Everton’s opening weekend win over Manchester United seems to have undone a recent Premier League tradition – not only did the blue half of Merseyside get off to a winning start, they did so against a top team. Another win against Aston Villa suggests they may not be making the woeful start they have become known for, although the Villans were so woeful themselves, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions from Everton’s 3-1 victory.
Although United’s unusual lack of threat must be taken into consideration, Everton put in an impressive performance. A simple description of a set piece goal then sitting back to let United come at them did their performance justice. Marouane Fellaini’s performance was universally praised, and rightly so. The massive Belgian posed a problem for United by playing as a target man, but doing so in a deeper attacking midfield role, rather than leading the line as most do, while also bullying Michael Carrick, who was clearly uncomfortable as a makeshift centre-back, wherever possible.
A target man is generally pointless without quality around him. The perpetually underrated Leon Osman and returning Steven Pienaar tucked into midfield cleverly, coming off the wings to overload United’s holding midfield pair and exploit the gaps their fruitless aerial duels with Fellaini provided. Ahead of them, Nikita Jelavic, who has so far avoided getting drawn into the typical Everton striker’s cycle of injuries, was a constant headache for United’s defence, pulling wide to not only make him difficult to track, but provide the wide option their wingers weren’t providing.
Nevertheless, one game doesn’t define a team’s season. David Moyes has proven himself to be excellent in the transfer market, and a decent tactician, yet his team can’t move on until it stops being simply solid – they need to take the game to the opposition too. The problem is that realistically Everton don’t have the money to make those changes, and so it becomes impossible to judge Moyes as anything more than an excellent mid-table manager.
In defence, Tony Hibbert is essentially a Scouse Gary Neville: so consistently mediocre it has become impressive. Hibbert won’t offer anything other than solidity, any movement past the half-way line mostly pointless, but in his own half he is a dependable figure – nothing special, yet trustworthy nonetheless.
On the opposite side, Leighton Baines is a step above, and would walk into the England team were it not for Ashley Cole – who provides a strong case for being England’s greatest ever left-back – surprising few with his history of being a winger.
Phil Jagielka is an excellent all-round defender, occasionally prone to making a mistake but with an uncanny ability to correct it immediately, yet he isn’t particularly notable with the ball. Likewise, John Heitinga offers versatility and solid performances, but is only alright with the ball at his feet. Sylvain Distin’s career seems to be on a downward slope, and is essentially the same player as the rest on the ball. Joleon Lescott was a slight step-up, but it was little surprise when Man City poached him after a couple of seasons.
The problem is that Baines is the odd man out; Everton’s side is distinctly split. Their defensive players tend to be good players, they just happen to be purely defensive ones, which causes an issue with the overall make-up of the team. You can’t claim any of them as being detrimental to the team; you just can’t say any, minus Baines, offer a positive going forward.
The years of great defenders are over: Fabio Cannavaro has retired, Sol Campbell was forced into retirement because of his inability to find a club and Alessandro Nesta has flown off to America to end his career. The world-class defenders of today don’t give off the impassable quality they previously had, instead they seem to be good defenders who are capable on the ball. Sergio Ramos plays like a full-back who’s capable in the air, dominant but always likely to take it a step too far; Gerard Pique has been compared to Franz Beckenbauer in possession yet looks increasingly shaky without the ball; and Thiago Silva is a sturdy but historically unremarkable defender capable of carrying the ball forward.
Currently, the top teams value solidity plus a noticeable ability on the ball over perfection at stopping a player. Everton’s choice of defensive players seem to value the latter quality more highly.
In The Midfield
Nevertheless, this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem were it not for the choice of players in front of them. In the side’s 4-2-3-1, the two holding midfield spots seem reserved for Phil Neville and Darron Gibson, assuming Fellaini stays in that attacking midfield spot he’s excelled in.
Neville is again a versatile and solid player, but isn’t remarkable going forward, while Gibson has stopped the need to justify his place in the team by shooting every time he gets the ball since leaving United, yet remains an ultimately average player.
Whether or not Everton do well throughout this season depends firstly on how Moyes uses Fellaini (and how the opposition deal with him should he remain as an attacking midfielder – it hasn’t been rare for a shorter midfielder to drop into defence while a more aerially competitive defender meets a tall player in midfield before, so the success he saw against United’s midfield might not be so frequent) and secondly how others treat them.
First and foremost, Everton are a counter-attacking team – they showed glimpses of a more patient build-up in the opening minutes against United and looked more convincing against Villa, but, as things stand, consider the opposition’s outlook when betting on them. If they will look to battle or simply stop Everton, stay away – a war of attrition is usually too difficult to judge to be worthwhile.
Also remember, clichéd as it may seem, form goes out the window for derbies – Everton have had an odd tendency to capitulate against Liverpool for the last few seasons, no matter how woeful the Reds have been.