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Shape up or ship out

1 December 2003

David Moyes: Facing his first genuine crisis in the Goodison hotseat

A year ago today, Everton travelled to Newcastle United on the back of a seven-match winning streak, the club having apparently turned the corner under the dynamic management of David Moyes. Despite losing that games at St James' Park in agonising fashion, the Blues remained in the top six of the Premiership for six months, falling out of the UEFA Cup qualifying places on the final day of the season.

That is all well-trodden history, as is the path we, the long suffering Everton fans, find ourselves on as the spectre of another relegation dog-fight looms ominously over Moyes's second full season in charge. If it wasn't clear before — and the 45 minutes of positive football against Wolves, coupled with the 4-0 destruction of Leeds earlier this season, instilled in most of a false sense of security — it's crystal clear now: Goodison Park is in the throes of another genuine crisis.

This time, however, it's not an overtly managerial crisis. Granted, Moyes can't be immune from criticism; he has shown an alarmingly Walter Smith-esque propensity to play more defensive formations away from home, his substitutions are often questionable and he appears to be at odds with balancing the need to find his best team with the desire not to change a winning line-up regardless of better players becoming available after injury or suspension.

However, Moyes has shown what he can do. Since taking over from Smith, the determined Scot has saved the club from impending doom in his first nine games and led them to the brink of Europe in his first full season in charge. The reputation he garnered at Preston is further evidence that if Everton don't quite have the best manager in the Premiership, he is far and away the best a club in our predicament could attract. Despite a few apparent faults, he remains the best thing to happen to Everton since Howard Kendall was appointed two decades ago so, quite apart from the need to give him time to build a team around his own vision, as opposed to polishing the turds left behind by his predecessor, the board need to give him both their backing and five years in which to prove himself at the top level.

No, the overwhelming majority of the blame for the current collapse rests with the players. It's hardly surprising that Moyes inherited 21 of the current squad from the Smith era, and, crucially, the problems asscociated with many of their inflated wages, and is now witnessing a similar crisis to those that befell Walter. The same core players that went into freefall in the 2001/02 season and led to Smith's dismissal were energised by Moyes's fresh perspective in 2002/03 and have now apparently decided that it's all too much like hard work and are in apparent revolt.

How else do you explain the emergence of the same patterns? The complete inability to get even the basics right — play the easy ball, pass to feet, deliver a telling ball forward — a near complete absence of attacking ideas in midfield, defensive disarray and a persistent tendency to concede early goals that effectively kill their chances of victory by half time. Tellingly, ostensibly the same team was regularly giving up the lead in the first 45 minutes last season but they had the character and the guts to fight back and either salvage a draw or pull off a dramatic victory. There has been none of that this season and that sends a clear signal that the players' attitude stinks.

There has been a stream of rumours on Merseyside of dissent among the older players in the team that has been poisoning the attitude of the younger members and that, by and large, Moyes has lost the respect of his charges. If these stories are to be believed — they would certainly explain the horror show at Bolton this past weekend which represented by far the worst performance under Moyes so far — they centre around the manager's intensive fitness regimes. There were suggestions that the team getaway to Tenerife during the international break had resolved many of these issues and the comfortable win over Wolves would have been proof of that had the team put in more that 45 minutes' effort and not been so abysmal at The Reebok a week later.

Without knowing the full story behind what are obvious problems in the squad, it all seems to boil down to a few old hands baulking at a little hard work, the same ethic that got them to the dizzy heights of third in the league last season. It can't be down to a lack of opportunity from Moyes because the manager has used many of his senior players regularly this season, sometimes to the detriment of the club's fortunes on the pitch. Certainly he appears to be less focused on youth this campaign than he was a year ago

The capitulation against Bolton was an insult to the club's proud name and the thousands of supporters who give their heart and hard-earned cash week in, week out, home or away, and one would hope the players are ashamed of themselves for such a spineless display. Frankly, if the situation has come down to a showdown between the players and the manager, I'd take David Moyes every time because the players are clearly capable of far more than they have shown this season. They have managed to win just three games all season — against woeful opposition in the form of early-season Fulham, crisis-ridden Leeds and relegation certainties Wolves — and now, during what is arguably the most comfortable stretch in the fixture list, their desire has semingly gone AWOL.

