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The Rob Fox Column
Columnist: Rob Fox

Stand, by Rob Fox
1 November 2005

 

If you repeat something often enough, it has to be true eventually, and hopefully this time it is.  Evertons season has finally started.  Next up is Middlesbrough again, which will be tough, but then we are repeatedly told that all Premiership games are tough these days.  A win would ease a lot of the pressure; anything less would pile it back on, but I am going to throw in another clich already all a manager and players can affect is the performances and hope that the results follow naturally. 

Hopefully we are now over the worst and our form and results will improve steadily and move us away from danger.  The most positive aspect of last week is that we could easily have got a result in all three games, although by the same token we could have lost all of them as well.  What we were able to do is react to a defeat by winning the next game. 

There is no guarantee of a win next Sunday, but there is every hope now of a further improvement in performance, and that we can continue this over the coming weeks and months.  Defeat against Birmingham would have seemed disastrous, but no one game is more crucial than another at this stage.  Its how we perform over a period of time that counts and I think its fair to say that if we play at close to our full potential, and can keep key players fit, we should not be concerned about relegation. 

Nothing is guaranteed in football though, and we cannot afford to be complacent.  Even the staunchest Moyes fan cannot be 100% confident of us staying up after the start we have made, and it would be understandable if the Everton Board of Directors were getting twitchy.  It is a very difficult call to make, especially when a chairman and manager share the same vision, although it is very difficult and some would say negligent to ignore results for too long. 

Bill Kenwright seems to have made the decision that David Moyess methods are correct for this club and will not be pressured or panicked into making a change.  It is a leap of faith for any chairman to do this, and I would suggest it is vital that Kenwright is in regular contact with the manager to ensure he is still focused and confident and able to withstand the undoubted pressure he is under. 

If, as seems the case, Kenwright believes in Moyess overall methods and long-term vision, and is convinced that Moyes is still doing the right things, then he is absolutely correct to back the manager and remove the extra pressure of having his job on the line.  It also gives the clear message to the staff and players that Moyes is still very much in charge and it is a case of either shaping up or shipping out. 

When you are on your uppers, as we have been, you look for any crumbs of comfort you can.  At the start of the season, we played quite well with little reward.  The Bucharest game marked out a real low, with the Fulham game indicative of our problems.  We controlled much of the game without creating clear-cut chances and paid the price.  Since then, our performances have declined until the Chelsea game bucked the trend.

In fairness, we didnt play tremendous football against Chelsea but we went toe to toe and in the latter stages made a genuine attempt to win the game.  The Middlesbrough performance showed some of our frailties, but the introduction of Van der Meyde at least saw us put some concerted pressure on the away team and create a few half decent chances. 

Finally, against Birmingham we possessed just enough creativity to fashion a goal, and enough steel to see out the result in an understandably nervy second half.  In truth, the performance wasnt hugely different from some of our others this season, but this time it brought a win.  Luck may well have played a part but, just as our results hit a downward trend, they are now on a slight upward trend in the Premiership at least.

Just as the loss of Gravesen last season is seen by many as having a huge bearing on the results since, the easy conclusion to draw is that the introduction of Andy van der Meyde made the difference against Birmingham.  There is almost certainly a grain of truth in there, but the main phenomenon this highlights is the fine margins involved between success and failure in the Premiership at present.

Under David Moyes we have seen the evidence of this clearly.  We have had sustained periods of time where we have been just good enough to win consistently and build up momentum.  By the same token we have also had periods where we have not quite been good enough and have lost consistently.  The fact that such shifts of fortune have occurred with largely the same personnel has added to the difficulty in pinpointing exactly why our fortunes have fluctuated so dramatically. 

It is easy to portray footballers as different because of their lifestyles and the fact that they are professionals.  We expect them to be robotic and always perform at their best.  This is totally unrealistic.  Gary Naysmith is a case in point.  When he first arrived he looked to be a very good signing, but there is no doubt his career has since gone awry.  Last season he looked to be on his way out, seeking a move back to Scotland for family reasons.  This was the last straw for some Blues, who wrote him off entirely.  It transpires that, on top of all his injury problems, his mother died of cancer during the summer.  How long he has had that hanging over his head is anybodys guess, and to what extent it has affected his form is hard to gauge.

