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A Case for The Defence

By Terry McAllister :  20/07/2010 :  Comments (15) :
The big kick-off is only weeks away and excitement is slowly starting to build amongst Evertonians at the prospects for the coming season.

If the Everton squad as it stands today are still together by the time the first whistle blows at Ewood Park on 14 August, the Blues' ambitions for the coming campaign can know no bounds.

With a wealth of talent in midfield and (after a recruitment drive this summer) in attack, the Toffees have a lot of different options to choose from. Options and choices which they haven't had in years previous thanks largely to a horrendous injury record in the last 20-odd months. Only midfield enforcer Marouane Fellaini won't be available when hostilities re-commence next month but even he will be closing in on recovery come that time.

The biggest difference, however, between this year and almost every year during David Moyes's tenure as manager will be the defence. The Scot has a fine reputation for building teams on a base of a rugged and well drilled back four but is that something that will be in place this season?

Every defender on the books has his own stake and claim to say he should be on the teamsheet come the big day. Faces old and new in the squad who can claim they have the right to protect the Everton goal from opposition fire.

It would be fair to say that, last season, Everton were their own worst enemy at times, shipping goals far too often against less than stellar opposition, soft goals too. Far too many wins turned to draws and hard work undone by silly mistakes. Missing out on Europe ? and the chance of finishing above our nearest and dearest ? by 2 points was our eventual punishment for dropping those points whilst they were in our hands too many times across the course of the campagin. Not to mention allowing a poor Sporting Lisbon side back into a what was a finished tie at Goodison Park, you can remember the rest yourselves.

Who, then, has genuine cause to believe they should be lining up when the Premier League starts for the 2010-11 calendar?

If you read into supporter on-line forums, the common thread of opinion amongst the faithful is they'd like to see a combination of Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, John Heitinga and Seamus Coleman guarding Tim Howard in the Everton goal. As ideal as that line-up would be, it is not a realistic or feasible one.

On the back of his performance in the home match against Tottenham in December, a successful loan spell at Blackpool from March as well as impressing in pre-season, there are calls for the Seamus Coleman to see more first team action. The Irish youngster has seen his stock rise at Goodison in the past months with many seeing him as the long-term answer to the squad's problematic right-hand side. An attack-minded full-back fancied as a mirror image to Leighton Baines and a player with genuine promise... but can we really expect to see an Everton team under this manager which doesn't feature a fully fit Phil Neville?

In fairness to the club captain, as limited as he seemed at right back at points last year, his effect on the team was apparent while he was out injured for a prolonged spell. He is a real leader in the team and one of Moyes's most trusted lieutenants on the pitch. It's safe to assume that though Coleman will play a part throughout the term, Neville will start as the first choice in that position.

Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines are the only two who demand selection, both on merit and on the basis that there really are no better options within the ranks than the pair England internationals.

John Heitinga is the most interesting of the selection headaches. After a roller-coaster year which saw him become a fan favourite at Goodison Park and eventually ended with him being dismissed in the World Cup Final, he is not as nailed-on to start as those outside the club would assume. Despite arguably being the best 'footballing defender' of the bunch, he doesn't always command a regular starting birth in his favoured position of centre back.

It is no secret that David Moyes likes a left foot-right foot partnership at the heart of his defence and add to that the distinct physical differences between Sylvain Distin and the Dutchman, it's a short bet to say that the big Frenchman is likely to also make the team sheet against Blackburn. That is not to say, however, that Heitinga will not be involved; the absence of Fellaini will undoubtedly result in him continuing in the midfield enforcer role in which he thrived in the latter part of last season.

Let a word also be said for the forgotten man, Tony Hibbert. Hibbert is now finally at the level within the squad where he belongs, a seasoned veteran of the club who finished the last campaign in good form. A hard working player who can plug any gaps across the back line and will always put in a shift when called upon.

