Category Archives: Predictions

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

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On taking away the positives…

More please...

More please…

That, of course, will be the line as Everton head into the international break hovering above the relegation places. Does the line have any value beyond maintaining morale? It does, but not much.

My big concern at the start of the season was the defence and, ironically given the rate at which goals are being shipped, there is some encouragement there, as my primary anxiety is proving unfounded. The squad does appear to have enough defenders of Premier League quality.

Tony Hibbert, far from being finished, has shown that he can come in and still do a job – a limited job, but a job all the same. Tyias Browning, in a couple of cameos, looks to have all the tools required to succeed as a Premier League defender, including, already, a presence on the field. Muhamed Besic may be no James McCarthy (yet), but he has got stuck in as a defensive midfielder and looks a good buy at £4m. Throw in the long awaited return of Bryan Oviedo and the surely irrefutable claim of John Stones to play centre-back whenever available and the roster looks much stronger than I anticipated in August.

What I did not foresee – who did? – is the decline of the first choice defensive unit which, quite suddenly, looks well worth our place in the table. Tim Howard is surely reacting to his World Cup heroics and needs to get back to his consistent form of last season immediately. He has had wobbly spells before, but this might be the worst. His decision to keep the ball in play when Steven Pienaar was sitting on the grass, having done the substitution signal, led directly to the goal that cost a point at Old Trafford. Roll in Sylvain Distin’s sluggish start and Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines looking short of concentration having gone through a long season straight to a World Cup and on to pre-season training with barely a break, and, well, conceding 12 more goals than Southampton is no recipe for a slot in the upper reaches of the table.

But that’s not the whole story – there are more of the famous positives we can grasp with some justification. The goals keep coming (more too, had David De Gea not made a trio of outstanding saves). Steven Naismith, aside from one sitter vs West Brom that didn’t matter, is finishing brilliantly and chances are being created and taken in (almost) every match. Not long ago, losing 2-1 at Old Trafford with Manchester United hanging on desperately in the last 15 minutes, would have been seen as a decent performance and not the gloomy failure it feels now.

That said, Romelu Lukaku disappointed again, not getting much change out of Paddy McNair (who looks a better player than England internationals, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling). As his confidence has waned a little (maybe due to the expectations that come with the big fee), the Belgian’s faults have been highlighted. The first touch remains a problem and needs a lot of work on the training ground – but when will there be time for that? He looks a beat or two off full throttle too. Is he heavier than last season? Is he tired after continual football since his return from injury in February? Is he – as he must be really, despite the eye-catching £28M transfer and all those appearances as a teenager- a young player from whom one must expect form to fluctuate? Lukaku (like Balotelli) has not been bad, but he’s not been good either and when results go against you, the big names get big scrutiny.

It was always going to be a tough start to the season with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United in the first seven matches so, in the ever more febrile atmosphere of English football (I heard a Liverpool fan call for Brendan Rodgers to be sacked yesterday) persepective is needed. But if you had asked me if I’d have taken seven goals from those four matches before the Leicester City opener, I’d have bitten your hand off – of course, I would not have expected just two points to come from those goals.

Five winnable matches await before a tricky trip to White Hart Lane (though Tottenham are hardly more consistent than Everton). That run of fixtures will answer at least three questions. Is it right to take the positives away from these early season performances or are we being fooled? Are the four stalwarts of last season’s rock solid defence (Howard, Distin, Jagielka and Baines) really as unreliable as they seem? And, crucially, do fans really mean it when they say that they “just want to see some decent football” as they so often did under David Moyes? Then, as now, I like to see goals, free-flowing play and pass-and-move in transition from defence to attack, but I’d take five 1-0s with five ogs right now. Points are the hard currency of Premier League football and Everton’s credit is running low.

Reviewing the situation – where are Everton just now?

krasnodar-mapIt’s where we are in May that counts. The table doesn’t lie. It’s over the full 38 games that we’ll show our true colours etc etc etc. Such statements may well be selections from the Big Book of Premier League Manager Cliches, but they’re no less true for that. But we’re not here to speak the bleedin’ obvious – that’s Alan Shearer’s job – we’re here to examine where we are after four games – more than 10% of the season.

