Everton Football Manager 2018 Series: Episode 3

The long summer days of August make way for Autumnal winds in September, or Fall if you’re of an American disposition.

There could be a hilarious joke about ‘falling’ down the league table here, given how wildly inconsistent we’ve been this season, but things have actually appeared to be looking up.

With the international break providing a much needed break for those not in action for their countries, a return to action against Manchester United was the perfect setting to get domestic proceedings back underway he said through gritted teeth:everton13And that, ladies and gents, is how frustrating we are on the road. Luke Shaw’s sending off just minutes after Anthony Martial’s opener gave us huge hope of actually winning a match outside Merseyside but, no, we fell further behind instead.

Matters were further compounded when Muhamed Besic received his own marching orders, because 10 vs 11 wasn’t annoying as it seemed  and, after yet another blast in the dressing room at half-time, an improved showing saw Davy Klaassen grab a consolation.

Not content with serving up a ‘early bath’ performance at Old Trafford, Besic had also elected to induce a changing room mutiny when he was dropped from our 25-man Europa League squad in favour of loan signing Daley Blind.

What? I didn’t mention that? Well, we’ve got Blind on loan for the season as Garbutt’s, well, garbage and Baines needs cover.

Despite being told it was necessary to cull a midfielder for much-needed defensive cover, the Bosnian threw a wobbly not unlike that of a child being denied its favourite bedtime story for the fifth night in succession.

Editor’s note: This is where that conversation with Besic would have gone if Tom had elected to, you know, print screen it before – well, this would spoil things now wouldn’t it?

Given that Besic wasn’t too influential in the dressing room, I was informed by my assistant that it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. He was wrong.

Editor’s note 2: And here. Sort it out Tom, for goodness sake!

With morale down among my stars and a revolt just two months into my reign, it wasn’t a surprise to see us stupidly throw away a 2-0 lead away to Rosenborg in our first Europa League group game days later:everton14Two late goals from Yann-Erik de Lanlay robbed us of all three points and Besic any opportunity to feature for us for a loooooong time to come. The dickhead.

Four games without a victory and a home encounter with recently-promoted Brighton offered a huge potential banana skin to us. How would we fare with almost everyone against me thanks to Besic-gate?everton15It was crap, we were crap, but a vital win was picked up thanks to Sandro’s solitary strike. Bless you, you wonderful Spaniard.

A tricky Carabao Cup home contest against Arsenal was thrown up three days later and, with injuries starting to mount and the games coming fast again, the chance to play some fringe players wasn’t to be passed up. Hopefully they could do the deed and send us into the fourth round:everton16Eh, there’s always next year. And at least Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored his first of the season…

One win in six. Ugh. But, with two more home matches to come against ‘easier’ opposition, we had a grand chance to get some positivity rolling. Crystal Palace were up first:

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Keane as mustard! Hahaha…haha…ha.

Much like Brighton it wasn’t pretty, but Michael Keane’s first Everton goal proved to be the difference. Coupled with yet another home league clean sheet and we were looking good at home. If you forget that Arsenal loss. Ahem.

It was time to round September out with a Goodison meeting against Lokomotiv Moscow in the Europa League. We need a win here. Nothing else will do:everton18That’s more like it. Tosun and a Walcott brace – though it should have been a hat-trick – in a commanding display not seen since Norrkoping. Back-to-back wins again and things were looking rosy ahead of *gulp* an away trip to Spurs…

Next time: Obscene October has Evertonians dreaming of success?!

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Everton Football Manager 2018 Series: Episode 2

It’s all come down to this. Pre-season preparations done and dusted, squad assessed, a couple of decent Europa League matches to get us to speed and the bread and butter of the season is ready to get underway.

The start of a new Premier League campaign is always a fun-filled romp of hopes and expectations either beginning in scintillating style or being dashed within 90 minutes of a new term.

You don’t need me to tell you, then, which one Everton chose to kick off the season with an away trip to Southampton:everton8Standard Everton. Just when you expect them to deliver and usher in a new dawn they go and toss your dreams aside like that time in secondary school when a teacher laughed at me for wanting to take up medicine. But I digress.

To be fair to the hosts, they completely deserved it. Two assists for Cedric setting up goals for Charlie Austin and Steven Davis, a display to forget for Leighton Baines’ stand in – in the form of Luke Garbutt – and a curious case of Wayne Rooney being played on the right wing. Yeah, I don’t why either.

What better way to brush aside that huge disappointment, then, with our Europa League Play-off round first leg clash with IFK Norrkoping:

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Norr-koping chance of us throwing this one away, am I right?