The hardened cynic would say that a highly paid professional should be able to clear their head to do their job, but that is a very simplistic reading of things.  A players mental state is key to their ability to do their job.  Some will have the steel, or coldness, to shut everything else out, but most are just as affected by circumstances as the rest of us; their confidence just as fragile.  Kevin Kilbane springs to mind at this point.  Has he lost interest or confidence?  [Or is he overly concerned about the birth of his child? Ed]

In life in general, when things are going well people tend to shut any worries out and ride the wave.  When things are going badly and people are under stress, all their worries and insecurities come to the surface.  It is a mental battle to retain your focus.  Professional footballers have to retain this focus under physical and mental duress, under the spotlight of thousands of lunatics whos lives seem to resolve around their efforts.  Still, at least Evertonians are understanding enough to get out on the pitch and help the team when things are going wrong.  [Uh? You mean like the diminutive 9-yr-old Richard Dunn???]

There is no disguising the fact that since last Christmas results overall have been poor, and David Moyes is shouldering the lions share of the blame for this.  Moyess share of the blame has been widely discussed, but one factor which has not been focused on much is the part the players have played in our decline.  Blaming the manager is the easy option, but there only so much control any manager has.

The three teams who finished above us last season were clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the Premiership.  We were not, and needed to stick together and retain our team ethic to get us through.  The fact is we have not been anything other than a mediocre side, at best, for many seasons.  Some Evertonians have tried to play down Moyess part in our finishing 4th last season in order to support their claim he must be sacked.  Bollocks, plain and simple.  Finishing 4th last season was very much Moyess achievement.  Over 38 games we accumulated 61 points and deservedly finished 4th.  [I think the reverse is true: If Moyes was rightly praised for creating and inspiring the 4th-place finish, he has to accept responsibility for achieving the awful start we made to this season.]

In the second half of last season, we were as solid as ever defensively, but lacked creativity.  The loss of Gravesen played a major part in this.  Simply, he was the one player who had the skill and power to retain possession and carry the ball in the opposition half, enabling us to keep the pressure on the opposition for sustained periods.  Possession isnt the be-all and end-all, but clearly if you can keep the ball in the opposition half as much as possible you have more chance of scoring and less chance of conceding.  Such pressure led to many a second-half winner last season.

Moyes deserves due credit for finding the right balance in the team, but the loss of Gravesen was clearly a blow.  Results were erratic after his departure and we were certainly less fluent, but a combination of nerves and tiredness were seen as mitigating circumstances.  A huge effort saw us qualify for the Champions League and confidence was sky high, tempered somewhat by a 7-0 drubbing at the hands of a Champions League standard team in Arsenal.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of the likes of David Weir, Kevin Kilbane, Marcus Bent, Tony Hibbert and Lee Carsley for example.  Good professionals, but facing a very daunting prospect in the Champions League.  Exciting, but daunting nonetheless.  Carsley of course missed out, but Kilbane and Bent in particular seemed out of their depths and knew it.  Weir and Hibbert were shown up for pace and technique respectively, but adjusted well enough.

The squad that started the season was basically the one that finished last season, with only Phil Neville and Simon Davies being added for the games against Villarreal.  Duncan Fergusons ruled-out goal ensured that Everton could feel hard done to, but the disappointment was undoubtedly huge.  Having given so much, it was all over before it had begun. 

The squad was left in a state of flux.  One the one hand, we had our stalwarts who had earned the opportunity through sheer graft seeing it cruelly snatched away.  On the other hand, we had our shiny new recruits, brought in for European football and yet to kick a ball in anger.  With players still being bedded in, we then suffered the humiliation of Bucharest and everything came crashing around our ears.

Now, imagine you have worked extremely hard to gain the greatest opportunity of your life, perhaps an interview for your dream job.  You have then spent a lot of time and energy preparing for this opportunity, only to see it snatched away in a heartbeat and being left wondering how it all went wrong.  Be honest, could you just pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and go back to your day job full of confidence and energy to attempt to gain that opportunity again at a later date?  Especially if you know that your boss is going to want you to climb the mountain again.

Suddenly, it was back to reality.  We were smack bang in the middle of a crisis with confidence shattered.  The cumulative effect of losing 7-0 to Arsenal, 5-0 to Fenerbahe, and our poor start had seen small doubts grow into huge problems.  A few months back I read a quote from an Everton player, perhaps Weir, where he stated how important it is for us to be solid defensively as we werent a team who were going to score a lot of goals. 

At the time, it was a slightly worrying comment, but nothing more.  Now, we have seen the culmination of this belief.  We are still reasonably solid, but conceding the odd goal where we werent before, and not scoring goals.  Quite obviously, our lack of creativity is putting extra pressure on the defence to hold firm.  Confidence is a huge factor in this. 

I think it is fair to say that nobody has reached their own personal standards of last year, and the new signings have hardly set the world alight so far.  A 10% dip in form is enough at this level to see you dragged back in with the also-rans, scrabbling for any sort of consistency.  We are clearly lacking a spark in terms of creating and finishing chances, and players seem to be looking to each other to provide it. 

