Category Archives: Baines

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.

Seamus Coleman, Leighton Baines and Bryan Oviedo – and goals 29 December 2013

Both in the box again

Both in the box again

Everton’s full-backs have scored nine goals at the midpoint of the Premier league season – indeed, they have scored in five of the last seven games. Why is this so?

Jonathan Wilson regularly reminds us that football tactics are designed to find space on the field and The Martinez Project (and it is plainly a project, extending through the club from training ground, maybe even back office, to pitch) aims to find that space through moving the ball with relatively low risk short passes, albeit in relatively high risk areas. But any version of tiki-taka – even with the variations Martinez uses (and there were more long balls vs Southampton and more concessions of possession than in most other matches this season) – can become a little stale, a little too self-regarding, a little short on penetration as the ball travels laterally. Sooner or later, someone needs to take a chance on beating a man, having a shot or playing a killer ball. 

That’s when Everton’s three footballing full-backs come into their own. With marginally more space to work out wide and with the reassurance that midfielders can defend a loss of possession when the ball can only be moved in one direction (in-field), Martinez encourages his full-backs to up the tempo by taking on their opponents, cutting inside for a shot or by hurtling into the box to add the all-important extra man that can tilt the odds in attackers’ favour when balls run loose near goal. Of course, confidence breeds confidence, and Seamus Coleman in particular is brimming with the stuff – he just expects to score.

But football is a dynamic system – each part of the system impacts on another, each action both an effect and a cause of others. Nowhere is this more clear than when Coleman or Baines lift the tempo with another incisive pass or run and shot. Largely unnoticed, James McCarthy, Gareth Barry and, in the Southampton match, Bryan Oviedo, drift in behind the marauding defender, filling in empty space, reducing the risk, limiting opponents’ options. This was most noticeable today when Leighton Baines was caught upfield and instigated an ad hoc positional swap with Bryan Oviedo that required much pointing and meaningful looks from a distance of about 30 paces. 

The Baines-Oviedo left-side didn’t work on its first outing, but there’s a future for the two working together, rotating from defending to attacking, lifting the tempo to inject the change of pace that can open up packed defences. This will become more important when Ross Barkley is injured or jaded (as he was a little today) – and when Kevin Mirallas fulfils the role of impact substitute. 

And on the other side? The Irishman seems capable of running the show himself just now – the most improved player in the Premier League in 2013. Older readers will recall Derek Mountfield’s ten league goals in 1984-85 – can Seamus Coleman match that much loved goalscoring defender’s tally? He’s on course all right.  

Leighton Baines, Kevin Sheedy and Brad Pitt 22 September

Oh yes.

Oh yes.

Kevin Sheedy was my favourite player. Our magnificent Number 11 fits the bill for being The One for me – he was a key man in a winning side, a near contemporary of mine and did things of which us mere mortals could merely dream.

Kevin Sheedy also did (for want of a better word) the most extraordinary thing I have ever witnessed on a football field. Against Ipswich’s renowned shot-stopper Paul Cooper, he smashed a free-kick from the edge of the box into Cooper’s top right hand corner. He had answered Goodison’s hissed “Sheedy, Sheedy, Sheedy” that greeted every dead ball opportunity yet again. But, but, but… the referee was inexplicably displeased with such perfection and ordered a re-take. Whereupon Kevin Sheedy simply placed the ball in Cooper’s top left-hand corner. I do not exaggerate when I claim a feeling close to that engendered by art’s concept of The Sublime when I see that sequence of play. In my mind’s eye, this is a picture of Sheedy contemplating the Park End. Over the top? Well, see for yourself and make your call.

Of course, these happy memories come rushing in as a result of Leighton Baines’ genius at Upton Park, planting two free kicks either side of Jussi Jaaskeleinen. Compared to Sheedy’s efforts, Baines’ goals were technically less difficult – a better distance to get the ball up and down and the ‘keeper’s movements made the targets larger – but these goals were both equalisers and away from home. It’s best not to judge these glorious examples of football’s capacity to astoniosh, but simply to marvel and to give thanks that such brilliance wears a badge that claims, correctly, Nils Satis Nisi Optimum.

One more thing unites Everton’s two greatest left-sided players – the sheer romance of their play. In an age of Opta stats and Moneyball analysis, both men are unafraid to try the outrageous, to make hard choices eschewing the easier options, to think of the glorious opportunities attendant on wearing the Blue shirt and not its limitations in the age of oligarchs and the Champions League. They are dream players because they do stuff in real life that really should only appear in dreams (Baines’ free kick vs Newcastle last season is precisely what I mean).

Perhaps most of all though, they are ours – bearers of the School of Science’s tradition, respected and coveted by fans of other clubs, but unconditionally loved by fans of ours. Kevin Sheedy and Leighton Baines – all-time great Evertonians – I salute you.

Marouane Fellaini, Leighton Baines and Francis Jeffers 30 August 2013

I wouldn't if I were you Fella

I wouldn’t if I were you Fella

The interminable saga of the Felliani/Baines “transfer” to Manchester United will, er… terminate on Monday, when we will know whether or not the Bruiser from Belgium and the Kid from Kirkby will be playing in Blue or Red henceforth. Whilst not everyone involved in the tug-of-love has covered themselves in glory, both players have shown admirable sang-froid, much to their credit. Even if they do go, they’re likely to be held in good regard by Evertonians and welcomed back to the sound of cheers rather than jeers – until Fellaini catches Barkley with a trademark flying elbow, that is.

It wasn’t always this way. Twelve years ago, twenty-year-old Francis Jeffers moved in the close season to Arsenal for £8M and invited the ire of Evertonians everywhere. I don’t recall exactly what he said to send disappointment into anger and on to apoplexy, but the “fox in the box” was not as cunning off the field as on it and was as good at getting his foot into his mouth when talking to the press, as he was at getting a boot to a low cross. (He famously encouraged English forwards to dive in a BBC interview – admirably honest, but perhaps best kept inside the dressing room, not inside the living room).

Evertonians did not like what Jeffers had done – not one bit. If he had never worn a “Once a Blue, Always a Blue” T-shirt like the one worn by a defector of some three years later, he had played fewer games for Everton, had fewer credentials for a big move and, if truth be told, thought rather more of himself than fans did of him. Rooney was a superstar – Jeffers, just a star. Having not served his time but merely used our club as a stepping stone to a bigger payday, Evertonians waited for him to come a cropper – and they didn’t have to wait long.

When he wasn’t injured at Arsenal, he wasn’t good enough for selection (Wenger preferred Thierry Henry to nobody’s surprise) but he did play a few games, many as substitute. In October 2002, over a year after he left the club, he trotted out at Goodison as a 71st minute substitute for Kanu – and the boos and whistles rained down from all four sides of the ground like I had never heard before (including the cacophonies for Jimmy Case and Wayne Rooney – whose booing was more panto than vicious).

Things were already going badly for Jeffers and haven’t improved since, and he’s a man probably more in need of help than hisses these days, but I can still hear that reception now and, I’m sure, he can too. I doubt that the Goodison faithful will ever react like that again – maybe that’s a good thing – but I am sure that such a reception will not be given to Fellaini and Baineson their return, should they leave. In fact, I think the opposite is more likely.