COLUMNIST JOHN HOLMES
With all the talk of transfer inactivity and, of course, the stadium debate, few people seem to have been offering much of a view on what is expected from Everton this season. Last year was a somewhat confusing time with Everton, from manager and team to supporters, behaving like a hormonal adolescent. Moments of sheer elation and exuberance were offset with anxiety, navel-gazing and a sulky refusal to come out and play. The good times were fantastic; Johnson?s last gasp winner against Arsenal in the driving rain; McFadden?s prodigious ability to fart about on the ball suddenly coming to fruition against Charlton and of course the ?never get tired of watching? moment when Reina threw the ball onto Johnson?s head to send us top of the league (oh and beat some small team 3-0). The lows were every bit as heart-rending; crashing out of the FA Cup in humiliating fashion (again), inertia in the face of necessity against Spurs and a steadfast determination to throw away points being brought to a head in the communal decision to self-destruct against United. Factor in the bizarre sights of Lescott deciding to take on the entire Bolton strike force single-handedly, Vaughan and Cahill picking up ridiculous injuries and Johnson going for the ?highest number of blatant penalties not awarded? record it was a rollercoaster season. Despite all this however, we finished a very respectable 6th and were rarely so much beaten as unable to beat.
The latter point is significant; how often do Everton step on the field nowadays with the fans feeling, ?we ain?t gonna win this, we just aren?t good enough.? For me it?s a rare feeling and increasingly so. Whereas some teams fear the big four, Everton seem to have developed a way to give them such problems that you feel if we score we?re likely to win. It?s rare you sit back during a match and think, ?this just isn?t our day; they?re better than us.? Instead we?re almost always there or thereabouts. The nagging feeling that with a bit more composure (and a bit less bizarre refereeing) we could have netted 10, 15 maybe 20 more points keeps me wondering just what this manager and team are capable of if things slot into place.
I?m not going to critique the squad for the time-being; the time for that is September 1st. An early-assembled squad would have been nice but until the ten game mark there?s little point trying to judge to deeply how money has been spent. If the cheque books are rustling again come January you?ve done badly, if you?re just plugging a gap you?ve done well. We won?t know how Moyes has fared for some time yet. Nor is what follows a set of predictions. Predicting Everton?s seasons is less reliable than looking into a crystal ball with an Ikea logo. Nonetheless, it?s worth having a set of expectations against which to judge the events of the coming months and assess our performance against our aspirations. So what do we want from Everton this season? What would constitute a good or an acceptable European and domestic campaign?
First and foremost we want to actually have a European campaign this time, not a miscarriage of justice and a humiliation. Similarly, we want one the following season too so a top-7 league finish is a must. A lot of people have suggested that the two are mutually incompatible, particularly with a small squad and especially in the less wealthy Uefa Cup. Personally I found the evidence for that rather questionable and subjective, but the fact remains that we are not a Middlesbrough or a Bolton, scrapping for the crumbs from the high table. We are Everton and we are trying to reassert ourselves as one of the forces in English football. Therefore any failure to establish ourselves as regular European competitors would need heavy compensation from cup performances.
With regard to the league, I have argued many times that the Top Four concept is a product of the media, short-term perspectives and the lack of an effective challenger. Both ourselves and Spurs are now in a position to actively attack this false exclusivity and, although Arsenal?s young talent may improve, the Gunners and Liverpool are still far nearer to those below them than those above. It would not be a failure if the Top Four reasserted their position this year, but I would like to believe that we can remain in touch with them if we can?t quite supplant them. Whilst European qualification is a must, I think, for it to be considered a ?good season?, we need to be within ten points of 4th place come May. Ideally, and I truly believe it?s possible, our aim should be 3rd. No matter how much they spend, no matter how much we are ignored by the media, the fact remain that Everton, Spurs and Bolton (who I suspect will fall away without Big Sam) have pushed Arsenal and Liverpool hard in recent years and I see no reason why teams that can do that cannot push past. To put it simply, their purchases smack of running to stand still (and yes that includes Torres, wasn?t Kuyt supposed to do that job?) whilst we (hopefully) continue to run forwards.
The cups present a more difficult question. Obviously we should be aiming to win all three but do we have the resources to compete on four fronts? Probably not. Last season Moyes showed a willingness to semi-compromise on the Carling Cup and depending on circumstance (Uefa Cup performance, injuries, reaching the latter stages), this policy should be increased. The FA Cup is more prestigious, the Uefa Cup more important and consequently these should be the aims. Moyes has been much criticised for his cup performances and mostly (despite some unfortunate luck of the draw) this has been fair. Humiliations and a failure to muster the troops when it mattered have characterised our inability to put together any sort of cup run in the last five years. Whilst a good league performance is the top priority, the fans want excitement and a belief we can parade a trophy through the streets. The cups, for now, represent our only opportunity. So a quarter-final is a must, if only to restore faith in the possibility of triumph, with at least progression from the group stage a necessity in the Uefa Cup. Realistically we should be asking of Moyes to guide us to the last eight of that tournament. If we have serious ambitions to play in the Champion?s League (and we should have), we need to prove ourselves (and improve our seeding).