In most games we have started positively, but our lack of confidence in attacking areas has made us increasingly edgy and prone to errors.  It is very hard to lift yourself out of this situation when players have lost confidence not only in themselves, but also their team-mates.  Midfielders are less likely to make a forward run if they dont believe the ball is going to reach them, and are less likely to carry the ball and take players on if they fear the consequences of losing possession howls of derision from the crowd, and an attacking opportunity for the opposition.

In the Premiership, a slight dip in form can have disastrous consequences.  1-0 wins can easily become draws, which can easily become defeats.  The deluge of games in the early part of the season has been relentless, with any free weeks seeing most of the squad going off round the world on international duty.  There has been minimal time between games to work on bedding new players, such as Nuno Valente and Matteo Ferrari, into our system, or to work on tactics and preparing for the next game.  [Now, Rob, that is simply ridiculous.  They hardly play more than one game a week, and they have plenty of time between games for training.  That should be our real concern: what the hell ARE they doing in training???  Certainly not practising retaining possession or passing the ball to a teammate!]

Much has been made of the systems we have used and the persistence with 4-5-1.  The problem is that when we adopt 4-4-2 and open up the midfield we are then running the risk of the team with the greater attacking potency getting enough chances to kill the game off.  If Birmingham werent as bereft of confidence as ourselves, the result on Saturday could have been different.  Our mindset seems to be that we have to get 1 goal and then defend.  If we concede, we feel we have lost the game. 

David Moyes has received a lot of the blame for this, and obviously the manager needs to take his share of the blame, but in truth once the players have this in their minds it is very hard to shake off.  [That goes completely against what the players said, on seeing Moyes's team selection at St Andrews, where the message was that they understood he wanted them to attack.]  The only way to disprove the theory is by scoring a few goals, and we have set out positively in most of our games, but have quickly gone into our shells, allowing the opposition to grow in confidence.  Players are looking to one another to get us going and take the game to the opposition.

In some respects, it is Catch22.  Playing 4-4-2 and being positive increases the possibility of creating chances and scoring goals, but it also increases the likelihood of the opposition doing so.  At Arsenal and Tottenham, for example, a gung-ho approach may easily have led to another hiding which would have damaged morale further.  With the personnel available recently, our attacking options have been severely limited. 

Going behind in any game has been disastrous, so keeping it tight is an understandable approach.  In fairness, we have used 4-4-2 on several occasions.  In fact, this has been my main problem with Moyes this season in that he has repeatedly chopped and changed systems and line-ups.  I think he does want to use 4-4-2 long-term, but has been caught in two minds as to the best way to go in the short term.  [So why does he start games with 4-5-1, and then switch to 4-4-2 only when we go behind?  At Birmingham he finally did the opposite, starting with attacking intent rather doing the Smithsonian thing of defending a 0-0 scoreline from the start.  Surely one could argue that was the key difference?]

The week in the Lakes, coupled with the meeting after the Manchester City game, was seen by some as a last desperate throw of the dice, but the reality is that this was the first realistic opportunity to get together as a team this season.  The trip to Thailand was pretty much bound by a demanding schedule and adjusting to the conditions.  There was little opportunity for players to get to know each other as there was in Houston.  [This is preposterous.  Why could they not have gone away and done the bonding thing in any of the weeks when there were no midweek games or internationals?]

As the season has progressed, we have found ourselves in a rut.  The trip to the Lakes was timely in that it gave a real opportunity for bonding and getting problems out into the open.  When things are going badly there is bound to be friction if there isnt a reaction there is something seriously wrong and this was a chance to iron these issues out and focus mentally on the task in hand.  Open discussion and taking the players views into account whilst retaining control of the situation is good management.  [So why did it take so bloody long to happen???]

The difference in approach against Chelsea was palpable, with players willing to take risks again.  Midfielders were carrying the ball, players were making runs and looking for the ball.  Indicative of the rediscovered zest has been the sight of Tony Hibbert putting in some decent quality crosses in each game.  Such small differences can mount up to making a huge contribution to turning narrow defeats into draws and victories again. 

There were signs of the old Everton against Birmingham.  The key now is to continue in the same vein.  James Beattie is getting fitter, and Andy van der Meydes willingness to run at defenders in the first half, and his confident use of the ball, will have provided encouragement to the likes of Tim Cahill, Mikel Arteta and Simon Davies that we can take the game to opponents.  The danger, of course, is that if Van der Meyde continues to improve and finds his best form then others will rely on him to provide the creativity. 

