For 84 days Evertonians have endured rumors and speculation, exciting preseason matches, and enough worries during those matches to send everyone into despair. Come Saturday all of that ends as Everton begins the 2011-2012 English Premier League campaign against Tottenham at White Hart Lane. But before we involve ourselves with the mundane task of reviewing matches, it is time to preview the upcoming season at Goodison Park.
It is amazing how stark a contrast a year can make. This time last year Evertonians were speaking of season full of wins and a possible run at a Champions League position. David Moyes appeared to have assembled a top notch squad despite his lack of funds, and all that had to happens was for the league to begin. Unfortunately things did not go as planned, and even though Everton found themselves towards the bottom of the table before finishing 7th, a sense of emptiness was left with most supporters, and probably the staff and players as well.
Things behind the scenes were not much better, with David Moyes being provided no funds to purchase players unless he sold some of his own stars. Although this has been the case for years at Finch Farm, it has become an even starker reality after the likes of Tottenham, Manchester City, and even Aston Villa have managed to spend to improve their squads. This lack of funds has only been compounded by discontent amongst Evertonians with the board. In the eyes of many supporters the club is being mismanaged, but the only thing that is clear is any change in the situation is going to require some outside investment.
But never mind the things that can not be controlled, for now it is time to focus on the pitch where the hype may be less than before, but expectations are the same as always, it is time to bring some silverware to Goodison.
With no new players arriving in this transfer window so far, the only real new players come from the youth ranks, or those who are beginning to force their way from the reserves to the first team. Ross Barkley, Magaye Gueye, and Apostolos Vellios have all made their mark during the preseason, and all three appear to have the opportunity to compete for a starting spot this season.
Both Vellios and Gueye saw some first team action this past season, especially later on due to injuries and depending on how training goes they may be seen even earlier this season. During preseason Vellios has shown composure on the ball, especially with his back to goal. In particular, his performance against the Philadelphia Union was excellent, and deserved a goal only to be denied by a fingertip save. Louis Saha and Jermaine Beckford are the only true strikers with first team experience, and Vellios may get a chance if either goes down with injury or struggles to score. Gueye has certainly shown improvement over the year, and it is possible he could grow into a solid left midfielder, especially if he can link up well with Leighton Baines.
Of course the big name on everyone's lips these days is youngster Ross Barkley. Mr. Barkley has turned heads this preseason with quality appearances every time he steps on to the pitch. The most recent match against Villareal showed the different abilities he has to his game, and his creativity has the potential to surpass that of Arteta's. The problem is everything that is being said uses the words talent, potential, hope, and if. Moyes is likely to bring Barkley along slowly this year, especially in the first half of the season as he allows Barkley to get a taste of life in the Premier League. Regardless of the course Moyes plots, he is likely to hear criticism from the fans, but remember that it is silly to mortgage the future for the present, especially if the present will be so fleeting.
With only the younger players as additions to the squad, many of the strengths and weaknesses also remain the same for this squad. Once again the team seems to lack a true goalscorer beyond Louis Saha. The problem is that Saha is likely to miss time due to injuries, and Jermaine Beckford provides a nice secondary option but will need to show vast improvement to become a consistent threat. Hopefully the head of Tim Cahill will return to form from the first part of last season. A combination of Cahill, Saha, and Beckford should provide enough goals for Everton to get some good results, especially with stout defending.
In the midfield the real question is who will create the scoring opportunities. With Seamus Coleman picking up an injury against Villareal, the only real threat down the flanks comes from Leighton Baines, and hopefully he can replicate last seasons success. Once Coleman returns his speedy runs down the right will help provide some balance to Everton's width, but the key to using it successfully will be to ensure that the center of the midfield is well tended. Tim Cahill is most certain to reprise his central role behind the lone striker. The two players behind him are perhaps the most crucial in the squad, and there are plenty of options to choose from. When fit, Fellaini and Mikel Arteta are probably the favored pair, but more often than not one of the two is injured. This leaves a spot for Jack Rodwell to finally fulfill his early promise. They key for these two positions is to provide a quality link between the defense and the forwards. At times this suffered, and when it did Everton would often fail to break down weaker teams, regardless of how many shots on goal they had. For this creativity the squad can also turn to Leon Osman on the left side who provided a breath of fresh air to the squad despite his veteran status. Between him and Arteta, plus any contributions Barkley may provide, the Toffees should easily be able to keep possession and create quality chances for their forwards to convert.
The defense may be the most settled part of the squad, with all 4 members retaining their positions in addition to Tim Howard holding on to the keeper position. Leighton Baines, Sylvian Distin, Phil Jagielka, and Phil Neville comprise the back four, but the biggest key to their success will come from the midfield's ability to track back. Although the Toffees did give up a few goals on counter attacks, by and large most goals seemed to come when all four defenders received little to no support, and the opposing team was able to take their chances. The central midfield will need to do a better job of tracking back this year, and on the outside the midfield's ability to mark onrushing fullbacks as well as wingers sprinting down the flanks will allow Baines and Neville to mark other bodies running into the box. Another interesting point to watch will be how teams attack Everton's left flank. With Baines' propensity for charging forward, a large gap is often left when possession changes, and it was an all to common occurence to see Sylvian Distin sprinting down the left to deny a cross from the opponent. When Fellaini was healthy his ability to sit back slightly to at least disrupt this assault on the left was critical, and it will be an area of concern for David Moyes once again.
