Everyone knows about second season syndrome – indeed, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy as there’s nothing like a readymade excuse to burrow into the brains of tired men. And tired men, despite Bobby M’s assertions that the club is embracing the additional demands of the Europa League, is exactly what we have seen in blue too often in the first half of the season. It may be unpalatable to those struggling to pay the mortgage, working two jobs to make ends meet or recalling days spent toiling in the pit, but fatigue is not relative – it’s there or it not. I offered more on this some weeks ago.
So if we accept that the squad and the manager are worth much more than a mid-table slot (and let’s not be complacent about that with the likes of QPR snapping at our heels), what changes can be made to shake the lethargy and re-fire the cylinders?
First and foremost, the impact of James McCarthy’s injury is now as plain as plain can be. My Player of the Season last time round is so much more than a defensive midfielder screening a suddenly vulnerable back four. He picks the ball up from defenders and makes the team play, not with long raking passes that catch the eye and do little else, but by shuffling forward to prompt other blue shirts to make the angles the short-passing game demands. He also allows others to risk forward runs while he slots into their place in the defensive unit. It’s a cliche, but he makes the team tick – and tempo matters in football as much as it does in any other sport.
McCarthy’s ability to deliver on a pivotal role is no surprise – he’s been playing senior football since he was 16 and, though he may not speak often to the media, clearly burns with football intelligence. Muhammed Besic and Ross Barkley are young and developing their games, but they must work with McCarthy and the coaching staff and learn a position that must be one of the hardest to play in 21st century football, as it is Besic’s primary function and Barkley’s secondary. In the summer, Bobby M must look for another with whom he can work to cover the McCarthy / Barry axis. It’s my belief that a bright young full-back can be taught the DM position and, if Southampton miss out on Europe, I’d like us to push the boat out for Nathaniel Clyne with a view to him playing there. And I wouldn’t put it past Leighton Baines covering Gareth Barry’s role if his engine starts to splutter on those runs up and down the wing – just because the conversion it did not work for Philipp Lahm does not rule out its merits.
When McCarthy does return to the colours, he will find a back four behind him that is wobbling. John Stones cannot relieve Sylvain Distin quickly enough, tremendous servant though the Frenchman has proved. Further back, Tim Howard might be advised to curb his off-field activities and concentrate fully on the day job. That’s not intended as jibe at another fine player who has given so much to the cause, but an honest appraisal of a man whose physical powers must be waning at nearly 36 and so needs to call upon all his concentration and positional sense in the cauldron of Premier League matches. Summer recruitment at centre-back or as clear a commitment to promote a youngster as was given to John Stones last season, is another priority looking forward.
But it’s upfront where the squad’s talents are most obvious and, in consequence, the solutions seem, infuriatingly, contrarily, both plentiful and elusive. Why can’t Bobby get a combination to work and why can’t the players get anywhere near last season’s form? Both questions are easier to put that to answer.
Mine? I’d give Big Rom a break through regular rotation – he’s played pretty much the whole of 2014 (with the World Cup in the summer) and he is only 21. Now Kone is fit, he can do the job for which he was bought – at least some of the time. Steven Naismith is just too valuable a player to leave out, so I’d start him just off the centre-forward every match, but expect him to drop deeper if he needs to do a job to hold on to a clean sheet. Ross Barkley? Probably has too much talent to leave out, so I’d ask him to play in the middle of midfield, in front of the Barry / McCarty axis and with defensive duties, but able to use that preternatural balance to go off either foot, breaking upfield. He would have to learn on the job, but fourth in the PL looks a long way off, so the league season can be dedicated to such development.
That gives the team seven players starting through the middle, but with Barkley and Naismith capable of going wide and Lukaku often doing good work out on the wing, it shouldn’t imbalance the XI. Inevitably, much emphasis would be placed on the full-backs getting forward into the spaces out wide (as they did so well last season) and on Mirallas, McGeady, Eto’o, Osman, Pienaar, Atsu and others maintaining a shape that is difficult to break down, as well as providing options going forward. It’s a squad game after all.
With so much football to be played before the Europa League brings silverware into sight and revives what is already a disappointing season, Blues fans must be patient, but deserve to see Bobby M’s thinking and players’ responses to it – a rare plea from me to be less pragmatic. A slow drift towards 11th an a defeat in the Europa League quarter-finals with the team asking the same questions each week and getting the same answers, won’t really do. But a finish ahead of Liverpool, with clear objectives laid out and achieved, both collectively and individually, would do much to set up 2015-16, a season that one feels Bobby M must deliver something at least as good as Moyes at his best in order to underpin the potential of his first joyous incarnation as Everton boss.
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