It is vital now that everybody stands up to be counted.  Phil Neville is one who has tried to take on the mantle, and has perhaps tried to do much at times to cover for errant team-mates.  Meanwhile the likes of Joseph Yobo, who has made one or two high-profile errors, have shown a desire and ability to bounce back.  The key now is for everybody to do this consistently.  Players need to continue to want the ball and be brave in possession.  If we can start to do that consistently then we wont be talking about systems and formations, but about Everton winning games.

I realise that I have side-stepped a lot of the issues that other people have discussed regarding the manager, and this is not an attempt to whitewash that, but there are so many factors that contribute to running a team successfully that to try and cover them all in one article is impossible. 

Im sure there are certain things David Moyes wishes he had done differently, and low confidence is not the full explanation for our plight, but it is a contributory factor that people seem to overlook.  Moyess transfer policy has obviously come under close scrutiny, but whether or not we should have done more to secure a striker is of no help at the moment.

The fact is we finished 4th without a prolific striker last season, and I dont think anybody expected us to struggle as badly as we have in the Premiership.  [To be fair a number of people rang the warning bells long and hard as we repeatedly failed during the summer to sign a key striker Ed]  Who would have expected Marcus Bent to be as anonymous as he has been, James Beattie to still only just be getting back to match fitness and James Vaughan to be injured?  Whether Bent has spat his dummy or is simply bereft of confidence is open to debate, as is whether or not James Beattie is a waster or has simply been unfortunate.  Still, whoever was in charge between now and January would have to rely on the players he has got at present.

In the meantime, we need to regain something approaching the level of performance we managed in the first half of last season.  Hopefully the likes of Andy van der Meyde, James Beattie, Matteo Ferrari, Per Krldrup and even Nuno Valente can make a positive impact and help us to get enough points on the board to be in a better position to attract players in January.  And, yes, a 20-goal a season striker would be good. 

Rob Fox

And this is what Rob Fox sent in response to the comments inserted from the Editor, who responds further in italics below.

Dear Ed

I dont want this to run and run, but I thought I should respond to your responses in the article above.  I realise that my views on the running of the club, and in particular the input of our manager, go against the grain of many contributors to this website, but in general criticisms are general rather than specific.  As yours were specific, which is your valid editorial right, I thought I should respond in the interests of debate.

1. Kevin Kilbane overly concerned about his child?  How can you be overly concerned?  Could this contribute to a lack of confidence?  Of course it can, not quite sure what point youre trying to make.

Overly was probably a bad choice of words.  I was actually trying to reinforce the point you were making regarding the factors that may be preventing some players from performing at their best.

2. Richard Dunn yes, thats the lad.  The reference was obviously a throwaway joke.  If not necessarily that funny, but not meant as a serious comment.  Thought that was obvious enough.

In the context, it appeared to be more a general statement about Evertonians... putting irony across in plain text in the internet is never easy...

3. Moyes praise for last season, responsibility for this.  Absolutely, and he makes no bones about accepting responsibility, and dealing with it to the best of his ability.  That is Moyess style, always has been, bouquets and brickbats treated equally.  Fair comment, Ed, but looking at the pattern of the last 15 years, could it be said that 7th and 4th completely buck the trend one season with JR excepted and this seasons failure is simply a reversion, hopefully temporarily, to the norm in a competitive Premiership where we are still, financially, amongst the also-rans?  Yes, Moyes would surely have done some things differently with the benefit of hindsight, but exactly how many factors are outside of his direct sphere of influence?  Financial restrictions for example?

Yes, I agree with you there, except perhaps for the issue of financial restrictions.  As this week's announcement shows, financial restrictions are nothing like as bad as they were in Moyes's first 2 seasons.  Since we were such big spenders (on paper) last summer, I don't think those restrictions present a limit anymore.  I'm sure we could have paid the extra 2M for Dirk Kuyt if Moyes had really wanted him.  

4. Bedding players in? Working on tactics?  Look at the fixture list so far this season.  Everton have had a total of 4 weeks not disrupted by internationals or playing 2 games a week.  Valente, Ferrari, to name two have also been injured at times.  You suggest they do not work on passing in training.  How do you know this?  Does it necessarily follow that working on something in training for a few days will translate into the pressure of a Premiership match?  Bit like penalty and finishing practice, isnt it?  Easy enough in training no jokes about Richard Wright, please different in a match situation.  How much training had Valente had with the defence before Bucharest?  These things take time to embed.

A bonding trip could have been undertaken in any of those four weeks, but it was not.  Yes, injuries have been our biggest problem, but much of that was self-inflicted by David Moyes buying players who had ongoing injury problems. 