By that logic, the defence that will start the new term will be the one that finished the previous one; whilst that isn't adventurous, is it at least wise? Longevity is a commodity not to be under-rated in football and in order to dispel the club's habit of starting a season badly, perhaps the settled defence is the best option?

All-in-all, it's predicted that the coming months will see something of a rarity at David Moyes's Everton: an unsettled back four. The defence can be made up of many different options each with their own individual qualities and the right formula will have to be discovered during battle.

The usual suspects will start come the first hurdle of the big race, but just who will cement themselves is yet to be seen. If nothing else is certain, be certain that Everton have more options than they know what to do with.

Reader Comments

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Fran Mitchell
1   Posted 21/07/2010 at 15:36:26

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If Fellaini is not fit then yes, I agree that Heitinga will be moved into midfield with Distin or Yobo coming in. Distin is ahead of Yobo only because he is left-footed.

Otherwise I do think Heitinga will command a stating place in central defense.

I would disagree with comments suggesting Jagielka is undroppable. He will certainly start the campaign as first choice, but it is no guarentee that he will remain so.

He was below par when he returned last season. We generally decided to overlook this as he had returned from a very serious injury, and he jumped straight in the deep end, yet if he continued in a similar vein of form this season I would soon expect a Distin/Yobo, Heitinga partnership.

At right back, well we will never agree. Personally I believe Hibbert is our best right back. If we needd more attacking options then bring on Coleman as a sub. Essentially I'd have Hibbo vs top 10 teams and Colewman vs bottom 10 teams.

While Neville is a great leader, and while I expect him to play alarge role I do not expect him to be a guarenteed starter. Even Moyes cant overlook the fact he's getting old. I'd keep Nev for games vs Utd and co, when we really need a leader and experieence. But at 34 can he really play more than 20 games?
Jim Hourigan
2   Posted 21/07/2010 at 16:26:07

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I agree with Fran, Jagielka is far from undroppable and to be honest if the Arse offer £16M I would snap their hands off and buy Cahill from Bolton or Dawson from Spurs. Too much last-ditch challenging because he doesn't read the game well enough but clearly very very committed.

However, don't agree with Fran about Hibbert ? poor in possession, poor peripheral vision, ie, he gets caught out too often with diagonal balls and at the back stick. As for his attacking options, they are non-existent.

For me, the enigma is Neville ? is he good enough on play to merit a place? Or is it because of his captaincy? Or is he just not worth his place? I'm not sure and neither am I sure Coleman is ready. But that's what Moyes gets paid £5M a year for.

On balance with the players available it would just be Neville, Jagielka, Heitinga and Baines.
Richard Reeves
3   Posted 21/07/2010 at 15:35:13

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Whether it's not realistic or feasible to expect Coleman to start I'm not so sure. If the past is anything to go by then Neville will play by far the majority of the games with Coleman coming on as a sub but I think Moyes has been impressed and has plans for him this season.

Left back would be Baines but back-up for that position must be important as we don't really have a replacement. Garbutt is apparently a decent prospect but he probably won't be ready for years.

I would like to see Jagielka and Heitinga as centre-backs with Duffy getting more first-team experience. For his age, he is a strong defender with a good reading of the game and, like Seamus Coleman, whenever I've seen him play I've been impressed.

Some players' reading of the game is more advanced for their years and, for me, Duffy is in that category. Whoever is picked and whoever becomes the established back four Moyes has always got it right in the past (well, 75 percent if you're including the right back position). I think you know what I mean though; Moyes has always started from the back, making sure the defence is solid before focussing on other areas of the field.

Can I just finally say that there have been times In the past when Hibbert has been playing well only for him to be dropped for Neville which, in terms of quality, is replacing like for like. I've always had a lot of respect for Hibbert because he gives everything for the cause but, like someone else on another thread had said, I wonder whether after all this time we've stumbled upon his best position of centre back.

When he played there his reading of the game was impeccable. What he lacked in height he made up for in brilliant decision-making, like someone who's played in that position all his life. I think he is an option for that position.

