Monday Musings: Improvement key for Lukaku to retain first team berth

December 28th 2014 and January 1st 2015. At first glance they may not appear as significant dates but, for one footballer, the football fixtures that took place would end up shaping their season.

Having spent the past thirteen months recovering from a knee ligament injury, Arouna Kone returned to first team action for Everton to make successive starts against Newcastle United and Hull City – the teams that the Blues faced on these two particular dates – and even notched his first Everton goal in the defeat on Tyneside.

The Ivory Coast international looked hungry, energetic and keen to make up for a long year out with an injury that seemed innocuous following the 2-1 victory over Hull back in October 2013 – the last time that Kone would figure for the Toffees for over a year.

And yet it was Kone’s team mate, and fellow striker, who would benefit most from the return of the 31 year old.

The 2013/14 season ended up being a particularly gruelling one for Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian international had started on 31 occasions for the Blues during his season long loan spell from Chelsea, suffered an ankle injury in the 4-0 Merseyside derby defeat in January that halted his promising season, and figured for his country in last summer’s World Cup in Brazil.

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It would be an understatement to suggest that, as a result of such a long season, the 21 year old struggled for fitness and form during the first half of the current campaign, with accomplished performances against the likes of Wolfsburg, Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion proving to be exceptions to the norm.

Lukaku’s performances were not aided by a first team squad that was lacking in self belief and confidence either, with results, especially domestically, falling short of the standards that were set in Roberto Martinez’s debut season in charge. Late goals conceded to Leicester City and Arsenal in the opening games of the campaign, alongside a 6-3 demolition at home to current Premier League leaders Chelsea, contributed to an extremely shaky backline shipping an uncharacteristic amounts of goals – leading to an increased pressure on the Toffees’ forward line to find the back of the opposition net more often to accomodate a leaky defensive rearguard.

The experienced head of ex-Everton forward Samuel Eto’o, the enterprising performances of Steven Naismith and the return to fitness of Kone increased competition for places in the Blues’ attacking positions, with the latter’s first team recall eventually consigning Lukaku to the bench for two matches in a row.

It was a ploy that provided a stark warning, to the striker, that he was not immune from being dropped from the first choice lineup.

But how it has paid dividends for both Everton and Lukaku since his reintroduction to the starting eleven.

Since being recalled for the third round FA Cup tie at Goodison Park against West Ham United, five days after the defeat to Hull, Lukaku has bagged six goals and an assist in nine matches – only one goal and two assists shy of his entire total in the first four months of the season – in a series of performances that have seen improvements in his work rate, hold up play and movement in and around the box.

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And with these improved displays has come more goalscoring opportunities. The Belgian has fired goalwards on 55 occasions since reclaiming his first team place – 20 of those shots of which were scored, saved or blocked by the opposition – with the 0-0 Merseyside derby draw in January the only match in which Lukaku was not presented with a single goalscoring opportunity.

Of course, Lukaku still has much of his game to improve upon – most notably his first touch, aerial prowess and hold up play – but there have been slight improvements to these areas of his overall game throughout this relative purple patch of form, and at the tender age of 21 he will only continue to refine his talent.

His recent naive suggestion that he hopes to “eventually arrive at a top club again” did little to alter the perceptions of some Evertonians that Lukaku is not worth the £28m fee paid for his services, but if the 35-times capped international can continue to develop under the tutelage of Martinez and, in the process, fire Everton back into the upper echelons of the Premier League in seasons to come, there is no reason why he cannot achieve his ambitions with the Toffees.

Both Martinez and Evertonians will hope those cold, bruising festive fixtures spent on the bench will serve as a reminder as to what awaits Lukaku if his form dips for an extended period once again. If it does, Arouna Kone could stick around in the first team for longer.

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Tuesday Thoughts: Martinez needs to solve on-the-field balancing act

Balance. It’s a component which is vital to the success of football clubs across the globe, both on and off the field of play.

On the field, it is the equilibrium between a team’s effectiveness both offensively and defensively, and any slight alteration to either can have repercussions on whether clubs achieve their targets, or fall short.

Before a ball was even kicked, the 2013/14 season was being described by many Evertonians as one of transition, following the departure of David Moyes and the arrival of Roberto Martinez in the summer of 2013.