We’re ninth, which isn’t bad, but below both recent custom and practice and expectations – at least that’s the orthodox view. But it’s not mine – I think. We played two Champions League teams (albeit at home) and came away with just the one point – disappointing, but hardly beyond the realms of probability and we were only a few minutes vs Arsenal from all three, which would have made for a good, if not outstanding return on the Goodison Londoners double-header. The draw at Leicester does not look quite so bad after their start and opening day fixtures against newly promoted teams can often be a bit of a banana skin. Five points after four games is, context-free, a middling return.

What of that context though? The usual suspects are ahead of us already, but our most direct rivals have not got away, for all the relative gloom around Evertonians until West Brom presented us with two goals. Plaudit-laden Tottenham are just a couple of points to the good and Arsenal and Liverpool occupy the two places above us, with six points, despite all that spending. If we, not unreasonably, write off oil-fuelled Chelsea and Manchester City and equally not unreasonably expect Aston Villa, Swansea and Southampton to drop back into the pack, some late summertime Keystone Kops defending has barely cost us any real ground.

Except that it probably has. Thursday sees the start of the Europa League with a tough home fixture against Wolfsburg. We’re back at Goodison for a winnable fixture vs Crystal Palace next Sunday, before an awkward midweek visit to Swansea for a League Cup match that is likely to see squad players given a run out by both managers.

Then come three games that will go far to telling how this season will go. The last Saturday of the month brings a trip across The Park for a game that we, more than ever, dare not lose. Then it’s the long and difficult journey towards the Caucasus for the visit to Russians Krasnodar, before rounding off the triple header with a midday match (less than three days later) at Old Trafford. How the squad deals, physically and mentally with that period of eight days, will reveal much. Oh yes, November brings six matches in 30 days and December as many as eight in 26 days.

So that’s the other aspect of context. Four PL games in four weeks, with an international break in the middle, constituted an easing into the season, with the opportunity for the medical staff to work on little knocks and for the coaching staff to drill the players at Finch Farm. If the four points squandered late on in the first two games of the season came from unexpectedly sloppy play, can that case be made if Manchester United’s huge squad without European distractions pop in a couple in the last ten minutes on Sunday October 5? You would be a hard man or woman to say that – which is why we may well live to regret not having nine points now, having made hay while the sun shone, in preparation for the grind that awaits us.

 

 

Ross Barkley – a crisis or an opportunity?

Some things to do on a rainy day

Some things to do on a rainy day

If the news of Romelu Lukaku’s signing was akin to Christmas morning for Blues, the grim prognosis about Ross Barkley’s injury is the tipsy dad standing on the favourite present, shattering (literally) all the childish joy before Morecambe and Wise have emerged from that curtain.

Or is it? Second seasons, like second albums, are notoriously tough gigs: opposition coaches have worked out a weakness or two; life off the pitch has become very complicated; and, more than any other factor, expectations have been raised in the febrile world of football to the usual unrealistic levels. But the air has now spluttered out of the Barkley balloon as he faces, for the second time in a young career, an extended period of rehabilitation.

And this is where crisis turns to opportunity. If the young man is as conscientious a listener as his manager suggests and if he is as keen as he should be to explore his potential, the rehab will teach him much. He has now grown into his rangy frame and he should talk and talk and talk to his medical support team during the long physio sessions that will fill the Autumn about how he should treat his most precious gift – his body. Though British players are much more engaged with an holistic approach to fitness (it’s seen as a 24/7 job) than they were even ten years ago, a feeling persists that European players are more understanding of the impact of a night on the booze or a failure to stretch properly, never mind poor diet.

Barkley might also watch a lot of football (maybe even read about it too) and not just from the stands at Goodison. Wouldn’t it be great to see him spending a weekend taking in a couple of Bundesliga matches? Or at the Camp Nou or Bernabeu on a European night? I recall reading about a young Arsenal player who was told to sit in the stands and simply watch Steve Bould as a intensive lesson in defensive positioning – Barkley might do the same watching James Rodriguez.