With those basic aims for the record books in place, the question of what we want on the pitch is the issue that aggravated as much debate as any last season. Without a doubt it was a dull experience watching Everton at times. The team lacked attacking flair, pace and cohesion. Too many players relied on the hoof into the channels for Johnson to chase and an inability to counter-attack meant we sank deeper and deeper as we tried to defend leads which inevitably cost us points. Yet, many fans pointed to the league table and the efficient effectiveness with some justification. Whatever you said about the style of play, it was getting results more often than not. However, football is not just about results. If it was we could just read the paper and skip the actual game. Don?t get me wrong, I love to see a good backs-to-the-wall performance from time to time. Nothing delights me more than watching Liverpool and Arsenal throw their toys out of their prams because teams have the audacity not to let them skip merrily into their penalty areas. However, when watching turgid, staid, lumpen, hoofball on a dreary Sunday against a pathetic, plummeting Wigan team, a solid defence offers little entertainment. It?s against these ?make up the numbers? teams that Moyes needs to find more from his players. No-one could fault his efforts against the Top Four, but against the rest we?re too often dragged down to their level. The loss of Cahill in an already limited midfield was a viable excuse but the reality was too few players had the drive to push us forward with some purpose. The full-backs were static, Osman muscled out and Arteta pressured into a loan hero role. Hopefully some of the summer acquisitions and returnees will offer the little Spaniard some respite, but the real need is for Moyes, as he did in the wake of ?The Spurs Debacle??, to encourage his players to play.
Walter Smith left a ragtag bunch of veterans, tryers and lumpers with precious-little talent and Moyes worked wonders in dragging them into the Champion?s League, richly deserving his managerial awards. To his credit, the team has been overhauled to represent a slick (if somewhat slim-line) unit which is built around a core of talented team-players with strong work ethics. The need to scrap for every point shouldn?t be there now. Moyes needs to realise that the onus is now on us to go out and win games and instil some fear into the opposition rather than just make them puzzle over how to get round us. We know we?re difficult to play against, now we need to become difficult to stop. I think he forgets that sometimes and reverts to his Everton #1 project. This season, with the last remnants of the Smith era either accepted as key elements or shipped off to the make-weight teams, he needs to forge Everton #2. #2 will still be a unit which is better than the sum of its parts and will still be built around the virtues of hard-work and team spirit, but should now be a higher-class model. It should be able to elbow aside teams who don?t have much going for them or don?t really turn up on the day. Any team can struggle unexpectedly against a lesser club, but, whilst our strong defensive mindset should hold the fort we need to use this as a platform to drive teams onto the backfoot. We need to see the Everton that destroyed Fulham from a goal down, the one that pulled apart Spurs with 10 men not the one that stumbled across the finishing line to a shocking Wigan team or let an equally bad Charlton snatch a point. We need to be on top because we?re pushing the opposition back not because they?ve given up trying to get through.
This season will be a big one for Everton and Moyes. The manager needs to rid himself of the yo-yo reputation and show, one and for all, that he is taking the club to where it wants to go. The club may well commit itself to moving house but that will matter little if it surrenders to being there to make up the numbers and battle for a UEFA Cup spot year after year. The stage is set for those who want to enter football?s new elite to step up to the mark and Everton are jostling with Spurs for pole position. This season is time for Everton to remind people who we are.
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1 Posted 28/07/2007 at 21:20:17
The man has told so many lies he should be up on fraud charges.NIL SATIS NISI OPTIMUM
2 Posted 28/07/2007 at 23:01:17
3 Posted 28/07/2007 at 23:29:33
4 Posted 29/07/2007 at 00:56:28
I think the coming week will tell us quite a lot about the squad for next season but already I feel strongly that Everton 2007/8 is better and pacier than last year’s model.
Already I believe Moyes has 9 ’strongest side first choices in place’ and with Vaughan that would have been ten.
He has been talking up Nuno Valente in a week where a young full back is being tipped as Moyes next signing and I just wonder if he sees Baines as the possible answer to the old ’left flank’ problem spot with the Portugal defender playing behind him.
5 Posted 29/07/2007 at 06:16:49
6 Posted 29/07/2007 at 06:19:20
7 Posted 29/07/2007 at 10:32:49
I would add that we need to have a respectable chance of top 4 finish on a regular basis by the start of next season. This will require good performance in both league and UEFA cup football (which is supposedly a high quality tournament, especially at the latter stages) to both improve the current playing staff and attract those players of sufficient quality to strengthen the squad.
8 Posted 29/07/2007 at 11:27:07
9 Posted 29/07/2007 at 19:14:58
When you’ve been at a club as long as Moyes has, in a league as bad as this one, you should be doing more than stabilising. I think we should be looking at UEFA qualification as bare minimum now.
This will be an interesting season. A lot of clubs around us have spent daft money on mediocre players and I’m not convinced their squads are stronger than ours. This could and should be the season where we put some daylight between us and them.
Outside the top two it’s all going to be about managers’ skills and in our case, as few injuries and suspensions as possible.
If our short on numbers and quality squad costs us through this season, remember who is in charge, how long they’ve been there and how much they’ve told us about the true position of the club.
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