Category Archives: Naismith

On Barkley and Naismith – Everton 0 Swansea 0

My ball!

My ball!

The Barkley-Naismith Problem sounds like one of those mathematical conjectures that attracts a $1M prize that is unclaimed since 1974. Everton’s very own Barkley-Naismith Problem might prove as intractable unless Roberto can find a way of blending these two non-complementary talents. There is no future in having twice as much possession as our opponents and fashioning just three attempts on target as was the case vs an obdurate Swansea, aided by a tolerant referee.

Since Ross Barkley started his season late, he has caught the eye with his dribbling, his prompting and his general busyness in the final third, but it came as something of a surprise that his assist for Samuel Eto’o’s curler into the corner of the Burnley net last week was his first assist in his Premier League career. The long-standing Everton issue of converting pass completions into a killer ball remains, with Leighton Baines still the most likely source of unlocking a drilled defence. Though Barkley is still learning his game, it’s perhaps a tinge disappointing that after what must have been a period of rehabilitation during which he worked with coaches and video analysis, he still knocks the ball off sideways (as often as not) when probing for an opening. The game-changer needs to change games

That might not be so bad – and might be too harsh a criticism for a young player – were it not for Barkley’s impact on Steven Naismith, Everton’s best player in the first half dozen matches of the season. Pushed wide to give the England man a free role “in the hole”, the spaces Naismith nosed out between the lines and the late runs into the box that yielded goals, have become much less frequent (though the Scot’s work ethic has blocked opposition full-backs effectively). Opposition centre-halves must be very pleased to see Naismith so distant from domain.

Can the two men best suited to the attacking midfielder role be accommodated in the same XI? Three shots on target in 90 minutes and a reluctance to cross the ball due to an absence of numbers in the penalty box suggest that they can’t at the moment. And (whisper it) if you had to pick one or the other, wouldn’t it make more sense to pick Steven Naismith? Heresy I know, but Ross Barkley might not be an automatic first choice and rotation may well be the best option regardless of the fixture list’s demands.


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.

The Toffees – as sweet as a box of choccies

The Everton squad pictured on Sunday morning

The Everton squad pictured on Sunday morning

Eyebrows would have been raised by the exclusion of Everton’s two young guns – Ross Barkley and Gerard Deulofeu – for the visit of the Gunners. Roberto Martinez preferred the prosaic Steven Naismith and the mercurial (well, mercurial and experienced) Kevin Mirallas, both of whom had played so well as second half substitutes last week at Craven Cottage. Around me, sages sucked on thoughtful tooths and said, “Got to keep it tight early on. No point going expansive and falling behind. Pragmatic choice – let’s not lose the game before we can win it”. Not for the first time, the Catalan in the brown shoes and the tight coat surprised us.

Even before Leon Osman was replaced by Ross Barkley, Everton were committed to an open, expansive game, identifying Arsenal’s continuing perverse absence of an effective holding midfield player as a weakness, and pouring forward. Ossie wasn’t far off with a Goal of the Month contender before, like King Harold, he took one in the eye that necessitated his leaving the field of battle. With so many players in form, the captain was not missed.

We’re told that football is a squad game these days – and it obviously is – but it’s also a selection game too. Kevin Mirallas had looked a little stale (only two weeks ago, I read a long time Blue suggesting that he was marking time before a post-World Cup move away from Goodison) but a couple of early substitutions and some starts on the bench appear to have focused his mind – the Belgian is back to his best. Steven Naismith, playing just off Big Rom in a position that clearly suits his penchant for linking play and arriving late in the box, was magnificent in the first half, an unlikely fans’ favourite. There’s something of a Paul Power (ask you Dad) about his maximising of output from a (comparatively) less expansive skillset in a squad not short glamorous options.

Roberto’s resource allocation decision brought one goal (Naismith) and two assists (Mirallas) – and three exceptionally important points, with another notch added to his tally of match changing decisions. The Toffees’  has as tempting a box of chocolates as any manager at Goodison since Howard Kendall’s class of ’87. It must be tempting to reach into that second layer to pull out the Strawberry (blond) Delight that is Gerard Deulofeu, but sometimes the Coconut Cream that is Steven Naismith is the better option. The Martinez magic is still working – every decision is just so sweet.

Martinez trusts his First XI and his bench. And it’s not 1986. 30 March 2014

Three across the middle

Three across the middle

Returning from Craven Cottage on a beautiful Spring day after a beautiful Everton win (well, beautifulish – none are ugly), only two blots could be spied on the horizon. South London gave every indication that its recession was in the past (and the Tories hence electable) and Liverpool were, if anything, even more unstoppable than the Blues. Had I been 40 kilos lighter, I could have made a case for it being 1986.