Hat-trick heroics from Cenk Tosun and a maiden goal for talented winger Nikola Vlasic and the tie is as good as over. Supposing we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot a la Odd…

Only three days had passed – and that was something we may have to get used to – before we entertained former Blues boss David Moyes and his merry band of West Ham stars at Goodison Park. It seemed our home form would be key to enjoying a decent season, so it was imperative to get points on the board and truly put that sloppy Saints display to bed:everton10A laboured first-half performance gave way to a much improved second 45 showing after a rocket was shoved where the sun doesn’t shine, with Gylfi Sigurdsson’s first Blues strike and an own goal from Aaron Cresswell sealing a first league win of this gaffer’s reign.

There’s no let up in the number of fixtures, and no time to rest on our laurels, with an away trip to try and prevent Norrkoping from pulling off – stop sniggering at the back – a shock come from behind victory, however, but how did we fare given we’d lost our other two away games so far this campaign?everton11Hmm. It wasn’t vintage by any stretch, but Sandro’s goal just before half-time really put us in the driving seat before they nabbed a late consolation. I’m getting the feeling that our trips away from Goodison may become something of an issue.

Maybe it’s because I’m an Evertonian and I’ve been taught to expect the worst. Or just because we generally are guff on the road:

everton12Yep, it’s definitely an issue. Le sigh.

Next time: Ordering a main course of a rack of wins, and discontent in the changing room…

Tuesday Thoughts: Stalwarts paving the way for Everton revitalisation

The likes of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin Mirallas, James McCarthy and Steven Naismith may have drawn most of the plaudits from Evertonians over the course of the 2014/15 season.

But it is two of the Blues’ most trusted lieutenants who could prove to be integral as Everton head into the last two months of the campaign, with Roberto Martinez’s side looking to distance themselves from a relegation scrap and progress further in the Europa League.

The timely return of Leon Osman to full fitness is of significant importance to an Everton side that has been desperately missing a calm, level headed influence in the attacking third of the pitch.

The 33 year old’s ability to intricately link up the play for the Blues, particularly down their left flank, has been conspicuous by its absence in recent months and the midfielder’s first start in nigh on three months – Sunday’s win over Newcastle United – was a telling reminder of how essential Osman’s link up play is.

Indeed, the veteran’s seeking out of left back Leighton Baines was the number one passing combination between two players in Sunday’s game, with Osman finding the full back successfully on 13 occasions. Compare that to previous league outings against Arsenal and Stoke City, where the best pass combinations where between John Stones, Darron Gibson and Phil Jagielka, and it’s clear to see the impact that Osman has a creative outlet for the men in Royal Blue.

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Likewise, Baines and Gibson found Osman successfully 8 and 11 times respectively over the course of the encounter – further alluding to Osman’s team mates knowing that the diminutive midfield man is essential to getting the Toffees moving towards the opposition’s goal.

Osman’s knowledge of floating around the pitch was notable as well, with the two-times capped England international’s heat map against Newcastle showing that he covered ground across the centre of the park, the attacking third of Everton’s right flank and the entirety of the left flank – movement on and off the ball that is additionally underlined by similar heatmaps during his substitute appearances against BSC Young Boys, Stoke City and Dynamo Kyiv recently.

Criticism of Osman’s end product – the midfielder only has two goals and one assist to his name so far this season – has been levelled at him in the past, but what the Billinge-born footballer offers Martinez’s team cannot be understated. When Osman performs, Everton performs.

On the opposite end of the footballing spectrum, the no-nonsense, steadfast approach adopted by club captain Phil Jagielka has, at times, been criminally overlooked by certain sections of the Everton fan base due to the opinion that the 32 year old is not ‘Everton captain material’.

The centre back has been accused of not being vocal enough on the field of play, of not rallying his team mates during a Premier League sequence of results that – before the victory over Newcastle at the weekend – had yielded just one win in twelve and, perhaps a tad baffling, was even blamed for not stepping up during the Kevin Mirallas penalty debacle against West Bromwich Albion two months earlier.

And yet, when Everton needed their captain to step forward and lead his charges forward on what was turning out to be another miserable night at Goodison Park – this time the Europa League match against Dynamo Kyiv – Jagielka took it upon himself to wrest control back for Martinez’s men.

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Two barnstorming runs forward from inside his own half, one of which teed up Luke Garbutt to fashion a cross into the box, and the other ignored by Romelu Lukaku as the Belgian attempted an audacious 35 yard strike at goal, helped ignite the touch paper and was the platform upon which the Toffees secured a round of 16 first leg victory over the Ukrainian league leaders.