It is clearly crunch time at Goodison and, for my money, the players should be told to shape up or ship out — well, seeing as we can't give this overpaid shower away, that should read "shape up or rot in the stiffs. Moyes will have to be patient and bide his time until the various contracts of certain overpaid crocks and wasters expire but the move to exclude players like this and start concentrating on the youth, the future of the club, is now.

Niclas Alexandersson, David Unsworth and Scot Gemmill are all free to leave in the summer and should be ushered out the gates of Goodison as quickly as possible on July 1st next year. Alexandersson has been a categorical flop since joining from Sheffield Wednesday and although the other two are good, honest professionals, neither is of the standard Moyes should be looking to employ in his senior squad.

In 18 months time we can say goodbye and good riddance to Duncan Ferguson while also offloading Kevin Campbell. These two are the highest earners at the club, share the biggest responsibilities in terms of team leadership but spend their lives on the treatment table, all the while draining an estimated £4m from the club every year in salaries and National Insurance coverage. Ferguson is another Viewpoint article altogether and I don't think my temper could stand writing that one just now!

In the meantime, with little or no money to spend, Moyes must go back to his focus on the younger members of the squad who, we can only hope, still have the passion and enthusiasm we're going to need between now and May. Having faith in youth saved the club under Dave Watson in 1997 and again under Moyes in 2002 and it certainly can't hurt now.

Moyes had, before Bolton, more or less promised us that Leon Osman would start against Middlesbrough in the League Cup (how fitting that we go to The Riverside again for a cup match in the throes of a life-threatening crisis!) and that has to be a rock-solid certainty now after the miserable display by the midfield on Saturday. Wayne Rooney is useless without service








Well that didn't take long.  A year and a half after David Moyes came riding into Goodison Park on a wave of optimism founded on his reputation and a quip about the People's Club — just months after the club were occupying a Champions League qualification place — and Everton are back in the relegation zone of the Premiership.

It is an all too familiar a position for the Blues to be in, the only surprise — and let's face it, given Moyes's initial impact, it's a real kick in the balls — is that the "R" word has returned to the Everton lexicon so soon after the interminable proverbial corner looked to have been turned under the new manager's stewardship.

Hindsight having perfect vision, it's astonishing that Everton spent six months in the top six of the table last season given the fact that Moyes is dealing largely with the same ragbag collection of journeymen punctuated with the odd shining star that is underperforming so badly now; indeed, the changes in personnel since May could only have improved his lot.  Yet here we find ourselves in the bottom three of the Premiership staring another long, hard winter in the face.

When you look back at Season 2002-03 and stare past the six-match winning streak that catapulted the Blues into unlikely European contention, you can see an underlying mediocrity about Everton that Moyes's fitness regimes and emphasis on effort and tenacity can do little to mask now.  If you were to apply the team's win rate from the other 32 games of that campaign (one win every three games) to that six-game stretch, Moyes's side would have finished in the bottom half of the table with less than 50 points.

  P W D L Pts
Moyes 28 9 6 12 33
Smith 28 6 10 13 28

Everton under Smith and Moyes over the last 28 games of their respective tenures

An even more depressing statistic is Everton's form since the turn of the year.  In 28 league games, the Blues have racked up just nine wins and 33 points, which is only five points more than the team earned in the last 28 league matches under Walter Smith!  While no one realistically believes that Everton are as bad under Moyes as they were under his dour, defensive-minded compatriot, the fact remains that the players have reverted to the same frustrating characteristics that blighted "Tictac's" ill-fated reign.

There is the inability to compete from the first whistle which, whether borne of complacency, lack of belief, fatigue or a silent form of mutiny, is the chief reason why the club finds itself in the drop zone.  By the time the players have been stung into action they are usually a goal or two in arrears and chasing the game.  Conceding the first goal became a hallmark of last season but for some reason this time around the players don't have what it takes to either salvage games or go on to win them after falling behind.

Then there is the complete inability to maintain possession for any length of time and the propensity to give the ball away with breathtaking abandon, putting a weak midfield and erratic defence under constant pressure; the abject failure to create anything meaningful from set-pieces; and the inability to consistently despatch of lower-division opposition in cup matches.

The issue of the manager being hamstrung by a chronic lack of funds is a pertinent one, but taking last season's seventh-placed finish at face value, it doesn't explain why ostensibly the same group of players performed so well then but have been so dreadful at times this campaign.  Frankly, I'm not even going to try and find an answer to that conundrum.