Of course to do this some players are going to have to finally step up and deliver. For one reason are another there are a couple players who had a poor, year, or failed to live up to their promise over the course of an EPL season. To begin with there is the Spaniard Mikel Arteta. Arguably the most important player in the upcoming season, Arteta's distribution and creativity used to be unmatched before last season. Unfortunately he suffered an extreme dip in form, and was never quite able to recover it before getting injured later on. Arteta will need to come through big time for Everton if they have any hope of qualifying for the Champions League which is possible although extremely unlikely.
In the failing to live up to potential we have two contenders. The first is Victor Anichebe, who despite his size and speed seems to fall over like Ronaldo every time someone looks at him funny. If Anichebe could learn to use his body more effectively he would be a unique force in the Premier League, but after several seasons it seems unlikely that he will ever be able to learn. The second player who is arguably entering a make-or-break season is Jack Rodwell. Players and managers of all stripes have been quick to praise his quality, and Sir Alex Ferguson has seemed to admire Rodwell from afar while waiting for him to blossom before purchasing him. Rodwell did not have a good season by any stretch of the imagination, and appeared to be more of a squad player than a star in the making. He did have some injuries to contend with, but the brilliance could also be seen at times. If Rodwell can just perform consistently, it doesn't need to be at an extremely high level, he will be invaluable to Everton's midfield.
The final player who needs to have a good year is in a unique situation. Dimitar Bilyaletdinov has always been a curious case at Goodison, and no one seems to know why. Certainly Moyes plays him out of position on the left flank, Billy seems to be much more comfortable when playing in the central midfield like Cahill does, but often Billy just appears unsettled. Reports indicate he got married over the summer, so hopefully his new wife will bring some stability to his life and allow Billy to flourish. His screamer against Wolves was an example of why Moyes brought him to England from Russia, and the more goals he has like that the better off everyone will be.
The question for David Moyes is how he deploys his team. Moyes has traditionally used a 4-5-1 with one of the midfielders playing centrally just behind the lone striker. Occasionally Everton will also play a 4-4-2, but this usually occurs when there is a lack of depth in the central midfield, or Cahill is injured. Assuming Everton is healthy here is arguably Everton's best lineup for both formations
Saha Saha - Beckford
Cahill Osman - Fellaini - Arteta - Coleman
Osman - Fellaini - Arteta - Coleman Baines - Distin - Jagielka - Neville
Baines - Distin - Jagielka - Neville Howard
For both lineups the back 5 is the exact same. Unless injuries strike the squad Tony Hibbert and Heitinga are both best left on the bench. One thing to keep an eye on will be if David Moyes elects to move Seamus Coleman back to the right back spot. This would allow Neville to move into the central midfield, or maybe he will switch directly with Coleman. The other possibility would be a triangle switch with Arteta moving to the right, Coleman to right defender, and Neville to center mid. Arteta did seem to have better showings when shifted to the right in January and February before his injury. Moving Coleman has been hinted at by Moyes, and Coleman has been used defensively in several preseason games. For the time being though Coleman seems best left at right midfield. The midfield is also the same for both formations. This of course means Cahill is sacrificed for Jermaine Beckford in the switch from a 4-5-1 to a 4-4-2, but I feel Leon Osman is a better option in left midfield than Cahill, but it is possible Cahill would be favored over Osman in this situation because of his aerial prowess. With Baines likely to cross balls in from the left, Cahill would be able to charge into the box to give Baines the needed space on the left while one of the midfielders moved over to provide on outlet for the left back. Of course why we are spending time speculating on lineups is pointless. After all the team is already beset by injuries to Arteta and Coleman.
Because of these injuries do not be surprised to see Osman slide to right midfield, Billy or Anichebe to get the start at left midfield, and Jack Rodwell will replace Arteta in the center. I personally am rooting for Barkley to be an option since Arteta is injured, but that is unlikely and at best Moyes would use him of the bench if he wants to inject some life into the match.
In terms of transfer rumors there is the usual tripe that Everton fans have heard. The biggest scare has come from Arsenal's bid for Jagielka, but the insulting offer was rejected out of hand, and Jags has pledged his loyalty to the club for the season. There was also a rumor of Joey Barton joining from Newcastle, but it appears his wages are too much for the club, and he will be able to sow discord amongst another team.
For a further breakdown of the Everton squad, check out this fantastic preview by Daniel in Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. Leave your thoughts about the upcoming season below, and check back all week as we march on towards the beginning of the season, including predictions from everyone here at Royal Blue Mersey. Until next time COYB!