And it wasn’t just going forward that the England international dragged his team mates through the clash. Defensively, the defender made 3 crucial blocks in his own penalty area, 3 interceptions down his left flank in tussles with Andriy Yarmolenko, and made 62 forward passes – out of a total of 71 – to help kickstart attacks during an overall dominant 90 minute display.

That Jagielka was even more impressive against the weekend’s visitors to Goodison – winning 100% of his tackles and aerial duels, as well as making 1 crucial block and 16 interceptions to help record a first league clean sheet since the Merseyside derby draw – showed how much self belief the former Sheffield United man garnered from his midweek performance, and went some way to dispelling the notion that he is not fit to lead Everton both on and off the field.

The veteran duo may not have been fan favourites for the entirety of their Everton careers to date, but their experience, knowledge and attitudes will be key in aiding the Blues finish the season on a relative high.

And then, just maybe, the pair will receive the plaudits they deserve.

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.

Tuesday Thoughts: Festive fixtures are make or break time for Everton

According to the traditional Christmas yuletide carol “Deck The Halls”, it is the season to be jolly.

Unfortunately for Everton, there doesn’t appear to be much joviality around as the seasonal festivities march towards Christmas.

Without a win since the 2-0 away victory at Wolfsburg in the Europa League two weeks ago, and with only a solitary win in the Premier League since the beginning of November, it would be simple to assume that Roberto Martinez and his charges would struggle over the festive period –  a spell that will see the Toffees play seven matches between 11th December and 3rd January, five of which are to come in the Premier League.

And yet, stringing a number of victories together, as Manchester United and Newcastle United can attest to at this stage of the season, can propel any club into the higher echelons of the Premier League.

Just six points separates eleventh placed Aston Villa and eighteenth placed Hull City, whilst the gap between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, in third and tenth position respectively, is a reasonable seven points, such is the snug nature of the current standings.

It is this kind of congestion that Everton can take advantage of, during the Christmas fixture schedule, should the Blues find some form and confidence.

Normally, this year’s run of fixtures during the Christmas and New Year period would be looked upon affectionately by Evertonians but, such has been the erratic form of the Toffees in the league, it would be reckless to presume that five successive league victories would be forthcoming.

Everton v Fulham - Premier League

Tough away trips to Hull City, a resurgent Newcastle and Southampton, this season’s surprise package, are sandwiched inbetween home encounters with Queens Park Rangers and Stoke City – the latter two of which, in recent years, could be regarded as potential victories at fortress Goodison, but just two home wins in seven home clashes in the league have proven that, this year at least, Goodison Park is anything but formidable.

Couple this inconsistent form with a spate of injuries and weary legs from an already packed fixture list, and it might be possible to surmise that the upcoming flurry of fixtures could see the Blues further losing pace on the clubs above them in the league table.

With the Christmas and New Year period, however, comes hope anew, and it is also equally as plausible that Martinez and his men could use the impending crop of fixtures to reverse the relative gloom that encompasses Goodison Park.

Since the 2004/05 season, Everton have played 55 league matches in the month of December, winning 24 of those encounters and losing just 14, equating to a fairly impressive 43.7% win rate throughout the typical festive calendar over the past ten seasons.

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The Blues can also look forward to welcoming back sidelined stars such as James McCarthy, Steven Naismith and John Stones over the course of the next month or so, which will no doubt aid manager Roberto Martinez in rotating his squad in the coming weeks and months of the season, whilst key players like Kevin Mirallas, Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku have shown signs finding their best personal form since the last international break in mid-November.

As for this year’s Christmas fixture list, the Toffees can take heart from the fact that they boast impressive home records over Queens Park Rangers and Stoke City (winning 63% and and 66% of matches at Goodison against each club), are unbeaten in five and four matches against Alan Pardew’s Newcastle and Steve Bruce’s Hull City respectively, and have only lost one of the last eight encounters with Southampton.

With the final Europa League game against FC Krasnodar effectively a dead rubber, after qualifying for the knockout stages of the competition thanks to that victory at Wolfsburg, Martinez also has the opportunity to rest key players such as Lukaku, Tim Howard, Gareth Barry, Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines ahead of the testing run of league clashes, and thereby allow some of his stars to enter another cramped period with fresher minds and legs.

If Everton are looking to build upon last season’s progress under Martinez and his coaching staff, it is imperative that the club rack up as many points as possible, over the course of the next three weeks, to ascend the Premier League table and garner some confidence and form as the season enters its second half following the turn of the year.