Yes, I am naive enough to believe that what they do in training should translate into something on the pitch.  The problem under Moyes has been that he seems to work them too hard in training, and they are knackered well before the end of the game.  My suspicion is that the key to this is our ever-changing fitness coaching.

Prior to the Bucharest debacle, Valente had his debut against Portsmouth two weeks after joining two weeks when everyone had a break from playing matches.  I think that's plenty of time for embedding, to be honest.

5. Mindset of the players being negative not necessarily down to managerial instructions.  It is one thing having the manager telling you to be positive, but if your confidence is low it is easier said than done.  Sometimes the influence of a players' own insecurities outweigh anybody elses input.  Not scoring goals through cautious play, or poor play, is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But the key thing at Birmingham according to the players was the attacking 4-4-2 formation named by Moyes himself.  The players seemed to be claiming that had inspired them.  From which it is not hard to infer that his defensive 4-5-1 selections had been sending them quite the opposite message...

6. 4-4-2, 4-5-1 I did actually criticise Moyes here for being caught in 2 minds at present.  Wanting to play 4-4-2, as he has done all his career before last seasons situation required a different approach, and not being sure of it being right with his current personnel.  He has started several games this season 4-4-2, and lost.  Maybe having VDM available was the key this time?

Yes, VDM would certainly seem to be the difference...  but only time will tell!

7. Houston, Thailand, Cumbria, preposterous Thailand was not a team bonding exercise.  As I said earlier, the week before the Chelsea game was only the 4th, free week.  Early on, when performances were reasonable, perhaps he thought training with new players was more useful at the time?  Maybe the fact so many players especially the new ones were injured and would have been left behind for treatment had a bearing as well?

I don't understand why Thailand was not a bonding exercise when Houston was.  Maybe something to do with the type of distractions available locally...???

8. Open meeting why so long?  The talk from Moyes and Neville and other players was that the players and management felt earlier on that things would improve.  This indicates that there were ongoing discussions about how the team was doing between players and management remember Moyes has repeatedly praised the players and bemoaned their luck and has tried to be positive about things.  The City defeat seemed to be a watershed when everybody agreed enough was enough.

Which fits well with Moyes claiming repeatedly (and somewhat ridiculously in my opinion) that it was not a crisis at a much earlier stage, when clearly it was

9. Surprised at poor start I may be wrong but the general concensus on here seemed to be that failing to sign a striker and again was this negligence, wilfulness or circumstances? was that it might cost us a top 6 place and a good run in Europe.  Dont recall anybody mentioning the dreaded R word.

Lyndon wrote an excellent piece bemoaning Moyes's clear failure in this area at the time.  Of course it is meaningless to predict what would happen, but we should not downplay the failure to sign a better striker which is something Moyes clearly tried to do, but failed for reasons which no doubt include a mix of those three ingredients you cite.

10. On another tack, re the mailbag correspondent who thinks I am Bullshit Billy well I can confirm categorically that my name is not Billy.  Beattie getting fitter?  Hasnt he been injured a lot?  Surely the fat, lazy pisshead rumours are just that?  Or is it one of those leaps of faith?  Or maybe Moyes has had his work to do to get him, successfully now it seems, to knuckle down. 

Sicknote signings?  Didnt we sign Krldrup a foreign player with a good injury record who will obviously have some adapting to do for 5 years, not 5 months?  Would we have got a VDM who had been fit and in form for 2M?  So a risk, yes, but a worthwhile one for a potentially top class player.  Wasnt Van Nistelrooy written off before he signed for the Mancs after his injury? 

Of course most will disagree with this, and it is of course a leap of faith.  We can all see what has been happening on the pitch, we can all see what would improve things and that includes Moyes.  If you listen to or read what he says it is pretty much what we have all said and he is clearly not as out of touch as some seem to think.  The grey area is why we are struggling.  What is happening behind the scenes, why did we not sign a striker?  The point is none of us have facts, only rumour and opinion.  That is why opinion is divided, its all down to interpretation of the facts and surrounding circumstances.

Look across Stanley Park and youll see that a much more expensively assembled side, blessed with the luck of the devil, is not much better off.  Imagine a scenario where Moyes and Benitez were sacked just months after their finest hours.  Yet some have no problem with this.  Strange times, and even stranger reactions.

Personally, being a great believer in Moyes, I was very disappointed with his response to the recent loss of form (Crisis? ... What Crisis?) and the way he talked both before and after games came over to me as a departure from the previous straight-forward, direct no-nonsense approach that I had grown to appreciate so much previously.  I hope he has learnt more from this latest spell, and goes on to be the great manager I so desperately want him to be. The Editor.


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