Category Archives: Match report

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.


On being a goal down

Tony Hibbert's best chance of stopping opponents

Tony Hibbert’s best chance of stopping opponents

Thanks largely to Tim Howard, mercifully back in form after his extended World Cup hangover, Everton went into the closing stages of the Derby just one goal worse off, a soft free kick expertly converted by an otherwise anonymous Steven Gerrard. “There’s always a chance in the last ten minutes” I told my son – cliches within a family being excusable. And so it came to pass – or rather to screaming half-volley, as Phil Jagielka exorcised an early season demon or two with a Goal of the Month contender.

Truth be told, I had given up on my expected chance arriving. Too often, despite having Naismith, McGeady, Eto’o and Lukaku on the field, and an enterprising John Stones making an extra man in midfield, there were only two Blue shirts in the box as crosses were played in – decent sides get three in there and the best have four. Overloading the penalty area played a big part in the “David Beckham is a world class player” myth – so often Manchester United had so many targets for his crosses that he could barely miss. Everton’s crosses missed all day long today.

But (and wasn’t it nice to see opponents suffer for the same fault that so often has dogged Everton when we hold a one goal advantage) Liverpool were forced deep, deep in stoppage time and they couldn’t get out to block our captain, who had taken up a good position for his wonder strike. He might never hit a ball as sweetly again – but that doesn’t matter now.

Two other points can be taken from the match, both regularly mentioned here. Tony Hibbert isn’t far off 34 and, with just 11 appearances since the end of the 2011-12 season, could hardly have been expected to slot in against Raheem Sterling. It was a relief to see him put out of his misery with the arrival of Tyias Browning, another local lad, but bigger, quicker and stronger. It was an encouraging cameo from twenty-year old, who can expect rather more game-time before the season is out. One can’t say the same for dear old Hibbo.

Gareth Barry, just three days younger than Hibbert, was lucky to avoid a second yellow card with some injudicious tackling and his “arm in front of the face” block. He was fortunate that James McCarthy (like my Man of the Match, Tim Howard) had re-discovered his best form just in time to cover runners and block and tackle for the full 95 minutes. It’s not uncommon for players to lose half a yard, but Barry doesn’t have that luxury, as he was never quick in the first place. Maybe, like Leon Osman, Barry might be better deployed in the last twenty minutes of a match to shore up the coming midfield axis of McCarthy + Besic / Gibson or to keep things tight for an hour before giving way to McGeady or Osman, introduced to open up tiring defences. Ninety minutes, twice a week, looks too much just now.

Cameras panning across players and fans decked in red and those decked in blue, told you everything about how the clubs will view the sharing of the points – but it is just one point like any other. At least that’s what I keep telling myself…

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.

Everton drift into fifth place and have much to ponder for 2014-15

Everton's youngsters approaching the end of the season.

Everton’s youngsters approaching the end of the season.

Of course it was a curious match – no Everton team in history has had the drive and success of Howard Kendall’s mid-80s nonpareils, but, with the Title secured, the last two games of 1984-85 were lost (though the corresponding games in the same situation were won in 1986-87). For all Martin Tyler’s and Gary Neville’s constant references to the crowd’s ambivalence, if anything, City’s performance was the more baffling – such lauded players seemingly so unsure of whether to attack or defend, perhaps showing Pellegrini’s lack of experience come squeeky bum time, Everton, in everything except the result, offered a miniature of our season as a whole.

How so? Naturally, there was plenty of what will be the dominant narrative when Roberto Martinez’s first term in charge is written up – attacking, skilful, aesthetically pleasing football. There were threats all over the pitch, with pace out wide and through the middle; possession was retained well and used well – mainly; and goals came through patience and planning, rather than through shoving it in the mixer and seeing what turned up. Ross Barkley found the space he needed to play (sometimes it seems he needs that space for his morale as much as anything else) and scored another eye-catching goal and the Martinez inflected tiki-taka saw lots of movement to create triangles, with Lukaku and Naismith sometimes pulling wide and Coleman and Baines often ducking inside.

But the limitations of the side showed too. Jags was selected but not fit (again) and Alcaraz and Osman (when starting) looked off the pace; corners were simply looped in and cleared easily with free kicks not offering much more; the youngsters (Stones and Lukaku this time) looked tired, mentally as well as physically, the intense, intellectually demanding training telling now it’s May. And – this the crucial conundrum to solve to take the team to the next level – Everton’s final ball was often inaccurate; hurried or closed out: but our opponents seemed to have options when they looked for the killer pass. That back door (against top attackers) needs to be shut a little more tightly and the front door needs to be wedged a little more ajar.

Of course, Everton aren’t alone in needing to solve football’s hardest puzzles, but it rankles to see how good we can be between the boxes and how things can go a little flat in those last twenty yards of grass at either end. Harsh? Possibly, but City’s crucial third goal looked so easy – especially compared to Deulofeu’s one shot on goal, that needed him to channel the spirit of Messi before being denied by Hart’s fine save.

It’s impossible to know what will happen in the summer, particularly with the loans of Lukaku and Deulofeu, but Naismith and Barkley look very good as a pair floating between the lines and Mirallas’ late season surge has shown that he can be as direct as ever. What’s needed is a replacement for Lukaku who has the skills and intelligence of a Naismith with his back to goal and the thrust of an Aguero when facing up defenders. Yeah – and who doesn’t? But Lukaku might yet stay and might yet develop into his full potential – but if he doesn’t, I’d like Wilfried Bony, who might be prised away from Swansea if the price is right and if they feel Michu can repeat his last season next time round.