Ahead of the most action-packed time for footballers nationwide, it is make or break time for many clubs, and Everton must make sure that it is themselves that thrive, and not falter.

The Friday Reflection: McCarthy is future captain material

McCarthy a Blues captain in the making

You would have been forgiven for thinking that Everton played with twelve men in last night’s Europa League victory over LOSC Lille, such was the tireless Man of the Match performance from James McCarthy.

The energetic, tenacious midfielder raised eyebrows when he signed from Wigan Athletic in the summer of 2013, even more so when the transfer fee of £13m was bandied about, but the Republic of Ireland international has not put a foot wrong since making his debut for the Toffees in the 1-0 win over Chelsea, and has become a firm fans’ favourite ever since.

Despite his still relatively young age (he is still only 23 years old after all), McCarthy possesses a maturity and experience that belies a player of his youth, with Toffees boss Roberto Martinez consistently praising the midfielder, who he originally signed for Wigan from Hamilton Academicals whilst manager of the Latics before bringing the Irish man with him to Goodison Park, for his industrious 90 minute displays.

And, after amassing 294 first team appearances across his spells in Scotland and England (including 52 appearances for the Blues), as well as accruing 24 caps for his country since first starting for the Republic of Ireland in 2010, it is clear to see why McCarthy is already one of the most experienced young footballers in Europe, let alone the Premier League.

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Couple that footballing knowledge and tactical nous with his steadfast performances in the centre of the park for club and country (McCarthy has won 69% of his duels and tackles so far this season, and possesses a distribution average of 89% when the Blues are in possession of the ball), and the 23 year old would be an excellent choice to consider as a future captain for Everton Football Club.

Naturally, there would be other choices to consider for the role when the time comes for current incumbent Phil Jagielka to hang his boots, including fellow youngsters John Stones and Ross Barkley, and at 30 years old Jagielka is in no hurry to give up either football or the armband just yet but, in the future, and under the tutelage and guidance of Martinez and his coaching staff, McCarthy has all the hallmarks of becoming a future Everton captain.

Everton Half Season Christmas Ticket advert shows off players’ personality

It has become somewhat of a cliche in recent years that footballers are less engaging than they used to be, or that what they make up for in talent they lack in personality.

So it was refreshing to see Samuel Eto’o and Steven Pienaar star in Everton’s Half Season Ticket advertisement this morning.

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It has always been something of a proud tradition that Everton’s players and staff show off their personable sides, especially around the Christmas holiday period, and to see a world class star in Eto’o really buy into the ethic of the football club, both on and off the pitch, further enhances the notion that the team spirit and humour within the current Everton squad is second to none.

Opinion: Fan safety should always be paramount

It should always be of the upmost importance that football fans be kept safe before, during and after any football match that they attend.

Whether it be a 65 year old veteran home fan, or a young supporter attending his or her very first away match, the safety of fans have to be the number one priority for those in a position to keep the peace.

Which is why yesterday’s and today’s rough punishment, handed out to the travelling hordes of Evertonians, by the police force in Lille should rightly be met with such disgust and disdain.

A number of Everton fans were attacked, by a group of at least fifty Lille ‘supporters’, late last night whilst they soaked up the atmosphere ahead of an eagerly anticipiated Europa League clash, between the two alleged favourites to progress from a tough looking group H. The police’s reaction to Evertonians asking for help and/or safety? The firing of tear gas to ‘disperse the crowds’ and bring back the peace.

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Despite this rough treatment, the incident could have been put down as a one off situation ahead of what could have been an enjoyable city break watching our Club play away from home in the flesh.

Until today’s unsavoury incident.

Despite numerous reports coming from Evertonians, on social media website Twitter, that there was no provocation or threatening behaviour made towards the French police, officers saw fit to fire tear gas canisters and, allegedly, rubber bullets into the crowds of Toffees supporters who were savouring the atmosphere in and around the Place du Général de Gaulle in the centre of Lille.

This is not the first time that a heavy handed approach has been used in Lille, with police notably using batons and firing tear gas into the away section during a match between Lille and Manchester United back in 2007.

Such unprovoked behaviour gives grave cause for concern, especially with news breaking that children and disabled fans have travelled to watch the Blues in action, and should not be tolerated in this day and age.

Any supporter who attends a football match should come home safe and sound, and not have to be subjected to any kind of excessive force from those in a position that are supposed to provide safety.

Everyone here at NSNO hopes that all Evertonians, who have travelled, are safe and well and that each and every one of you returns home unscathed after, hopefully, watch our beloved team claim all three points this evening.

Tom Power