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.



And his signature song was originally done by The Village People and The Pet Shop Boys

And his signature song was originally done by The Village People and The Pet Shop Boys

Two very clear memories of Duncan Ferguson are etched on my mind. With Everton rock bottom of the Premiership, drifting under the dubious direction of Mike Walker, just 14,505 pitched up at Selhurst Park to see the Blues play Palace. Early on, just in front of me, the new long, lean, angular centre-forward, accepted
an awkward throw-in instantly, turned, beat a man and whipped a cross into that area between the six yard box and the penalty spot. A murmur went round the fans – this was an upgrade on the previous month’s Number 9, one Brett Angel. The“chewing gum feet” on the end of so intimidating a physical presence had me thinking of Marco Van Basten – and I wasn’t alone.

Fast forward six months and I’m in the frenzied back room of the General Smuts
pub, reputedly the largest in London, the atmosphere acrid with cigarette smoke and heaving with Evertonians. Players names are chanted and cheered, but when it comes to Duncan Ferguson, out comes the full “Go West” and off come the shirts – hundreds
of them – swung above heads in tribute to the already legendary celebration of
his goal at Goodison the previous month that was enough to secure the points against
Manchester United.

These two events capture the paradox at the heart of the man’s career. We lost
the game against Palace, but, without the big man – suspended or injured as was
so often the case – we won the game at Loftus Road (with a sensational last
minute free kick from Andy Hinchcliffe). As I once heard at Goodison late in his
career when he was hooked an hour into another lacklustre performance, “Some legend you are!” – acknowledging both Ferguson’s consistent inconsistency and his undisputed legend status.

So who was this most opaque of players? What compelled him to be such a compelling yet frustrating presence through some of Everton’s most difficult and
dangerous seasons? And where is he now, literally and metaphorically? Some
answers, but not all, can be found in Scottish journalist and long time Ferguson pursuer Alan Pattullo’s biography, which teases more than it delivers.

Or rather it delivers both too much and too little. The author has done his research and he’s damn well going to use it – so we get lots and lots of stuff about Jim McLean, Ferguson’s first manager at Dundee United and a long diversion into contemporary Finnish classical music, amongst other sidelines to the main narrative. That’s partly down to the subject’s non-cooperation with the author, a member of the long-snubbed press pack (a snub that bothered journos much more than it bothered fans) and partly down to the author’s unwillingness to rein in his verbosity.

If a certain long-windedness is forgivable (though there’s at least 100 pages could be edited from the text with no loss of clarity), the failure to deal with Ferguson’s many contradictions is a greater fault. He is both a rebel and a leader, sometimes described as quiet and sensitive, sometimes described as loud and insensitive. He is the obsessive trainer whom more than one colleague describes as not really liking the game. These strands needed pulling together and a stance taken.

The book ends with Ferguson’s bravado – for once considered rather than reactive – in his claim that he would take a break and then return to manage his beloved Everton. As unlikely as that sounded five or six years ago, Ferguson took that break, did his badges and has rapidly ascended to first team coach forming an unlikely alliance with the media-friendly, postgraduate degree holding Roberto Martinez. Precisely nobody would be surprised so see him move forward in the dugout when Roberto gets the call from a Champions League team and become Boss in title as well as reputation at Goodison.

Maybe, like so many footballers held in a state of arrested development, Duncan Disorderly has jumped from wild teenager to thoughtful middle-aged professional in one bound. And, like many of the managerial greats, his unfulfilled playing career may spur fulfilment off the pitch.

Watch this space.

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.

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…

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.



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.