Suffice to say that the players at Moyes's disposal simply aren't good enough, and I'm sure the manager knows that.  While he can begin to trim back the wage bill next summer when the likes of Alexandersson, Gemmill and Unsworth are out of contract, that is of no real use to him now.  Forced to build an enterprising midfield from a pile of steaming mediocrity is unenviable task and yet Moyes must now start making some bold decisions in that area of the pitch if he wants to steer his team out of the bottom three as quickly as possible.

Leon Osman: The time to see what he can do at the top level is long overdue

Firstly, none of Li Tie, Lee Carsley, Scot Gemmill, Alex Nyarko or Tobias Linderoth are ever going to be the answer in midfield.  If Thomas Gravesen was more reliable, more consistent and, frankly, more of a leader, the manager might be able to get away with one of these steady but unspectacular options.  Instead, I can see no sane reason why Leon Osman shouldn't be drafted into the starting line-up at the first available opportunity. Sure, he's inexperienced and untested at the top level but he cannot be any worse than of the afore-mentioned central midfielders.

Secondly, despite his inconsistency and inexperience, James McFadden should be restored to the midfield and kept there for as long as fitness and eligibility allow.  As he demonstrated at Blackburn, he is the only player aside from Gravesen with any flair and ability to create a chance from nothing.

Thirdly, the reliance on Kevin Campbell or Duncan Ferguson up front must be broken immediately.  In a team that is mis-firing as badly as Everton are at present, you need goalscorers in your line-up, not knackered journeymen whose only purpose seems to be to provide leadership (although that's a joke with the Big Yin) and to act as a target for long hoofs from defence.  Don't get me wrong; Campbell in particular has been a wonderful servant to Everton FC, but if Moyes wants to move forward, he can't consider KC a regular starter.

None of us really know how much money — if any — the manager will have at his disposal when the January scramble for players starts, but Moyes will hopefully have a dynamic and creative midfielder and a rock-solid central defender at the top of his shopping list.  The central midfield question has dogged Everton managers since Joe Royle's Dogs of War were exposed for their limitations and rendered redundant by a chase for Europe eight years ago.  However, with Alan Stubbs looking increasingly shaky at the back, David Weir sidelined (and not getting any younger) by injury and Joseph Yobo unavailable for a crucial stretch in the New Year because of his international commitments with Nigeria, central defence has emerged as another very worrying problem.

How he signs players for either position — be it on a season loan, payment on the drip or outright purchase — is immaterial.  The club cannot sit back as it did in January last year and expect everything to turn out fine with the current squad.  If the board want to avoid relegation or mount a challenge for a UEFA Cup place (which is by no means out of the question) then action has to be taken during the transfer window.  We can only pray they have the scouts out looking now, and I don't mean in the same old domestic places.

The next five games will provide the acid test for the attitude of the players as well as Moyes's ability to motivate his current charges and get them playing effective football.  Matches against Wolves, Bolton, Manchester City, Portsmouth and Leicester City provide the perfect springboard for getting our season back on track.  The squad that challenged for so long among the "big boys" last season should be quite capable of beating all of those sides and those 15 points are there for the taking.

For what it's worth, based on the season so far, I believe that if Moyes is determined to stick with a 4-4-2 formation, his strongest line-up should be based on the following:

Hibbert Yobo

* No one can say that Leon Osman will be a better option than any of the other central midfielders but if I were Moyes I'd give him his chance straight away.

Most people would have Rooney as first choice striker but, for the next few games, I would personally use him as a "super sub", firstly, because he has struggled to find his feet so far this season (for Everton at least) and, secondly, because Jeffers hasn't been given the chance to show why Moyes brought him back to Goodison in the first place.

There is no doubt that the squad of players that Moyes possesses, littered with internationals as it is, is too good to go down.  Whether their attitude will improve sufficiently to haul the club out of danger is another story but, as already pointed out, the next five fixtures will go a long way to indicating how the remainder of the season is going to pan out.  Three wins and a couple of draws and everyone will wonder what the fuss was about.  However, if the current dearth of goals and the accompanying run of defeats continues, things could get very ugly in Liverpool L4 again.

Lyndon Lloyd

� 2003 ToffeeWeb


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