But it wasn’t just the number of red boots worn by Everton players that would have surprised a time traveller from 28 years ago – it was the crisp football played not just by the team challenging for Europe, but also by the team rock bottom of the Premier League. In the second half anyway.

I was surprised to see both Everton’s young midfield guns in the starting XI after the attention paid to them as a result of their excellent performances in the 3-0 midweek shellacking of Newcastle – I’d have rested Ross Barkley and probably Gerard Deulofeu too, but Roberto knew that they are in his strongest available XI and start they did. Though Everton’s best work in a disjointed first half display came through the cute Catalan, he was often a peripheral figure as Fulham buzzed around his supply lines (especially Leon Osman, as poor on the bank of the Thames as he was good on the bank of the Tyne). Ross Barkley picked up a knock early, but had never got into the game and did not emerge for the second 45 minutes.

As is the way with 21st century managers, Martinez does not see the bench as a set of insurance policies for hobbling players, but as set of cards to be played as he sees fit. Steven Naismith slotted in off Romelu Lukaku (sometimes interchanging with the point of the attack the better to stand up Fulham’s pace-free centre-backs) and carried a threat throughout. As soon as Ashkan Dejagah showed his potential, Deulofeu was withdrawn in favour of Kevin Mirallas, who duly took the pass of the match (maybe, the season) from the third substitute, Aiden McGeady, to kill off the game. Tim Howard may have been Man of the Match, but the three substitutes won it. 

For the crunch match vs Arsenal next Sunday, Roberto has to consider another careful balancing of his resources. Does he bring back the club captain whose fitness is likely to permit him to start? Or does he stick with Everton’s best outfield player, the precocious John Stones, whose game, especially in possession, is developing rapidly? I’d pick Stones – he really is that good already – but the Boss may have other ideas. Whoever does get the nod, we know that he, and 17 other Evertonians in the matchday squad, will enjoy the complete confidence of a man who has brought back a swagger last seen when Aha told us that “The Sun Always Shines On TV”. It’s shining on Merseyside now too.  

In Praise of… Steven Naismith 14 September 2013

Boy Band Boy

Boy Band Boy

So Steven Naismith then? Not exactly a Metsut Ozil; not a Stephen Pienaar either; maybe not even a Leon Osman, but he was immense under pressure, as Everton weathered a second half Chelsea storm whipped up by Jose Mourinho – a man who knows a bit about winning football matches, but a man who couldn’t win this one.

Though he’ll never be a fan favourite – there will be a lot more number 20 shirts sold than 14s in the club shop – but his manager will have liked what he saw today and so should fans. In a match against a Champions League club, discipline counts for everything – it’s why you see managers screaming at players, imploring them to keep their shape and track their runners. In the long periods when Chelsea dominated possession, Naismith stayed wide when he needed to stay wide, covered inside when he needed to cover inside and was determined to get goalside whenever his team lost the ball – that’s impressive stuff from a man who made his name as a forward. The number of times he picked up scrappy ball from Chelsea’s unimaginative attacking forays and gave it to the nearest blue shirt had my mind’s eye wistfully recalling the mid 80s glory days of Paul Bracewell and of Joe Parkinson a decade later – scrappers who stopped them, and started us.

Balance in a side is not just about covering the physical dimensions of the pitch, it’s also about risk and reward. It was this element of the Scot’s play that caught my eye over the full 90 minutes. With a Gazzaesque Ross Barkley looking to beat a man and play the killer pass (and wasn’t it great to see a young Englishman with the confidence, ability and license to do that against a CL club), other players have to watch for the loss of possession, the swiftness of the counter-attack, the runs from deep. This element of the game demands experience and concentration and was exemplified in the performance of Gareth Barry, but Naismith wasn’t far behind the impressive debutant in that unsung aspect of the game.

But the Premier League demands that players be multi-dimensional, especially in the games against sides that are tilting for the Title, whose benches are stacked with players who would command eight figure transfer fees. Naismith was charged with getting forward too, and he did so, to score a goal with a simple finish, but a remarkable conception. In open play, as the ball crossed the line with time up on the clock, Everton had four players in the six yard box – more than their opponents, for whom David Luiz had once more gone walkabout. For all of Naismith’s dedication to defensive duties, when he needed to be one yard out in the middle of the goal, he was.

Goodison’s faithful saluted him on his late substitution – we know a good ‘un. 

Everton 1 Chelsea 0 MotM – Steven Naismith.