Yet the Spaniard managed to marry Everton’s stubborn defensive qualities, that were a hallmark of the Moyes era, with his own possession based philosophy, to substantial effect, in a season that saw the Goodison Park based side register a fifth placed finish with their highest points tally ever for a Premier League season.

In contrast, throughout the course of the current campaign Martinez and his charges have struggled to build upon that relative success.

And it is clear to see why.

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Compared to last season’s resoluteness in defence, the Toffees have shipped an uncharacteristically high amount of goals so far this season, with the number currently standing at 43 strikes against in all competitions – 14 more than at the same stage of the 2013/14 season.

The increase in the total number of goals conceded might usually be passed off as an issue over the quantity of matches that Everton have played compared to the previous campaign, but the Blues have only played four games more than at the same stage of last season (33 this season compared to 29 last campaign).

So what’s changed?

Roberto Martinez categorically stated earlier in the season that the late goals conceded against Leicester City and Arsenal, in the opening two matches of the season, coupled with the six goals shipped at home to Wednesday’s opponents Chelsea, contributed to a lack of confidence in defence and caused agitation and anxiety in defence whenever opposing teams attacked the Toffees’ defensive third of the field.

The former Wigan Athletic manager has not been able to call upon his first choice back four – Seamus Coleman, John Stones, Phil Jagielka, and Leighton Baines – for the vast majority of the season either due to injury, with the quartet only managing to figure together in 7 of the 33 matches played so far this season. Include a sustained period out for the tenacious James McCarthy due to a niggling hamstring strain, and the below par performances of Gareth Barry, and the protective shield in front of the back four has not been able to screen effectively to restrict opposition chances.

In a bid to solve Everton’s defensive problems, Martinez has revealed that a ‘back to basics’ approach was required to instill a steely resolve in the Toffees’ rearguard, and one goal conceded in four matches in recent weeks shows that this slight tweak in mentality is starting to pay dividends.

Such an approach appears to have come at a cost higher up the pitch, though.

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Martinez’s side have notched 44 goals in all competitions thus far this season which, ordinarily, would reflect well on the Spaniard and his first team squad.

However, by the same point last season, the 41 year old had watched on as his first team squad found the back of the opposition net on 48 occasions.

And recent results don’t make for good reading either. In the first 17 matches of the 2014/15 season, Everton’s first team squad accrued 28 goals between them. Compare that to the last 16 matches, and the total reads a miserly 14 – including 7 matches were the Toffees failed to register a single goal.

The brutal run of results over the 2014 festive period, which saw Everton lose all four league fixtures, diminished confidence within the first team ranks at both ends, but it was particularly noticeable among the Blues’ frontline, with the Toffees drawing a blank in three of those four matches.

In fact, over the course of those four encounters alone, Everton’s first team stars only managed a 25.58% total shots to shots on target ratio – further reinforcing the lack of belief amongst the playing staff.

That percentage may have dropped slightly more to exactly 25% over the last six corresponding games, but the total number of shots (76 to 43) and shots on target (19 to 14) have increased during a run of one win and five draws, which alludes to a slight improvement in confidence within the first team ranks.

If Everton are to finish as high in the Premier League as possible in the remainder of the season, as well as progress to the latter stages of the Europa League, Martinez will have to rediscover last season’s balancing act blueprint.

Doing so would be a welcome fillip to everyone associated with Everton.

Monty Oum: A tribute

“I believe that the human spirit is indomitable. If you endeavor to achieve, it will happen given enough resolve. It may not be immediate, and often your greater dreams is something you will not achieve within your own lifetime. The effort you put forth to anything transcends yourself, for there is no futility even in death.” – Monty Oum

On occasion, there will be an individual, in the public eye, who will have passed from this world. In most instances, I will hear or read the news about said person, and think “Man, that sucks. Rest In Peace.”

Sometimes, however, the death of someone I truly admired will be a telling blow to me personally, despite that personality having never met me, or known of my existence.

Monday’s news about Monty Oum was one such moment for me.

And, over the past forty eight hours, I have attempted to amalgamate my thoughts over the loss of a true pioneer in his field.

One of my defining memories of Monty was on one of Rooster Teeth’s own video podcasts, which is shown live on the Rooster Teeth website on Monday evenings. Monty was being quizzed by Rooster Teeth co-founder Michael ‘Burnie’ Burns about RWBY, Monty’s own anime-esque animated show, and all that I can remember pondering was how tired Monty looked.

