presence on the field. Muhamed Besic may be no James McCarthy (yet), but he has got stuck in as a defensive midfielder and looks a good buy at £4m. Throw in the long awaited return of Bryan Oviedo and the surely irrefutable claim of John Stones to play centre-back whenever available and the roster looks much stronger than I anticipated in August.

What I did not foresee – who did? – is the decline of the first choice defensive unit which, quite suddenly, looks well worth our place in the table. Tim Howard is surely reacting to his World Cup heroics and needs to get back to his consistent form of last season immediately. He has had wobbly spells before, but this might be the worst. His decision to keep the ball in play when Steven Pienaar was sitting on the grass, having done the substitution signal, led directly to the goal that cost a point at Old Trafford. Roll in Sylvain Distin’s sluggish start and Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines looking short of concentration having gone through a long season straight to a World Cup and on to pre-season training with barely a break, and, well, conceding 12 more goals than Southampton is no recipe for a slot in the upper reaches of the table.

But that’s not the whole story – there are more of the famous positives we can grasp with some justification. The goals keep coming (more too, had David De Gea not made a trio of outstanding saves). Steven Naismith, aside from one sitter vs West Brom that didn’t matter, is finishing brilliantly and chances are being created and taken in (almost) every match. Not long ago, losing 2-1 at Old Trafford with Manchester United hanging on desperately in the last 15 minutes, would have been seen as a decent performance and not the gloomy failure it feels now.

That said, Romelu Lukaku disappointed again, not getting much change out of Paddy McNair (who looks a better player than England internationals, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling). As his confidence has waned a little (maybe due to the expectations that come with the big fee), the Belgian’s faults have been highlighted. The first touch remains a problem and needs a lot of work on the training ground – but when will there be time for that? He looks a beat or two off full throttle too. Is he heavier than last season? Is he tired after continual football since his return from injury in February? Is he – as he must be really, despite the eye-catching £28M transfer and all those appearances as a teenager- a young player from whom one must expect form to fluctuate? Lukaku (like Balotelli) has not been bad, but he’s not been good either and when results go against you, the big names get big scrutiny.

It was always going to be a tough start to the season with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United in the first seven matches so, in the ever more febrile atmosphere of English football (I heard a Liverpool fan call for Brendan Rodgers to be sacked yesterday) persepective is needed. But if you had asked me if I’d have taken seven goals from those four matches before the Leicester City opener, I’d have bitten your hand off – of course, I would not have expected just two points to come from those goals.

Five winnable matches await before a tricky trip to White Hart Lane (though Tottenham are hardly more consistent than Everton). That run of fixtures will answer at least three questions. Is it right to take the positives away from these early season performances or are we being fooled? Are the four stalwarts of last season’s rock solid defence (Howard, Distin, Jagielka and Baines) really as unreliable as they seem? And, crucially, do fans really mean it when they say that they “just want to see some decent football” as they so often did under David Moyes? Then, as now, I like to see goals, free-flowing play and pass-and-move in transition from defence to attack, but I’d take five 1-0s with five ogs right now. Points are the hard currency of Premier League football and Everton’s credit is running low.