But let’s be very clear about it – an improvement on Martinez’ first season come 2014-15 will require a fourth place finish in the Premier League (very, very, very tough); a Europa League win (very, very tough); or a Cup win propelled by what will surely be weakened teams in the first few rounds. Let’s enjoy the football and let’s keep hoping, but let’s not fool ourselves that this season is a springboard to greater things.


Everton’s Champions League bid fails to take off

Everton at St Mary's

Everton at St Mary’s

An hour or so before Everton kicked off at 12.45pm (I’m sure travelling fans appreciated that little ankle tap from BT Sports) Ronnie O’Sullivan was in trouble at The Crucible. 11-9 down, having thrown a frame away with a schoolboy lapse in concentration, he knew that it was time to show what he was made of. The Rocket got it to all square, then powered over the line with two century breaks to show that he is not merely an excellent player – he is a great player. Greatness is defined in meeting challenges, not in mere execution of skills, and few possess it

In the windy, sunlit crucible of St Mary’s, Everton’s players – excellent though they may be – did not live up to the test of greatness (as, gallingly, our brothers from across the Park appear to have done). Right from the off, the Blues had, if not quite a lethargy about them, a definite lack of zip, perhaps lacking David Moyes’ inspiration of last week. Sure this XI were shorn of some first choices, but the team selected were good enough to get in and around a decent Saints outfit, good enough to impose themselves in the middle of the pitch, good enough to compete. They didn’t.

In defence, two own goals will provide comic amusement for the bantz, but they can happen to any team at any time. What was more worrying was the ease with which Southampton – without Jay Rodriguez – got at Everton’s last line of defence. You felt that Rickie Lambert (who must have enjoyed this 90 minutes as much as any in his career) and Adam Lallana could have gone up a gear for another goal had they needed to do so. Antolin Alcaraz and Seamus Coleman may have their names on the scoresheet, but it was a collective failure. Gareth Barry looked washed up at the end of a long season, lucky to stay on the field partly as a result of Michael Oliver’s eccentric refereeing and partly as a result of Roberto Martinez’s forbearance with the substitutes’ board. James McCarthy played his most ineffective game in a Blues shirt, rendering the season long (ex Anfield) DM screen invisible for much of the match. In a portent of life in 2015 and beyond,  the team missed Sylvain Distin’s calm influence at the back.

Going forward, things were hardly much better. “It doesn’t matter who Deulofeu plays against, he’ll have the beating of him” – I said to my son this morning. Well, he did not have the beating of Nathaniel Clyne, who enjoyed the sight of the mercurial one switching wings to try his luck against £30M man, Luke Shaw. Romelu Lukaku came up a poor second in comparison to The Litherland Lionel – Mr Lambert – whose velcro touch and judgment of a pass are well beyond the Belgian’s compass, for all his promise and power. Ross Barkley, on parade in front of Roy Hodgson, must have been bitterly disappointed to have been hooked at half-time, but, when he looks at the tape, he can’t argue.

So The Rocket revived at Sheffield, but Everton’s season has been brought down to earth at Southampton. The rarified atmosphere of the Champions League looks as distant as the moon right now. instead, an orbit around obscure Eastern European outposts in the Europa League seems more likely come next season.

The Magnificent Seven halted, then ride towards the Europa League

Everton - plenty to have a shot, but where's the defence?

Everton – plenty to have a shot, but where’s the defence?

Nature is pleased by balance. Sometimes we don’t even know it’s there – think of a snowflake revealed under a microscope – and sometimes it’s bleedin’ obvious – think Ross Barkley or John Stones striding through a midfield, able to go off either foot. But balance in football is about more than the physical qualities of the players – it’s also about the make-up of the side.

Even with the Manchester City game looming – for which Gareth Barry is ineligible – it was a surprise to see Roberto Martinez leave James McCarthy on the bench to try Ross Barkley as the veteran’s partner in the DM screening role. It was even more surprising to see Gerard Deulofeu, Kevin Mirallas and Aiden McGeady together in the starting XI. Everton looked unbalanced between natural attackers and natural defenders on paper and, come the match itself, on the lush Goodison turf too.

Barry looked a little fatigued – mentally as much as physically – and he missed his hard-running Irish scrapper alongside him. Barkley had time on the ball, but his deeper starting position made his hip-swivelling dribbles less dangerous and exposed the weakest element of his game – picking a pass. When McCarthy did get a go as a substitute on the hour, he looked hungry for action and immediately bolstered Everton’s short-handed defensive effort.

But the real problems were up front. You can understand the reasoning – Everton were always going to have plenty of possession against a Tony Pulis team, so why not max out the number of players most likely to break down the wall of yellow shirts? Somehow – as Carlos Tevez, currently out of favour for Argentina (who have options up the field), is finding out – it doesn’t quite work that way. Chase the game, send the big fella up front for the last five minutes, go 4-2-4 – however it comes about, it seldom pays off to have men trying to jink past defenders right, left and centre. For all the flair players scattered across the pitch, Everton had just one more shot on target than their opponents, despite cornering 70% of the possession.

Yes, yes, but had you offered Roberto Martinez two goals at the start of the match, he would have taken them, backing his hitherto outstanding back four and keeper to keep Palace to two goals or fewer and thus seize back fourth place. To their manager’s credit, when they did get the ball, Palace were direct in attack and finished with no little skill “doing a job” on Everton in – dare I say – Moyesian style. Everton – for once abandoning the balance that has served them so well for the season’s 33 previous games – have their work cut out now the sequence of seven straight wins has been halted and momentum dissipated. Fourth is still on, but Martinez needs snookers from here.