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Monty Oum

In subsequent appearances by Monty, in various videos on Rooster Teeth’s site, I always had that abiding thought running through my brain, and I could never fathom why he just didn’t take time off, or have a period of rest, to feel refreshed before tackling his work once again.

After the tragically shocking news that Monty Oum had passed away, and after reading so much about the kind of person Monty was, I had an epiphany: Here was an individual who did not want to waste any time trying to improve himself. He was constantly wanting to refine his passions for animation, cosplaying, technology and art. He only slept when he had to, or when his body and mind forced him to do so.

I never met Monty Oum in person, and I imagine that he would have no idea who I am, where I lived or what I did.

And yet it was a mark of Monty, both as an individual and as someone who was truly passionate about everything that he created, that his work resonated with me from across the other side of the globe. From the first time that I watched any form of animated work of his, up until the last couple of episodes of RWBY, I was always left feeling some form of emotion from anything that Monty created.

His undying love and commitment to his occupation has been an inspiration to everyone at Rooster Teeth, and every Rooster Teeth fan both in the past and over the last few days since his untimely passing, but it is this inspiration that will keep Monty’s family, friends, co-workers and fans going in the weeks, months and years to come – myself included.

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A trail of roses left outside of Rooster Teeth Productions, Texas, on Tuesday morning by an anonymous Rooster Teeth fan

Monty Oum was 33 years old when he tragically passed away on Sunday. I am certain that he had so much more to offer this world, but the spectacular work that he produced over numerous years is a fitting tribute to who Monty was, and provides a lasting legacy to one of the world’s true masters of his art.

Right now, however, it is difficult for me to view any of that amazing work without feeling his loss. In time, though, I will be able to watch his artwork and his wonderous creations, and I will smile, laugh and be in awe once more.

Tuesday Thoughts: Merseyside derby victory can ignite Blues’ season

The 224th Merseyside derby has begun to loom prominently over the horizon and, as has become customary over the years, Evertonians will have started to silently dread the upcoming clash.

Despite only recording one win over their rivals in the last ten encounters, however, there is reason to be optimistic over Everton recording a first victory over Liverpool since 17th October 2010.

The Blues’ wretched run of form since 15th December 2014 has been well documented by Roberto Martinez, his players, Eveton supporters and the media alike and, coupled with the Reds’ own recent revival, which has seen Brendan Rodgers’ side lose just one of the last twelve league and cup matches and climb to sixth place in the Premier League standings, all facts and statistics would point towards a victory for the team from Anfield.

The Toffees, though, do have reason to be hopeful of getting one over their fierce rivals this weekend.

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The stalemate againt West Bromwich Albion coupled with Saturday’s 1-0 away victory, against Crystal Palace, ensured that Roberto Martinez’s men recorded back to back clean sheets for the first time since the start of November – as well as obtaining that elusive first three point haul in the league since mid-December – which will buoy a Blues rearguard ahead of a Liverpool front line that will boast attacking threats such as Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge, and spread confidence throughout a squad that was bearing all the hallmarks of low self esteem throughout the recent festive period.

Additionally, in spite of a nine match winless streak against the Reds, Everton have drawn four of the last five league fixtures between the two clubs, with last season’s 4-0 drubbing at Anfield the only occasion that the 18-times English league champions have bested the Toffees over the past three seasons.

James McCarthy’s return to full fitness will also be a timely boost ahead of the contest, after the Republic of Ireland international returns from a lengthy lay off with a hamstring injury, and his presence, tenacity and tireless work rate will be instrumental, in the middle of the park, in what will be another frenetic Merseyside derby.

Goodison Park will also play host to the reverse league fixture between the two sides for the first time since the 2002/03 Premier League season. With a scheduled 5:30pm kick off, and under the hallowed floodlights of the Old Lady, a vociferous Goodison faithful is sure to draw an even greater effort and endeavour from those playing in Royal Blue.

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Of course, the Toffees will have to be wary of Liverpool’s counter attacking capabilities, as well as relying on an ever improving Romelu Lukaku to lead the Everton attack with desire and gusto against a Reds defence that has shored up over recent weeks but, if the Blues still harbour ambitions of finishing high in the league, Saturday’s match provides the opportunity to completely reinvigorate their season.

If Roberto Martinez can mastermind a first triumph over Liverpool in five years, it may well ignite Everton’s faltering season and bring out the smiles around Goodison Park once more.