And, when he returns for a fifteen minute cameo sometime after Christmas, the applause that will greet him will not be overly infected with false hopes. Nobody – outside the more clickbait-oriented websites – will expect him to “…rescue Everton’s season”; “…lead The Toffees to an FA Cup, twenty years on”; “…add a touch of magic that might secure a Champions League spot.” The talk will be more of the start of a long process, the benefits of which will show next season – of building towards an Aaron Ramsay maturity rather than a Jack Wilshere inconsistency.

Who wouldn’t want to sign a £30M player in the January window? That, if the young man makes the most of his misfortune, will be Barkley’s impact come the sharp end of the season. Things ain’t so bad after all.

Everton’s 2014-15 season previewed – or is it?

Coral - I tell you it's coral.

Coral – I tell you it’s coral.

Can one really preview a season before the transfer window has, wait for it, slammed shut? Maybe not, but some themes (and one gigantic shadow / opportunity) can be identified and, well, what else can one write about in mid-August?

This time last year, I was fretting about the defence and I’m still fretting now. Tim Howard may be the biggest name at Team USA after his World Cup heroics against Kevin Mirallas and co, but how many games will he be able to play on top form at his age? I’d like him to sit out the Group Stage of the Europa League giving that job to Joel Robles – but you’ve already identified the flaw in that little ruse.

But that’s not the biggest hole in the squad. Just who is going to play all these games at centre-back? John Stones is too young to play every game at the considerable peak of his powers and can expect to be playing for England too – he only has two legs! Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka are model pros, but they’re both well into their thirties and have played a lot of matches. They won’t be able to shake off the knocks younger men play through – as last season showed. However, at least we have Antolin Alcaraz to step in. Ah…

At full back, Bryan Oviedo provides classy cover, but the high energy game played by both Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines will have to be rationed if they are to produce at both ends of the pitch – we may have got a bit used to their extraordinary performances week-in, week-out.

All is not lost! The midfield looks impressively stocked, particularly with DMs. The Barry-McCarthy axis will be expected to pick up where it left off and the returning Darron Gibson and new boy Muhamed Besic will give them relief when needed. We might also see Gibson dropping in as a central defender, particularly if we have a two goal advantage in the second half.

Up front, much depends on the resilience of Romelu Lukaku, who will also be withdrawn for Steven Naismith as often as possible. If a club of Everton’s means pays that kind of money for a player, much should depend on him. We should not forget his age, if he shows signs of being jaded by the Thursday / Sunday grind, though his transfer fee will surely be mentioned on the 6-0-6 shoutfests if he does go off the boil.

Will the Catalan conjuror pull a rabbit out of the hat, a 20 year-old commanding centre-back, short on game time for Barcelona or Bayern Munich, so on loan at Goodison? It seems doubtful. Will an Academy player step up and bloom? After John Stones’ and Ross Barkley’s breakthrough seasons last time round, that may be asking a little too much.

So whither the Blues in 2014-15? I’d like to have a real go at fourth in the Premier League – we could surely finish ahead of Liverpool and Manchester United, though Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal look too strong. And, if we don’t prioritise the League, I can’t see Louis Van Gaal allowing himself two transitional seasons, and the chance of fourth may be gone for another five years almost before it’s arrived. I fear that the Europa League campaign will impinge on Premier League matches, particularly in the last 15 minutes, and we’ll slip behind those five clubs mentioned above and Tottenham to drift into 7th or 8th, with too many draws at the likes of Palace and Burnley. And then we’ll lose in the semi-finals in Europe and finish the season deflated having played good, but gradually tiring, football.

Tricks and Treats? Being everyone’s second favourite team 22 February 2014

Looks a bit like Martinez

Looks a bit like Martinez

As has become commonplace this season – let’s call it the Swansea Effect – Everton gather praise from the pundits and the public as the pretty passes and pleasing possession fill 90 minutes of screen time painlessly. Painlessly if you are tuning in for a bootleg Barcelona that is. But if the grim accumulation of points, the kind that wins trophies (or, at least, in Moyesesque “style” trumps Liverpool’s apparently finally buried “flattery to deceive”) is what you want – it’s getting to be a bit of a horror show. The Gooodison faithful have patiently gained the same education as the players about the primacy of the ball and the admissibility of error in pursuit of ambition, but bizarrely, just two thirds of the way through his first season, Martinez may already be suffering second season syndrome, his team worked out, his tactics easily praised but easily neutralised.

