Category Archives: Martinez

Martinez, Mirallas and Green – The Blues’ midwinter blues

AG“I’m… I’m so in love with you
Whatever you want to do
Is all right with me…
‘Cause you… make me feel so brand new…
And I… want to spend my life with you…

Let me say that since, baby
Since we’ve been together
Ooo…
Loving you forever
Is what I… need…
Let me… be the one you come running to…
I’ll… never be untrue…

Ooo baby…
Let’s, let’s stay together…
Loving you whether, whether
Times are good or bad, happy or sad
Ooooo… Oooo… Yeah…
Whether times are good or bad, happy or sad”

The Reverend Al Green there with a declaration of faith in the spirit of togetherness, something that’s elusive around Goodison Park (and probably Finch Farm too) these days. The grim run of results, Bobby’s bouncy bonhomie falling flat and Kevin Mirallas… Well, when things go against you, they really go against you.

The febrile football punditocracy have had their say on Kev’s show of confidence / show of arrogance, Gary Neville going all in on Sky with…

“If he’s done what I think he’s done, gone against team orders, manager orders, and selfishly taken the ball, it’s one of the most despicable breaches of team orders you can possibly have. You do not do that at any cost.

“Leighton Baines, not the most confrontational type of lad, he’s the type that has probably said: ‘go on then, if you’re confident’.

Mirallas took penalty ahead of normal spot-kick man Baines

“But what usually happens in dressing rooms is your free-kick takers, penalty-takers are usually listed.”

Well you can only call that kind of raise from the seat left of the small blind, but Kev still got the press he must have expected (although Leighton Baines probably didn’t expect a shoeing too – though the Press don’t often miss a chance to kick a nice guy when he’s down).

As for me? Kev’s a confident guy, he’s always backed himself, he’s a winner and winners do that sort of thing (cue Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights). Except it’s not like that – not outside a Will Ferrell vehicle anyway, no matter how well observed. If Kev wanted to take the penalty, the time for sorting that out was on the training ground prepping (yes, prepping) for the match. Whether you have a poignant tribute to a tragically killed mate on a T-shirt, or felt you are on a roll, or just got high on the sheer release a goal would bring to a tense spell, he shouldn’t have done it. He looked like a selfish idiot (his personal comeuppance) but he made team-mates and his manager look weak too and that’s worse than the two points eschewed.  (What could they do – “Bowyer and Dyer” it out on the field, Big Rom and Glasgow Steven battling for Bainesy? No.)

If Kev goes, I shan’t shed any tears. Though he should recognise that Everton made him – I mean, who is top scorer in the Greek League now? I doubt he will though (at least not yet) and, though he’ll probably go to another top, if not top, top team in the summer, he’s unlikely to be indulged running down blind allies and playing hospital passes as he has been at Everton. We’ll miss his pace – but we’re missing pace everywhere right now.

So what of Bobby? Are you with the Talksport shouters who want him out and Duncan Ferguson promoted to add a bit more PASSION!!! (Presumably because elite football matches turn on PASSION and not player technique, managerial organisation or coolness under pressure).

Not me. I’ll give Senor M this season to deal with the reaction to last season. I’ll judge him (and Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku and Tim Howard) in December 2015 when we’ll know about how these men deal with adversity. This season will improve when James McCarthy returns (which might be ideally timed for the Europa League), a player with plenty of mid-80s Peter Reid about him and a huge loss this term. Bobby’s got some work to do on the squad, but he bought McCarthy and secured Muhamed Besic for a song, so he knows what’s needed to defend up the field and he has coaches to get the lads right at corners. Once Premier League safety is secured (and I’m not taking that for granted), I’d like to see lots of the impressive youngsters (like Tyias Browning and Ryan Ledson) being given 60 mins, because, as Southampton have shown, there’s nothing like giving responsibility to encourage responsibility.

(The squad needs to be fitter though, something Bobby M knows a bit about, but ain’t a little knowledge a dangerous thing?)

Lose against Palace away and this mysteriously effective Liverpool at Goodison and Martinez will face the awesome Chelsea machine at Stamford Bridge with a crisis on his hands. And, when you’re in a crisis or in a mid-90s slasher movie, everyone knows that it pays to stay together.

Sing the song Al.

 

Everton – Christmas Present

Things looking up for Kone?

Things looking up for Kone?

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.

You can tweet me @garynaylor999

On surrendering points – Everton vs Hull City

Chez Roberto

Chez Roberto

Roberto Martinez has a young daughter and, though his world is very different to ours, some things remain the same. Small children can tire you out – physically and mentally. You struggle to concentrate, you forget things you really ought to remember, you get clumsy. It’s a joy that’s seen through bleary eyes and a fuzzy head. Sure you get through, but, for a few years, you’re short of your best as obligation stretches from day into night and on to day again. Cyril Connolly pithily put it thus: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

Everton’s pram in the hall is the Europa League, the mewling infant that demands attention when you really want to watch Pointless and eat chocolate. Roberto doesn’t see it that way – the more the merrier is his line when it comes to fixtures, but methinks he doth protest too much. The line – like the squad – is beginning to feel a little worn.

While the likes of Mark Noble can laugh off fatigue with ridiculous comparisons, the empirical evidence is rather more compelling. Two points were surrendered at home to Hull to join the three surrendered on Sunday at White Hart Lane. In the disappointing start to the campaign, three were given up at home to Crystal Palace and two each to Arsenal and Leicester City. That’s 12 points in total, 12 points that would see us third in the table, the kind of advance on last year’s fifth that fans had hoped for, if not expected.

Few sides concede no equalisers nor winners across 14 matches, so let’s hold on to less than half the points (Arsenal, Tottenham). Those five points retained would put us sixth (between West Ham and Swansea if it feels too far-fetched). As it is, we languish in 11th, closer to the Championship than the Champions League.

Okay, maybe fifth last season was an overachievement, but seventh should not be beyond a squad brimming with internationals. But if a dreary league season beckons, that pram in the hall has to house a bouncing baby Europa League trophy – with its passport to the Champions League, football’s Oxbridge education.

Let’s not be over-critical after this most disappointing few days, but let’s also understand that backpacking across Europe brings plenty of bills as well as memories.

 

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.

 

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?

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.

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.