I think that I’m about to take an unpopular stance. So, here we go-- Rivalries are for losers. Derby matches are always more important to the less successful teams. And David Moyes made the one hundred percent correct decision to rest key players ahead of the weekend. Good teams celebrate winning silverware, and Everton’s focus is, as it should be, on that goal. Fans should be glad that that aspiration is alive, and that there are bigger fish to fry than a meaningless league game in March which just happens to be against the next door neighbors.Here’s a dirty little secret. Players don’t care about rivalries either. This isn’t news, of course. We all know how frequently players change teams. Take Nikica Jelavic for example. He’s been at Everton for an hour and a half. Does anybody really think that he has any idea what the Everton, Liverpool rivalry means to the fans? And even if he did, how could we possibly expect him to feel it himself? I understand that everybody feels that their home rivalry is the biggest (as far as this Yank is concerned nothing will ever top Yankees vs Red Sox) but the Merseyside Derby doesn’t hold a candle to what Jelavic experienced at Rangers. There, Jelavic walked into a rivalry with Celtic based on hundreds of years of sectarian rivalry and religious division. Is it fair to ask a 24 year old Croation kid to understand the history of those clubs? Of course it isn’t. And besides, he was gone a year and a half later. For Jelavic a game against Rangers was just another game to go out and play, and now a game against Liverpool is the same.
You know what is universal? Winning is. The desire to win, whether it’s a game, or a cup, or the league is the same no matter what team you play for. If I have to choose (and this week we all did) between focusing on a game who’s result would mean more to me than the players I root for and a game in which the players I root for will be as motivated to win as I am, I’ll take the second option. And, thankfully, that’s what David Moyes decided to do.
Lack of depth is one of the realities of running a team with short funds. So, player rotation is particularly difficult for Everton. But, with three games in a week if Moyes had opted not to rotate then by definition he would have been focusing on Liverpool and fielding either a tired or heavily rotated team for the FA cup quarterfinal. Instead he Moyes has done what he does best. He stood up and made the correct decision, even if it might not be the most aesthetically pleasing to fans.
That said, the biggest difference between last weekend against Spurs and Tuesday against Liverpool was Leon Osman. He was the engine that made Everton go in the middle and was directly responsible for their goal in the traditional Everton 1-0 win. And I think it was abundantly clear to everybody that he was completely cooked by the end of that game. I would have been shocked if he started again on short rest. And we saw how lackluster and uncreative the team was without either him, or Darren Gibson as a creative player (or at least a forward passing and moving player) beside Fellaini in the middle.
So, those were the options facing Moyes. He could have either played an exhausted Osman, along with Cahill, Jelavic, and Drenthe. Make a commitment to fielding his best possible team against Liverpool, while understanding that Osman’s tired legs likely won’t provide the same spark they did on the weekend, and that even if they do you are still significantly weakening your team for the FA Cup match at the weekend. That path risks putting out a subpar team for both matches. Or, he could have made the decision he did. Rest Osman and double up on defensive midfielders. Make sure Cahill, Jelavic, and Drenthe are fresh for the FA cup, and that for at least one of the games you are starting the best possible team you can.
It just so happens that the second game, the FA Cup quarterfinal is the game that the players are going to care more about anyway. It’s the game that actually might lead to Everton winning something. It’s the game that teams that focus on winning prepare for and the game that teams distracted by playing to their fan base overlook. This week is the perfect example of why having a secure and focused manager is so important. Moyes, with his typical laser like focus zeroed in on what mattered and made his decisions accordingly. Lesser, or less secure managers might have felt the need to prove something by risking the team’s cup chances to beat their rival. Moyes didn’t. And to me that’s the clear mark of a man who understands what it takes to win.
Of course, now they need to go out and actually beat Sunderland.