The Chelsea winner was coming. And it was no surprise that it was two of Everton’s most impressive players this season – two who impressed throughout the previous 90 minutes – who were at fault. A tiring Phil Jagielka hung a leg out for Ramires to topple over and a distracted Tim Howard could not clean out his six yard box as John Terry attacked the free kick fearlessly. Long before that, the  fatigue attendant on the pressing game was exacting a price on Gareth Barry, Steven Naismith and James McCarthy. 

That may be expected towards the end of an away fixture at the League leaders, but the impact of the three substitutes – who should be taking the pressure off the eight men there from the start – was more of a surprise. Ross Barkley seems bereft of confidence, almost a parody of the player who thrilled everyone in the first three months of the season. He has all his old errors but none of his successes. He needs game time and a little something – maybe just one sidestep and shot on target – to lift his game and, it must be said, his spirits. Aiden McGeady flits in and out of matches and looks ill-suited to hitting the game hard in the last ten minutes as an impact substitute. Gerard Deulofeu, like Barkley, needs game time and a chance to ease into a game, rather than be asked to rescue or win one.

As Roberto Martinez’s tricks of the trade are worked out by opponents and as the treats start to be handed out not just to neutrals enjoying the passing game, but to opponents who know that Everton goals are scarce and errors less so, the season looks like it may turn on a trip to Arsenal for the FA Cup. Since Ross Barkley’s wonder goal at Swansea, Everton have scored 8 goals and taken 10 points from 9 league games. After so much hope in the Autumn, the fans need a treat or two in the Spring to rescue a season in danger of fizzling out.  

The Martinez Project the final third in the season’s second half 22 December 2013

How's the season going Robbie?

How’s the season going Robbie?

Everton knock it around in midfield knowing that if the ball is at the feet of a man wearing Blue, the opposition cannot score. But venture into the final third, where the blue shirts are outnumbered and the spaces smaller, and the routine passes need to be hit harder and not just to a man, but to a man’s foot. That burst of pace find a little room to get the head up to play the killer ball or the drop of the shoulder to make a half-yard in which to shoot – well, that’s the hardest thing to do in the game. It’s what separates the very good from the great.

So much in The Martinez Project is working successfully – just one defeat in the League and an away win over a top side – but progress in turning good possession into good chances isn’t quite as impressive as so much else of the Catalan Conjuror’s work. So, short of buying Assist Master Juan Mata in January, what can be done?

The answer seems obvious (and may be happening, but there are few signs). On the training ground, why not line up Lukaku, Barkley, Pienaar and Mirallas against Barry, McCarthy, Jagielka, Distin, Coleman and Oviedo / Baines? It’s not quite how Everton attack – Barry and McCarthy and both full-backs usually join offensive play – but the puzzles to be solved would mimic those encountered in match situations.

Of course, the training – which are led to understand is quite different under Martinez than that directed by David Moyes – has led to technical excellence throughout the XI, even throughout the matchday XVIII – but that merely shifts the attention to another aspect of football – imagination. Under pressure, with hearts pounding and fatigue in the limbs, it’s hard to think creatively – the fortunate few can rely on instinct – but it can be done. 

And as I write, exactly the sort of imagination allied to technique is shown by a player who is riding a wave of confidence not seen in an Everton player since Peter Reid bossed game after game in the mid-80s. You wonder what would happen if Lukaku and Barkley were as prepared to attack as Seamus Coleman or if Mirallas had his shooting accuracy. Would practice help? Surely it wouldn’t hinder.

How can Everton develop the collective understanding to make the right decisions with possession in the final third? The season reaches its halfway mark at the end of the year and, with expectations raised way beyond what even the most optimistic of Evertonians would have considered likely in August, football’s most difficult questions need to be answered. They are questions that Manchester City answer regularly, that Luis Suarez seems capable of answering on his own and that can cost £40M per player. The second half of the season’s Martinez Project will tell us if this very good Everton side can be considered great.