John Daley
4   Posted 21/07/2010 at 17:20:25

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A fully fit Jagielka is the best defender at the club by a considerable distance, and I would suggest that Moyes certainly sees him as being undroppable. The fact he was rushed back into the side last season, before he was at full fitness, and remained there is indicative of that fact.

True, he looked rusty at times but surely that is to be expected after such a long lay off? Look at the Yak (you can't miss the fat fucker) who returned last September and was still ridiculously off the pace come May. On the evidence of the (admittedly pedestrian paced) pre-season games so far he appears to be showing some good form and fitness.
Rory Slingo
5   Posted 21/07/2010 at 19:18:11

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Terry, Hibbert isn't the 'forgotten man'... it's Joseph Yobo ? he didn't even get a mention in your case!
Brendan O'Doherty
6   Posted 21/07/2010 at 19:12:46

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Moyes on £5m per year (£100k per week)? I think not.

We haven't been the same at the back since the Jagielka/Lescott partnership was broken up, although Heitinga/Neill had a good record last season.

The forgotten man in your piece Terry, seems to be Yobo.
Thor Sørensen
7   Posted 21/07/2010 at 20:41:23

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Unlike midfield and attack, given the speculation surrounding Messrs Arteta, Pienaar and to a certain extent Yakubu, defence is a part of the side that will almost certainly (fingers crossed!) be kept intact this summer.

Since everyone is tied down on long-term contracts and likely (even Heitinga) to stay on at the club, this enables us to more confidently and accurately speculate on what the back-line will look like come August....

My prediction: Hibbert - Jagielka - Distin - Baines.

Terry McAllister
8   Posted 21/07/2010 at 23:39:44

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For the record, I didn't mean Jagielka is 'undroppable', just that he is without doubt the top defender at the club and will be picked to start this season and the majority of the season while he is fit.

Yobo isn't the forgotten man really, he just wasn't worth mentioning. He'll be the same this year as every other year (if he stays)... he'll be on the bench for the lion's share of the games other than when coming in to plug holes made by injuries/suspensions.
Peter Warren
9   Posted 22/07/2010 at 12:54:40

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Distin is the weak link.
Iain Love
10   Posted 23/07/2010 at 12:53:19

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I actually think Rodwell is the key!! When Fellaini is back (not far off) where does Jack play? I've made this comment a few times, if we play Jack & Maro together as holding midfielders, a la Brazil, that allows the full backs to go forwards... fine for Baines but Neville Hibbert? I think not. Coleman would be the best option. Although I read somewhere that the Mexican right back Salcido is available for £2M, a player who I rate very highly.
Tony Dove
11   Posted 23/07/2010 at 18:15:14

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Jags and Heitinga together will not work through lack of height. A fit Jags is superior so the central pairing probably needs to be Jags and Distin.
Iain Love
12   Posted 24/07/2010 at 10:42:47

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Tony, why don't we just get two tall defenders then?

You could say Jags & Distin won't work together because they are both hoof ball merchants! I would far rather have Heitinga and A N Other due to Johnny's predilection to play the ball out of defense and therefore to retain possesion.

Tony Dove
13   Posted 24/07/2010 at 11:25:19

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Iain, I don't think Jags is too much of a hoofball man when he's fully fit. Also, for me, better defender wins over less hoofballer.
Liu Weixian
14   Posted 24/07/2010 at 14:23:33

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Jags and Heitinga should be the centre pairing. Rodwell can play in front of the back four. Jags may like to hoof it but I prefer my defenders to play it safe. When in doubt, clear the ball. No point trying to be too smart.
Iain Love
15   Posted 24/07/2010 at 18:42:44

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I think Heitinga influences Jags to play the ball out rather than hoof it, that was noticeable when they played together, but without that, Jags does hoof it.

Liu, the difference between hoofing and passing is the same difference between top 4 and the rest, we simply MUST play the ball out if we want to crack the top 4 and move forward as a team. If you think about the BEST teams in the world, WHO hoofs it?

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