Well, unbeaten now in a little while after some good results and even a slightly disappointing draw against Middlesbrough, one could be forgiven for thinking that David Moyes has hit upon a winning formula, as he has done so often in the past. Unfortunately though, though Everton have been winning games, we have not been playing well, and there is still a long way to go before I will be confident in our European challenge.
There are two major areas that I think Moyes needs to look at, and the problem in both cases is actually not a problem as such (and if it is it’s the best kind to have) but more a difficult choice. These areas are defencively, specifically the left back slot, and up front. In both positions Moyes has a number of highly talented players, but I think he needs to think carefully about which one he chooses, as to how it will effect the overall balance of the team.
Let’s start at the back then. In Joseph Yobo, Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott, we have three centre backs of genuine international quality. This of course poses a problem as we can really only accommodate two of them at any one time, even though all would walk into most Premiership sides. To solve this of course, Moyes has pushed Lescott out into the left back role, which he has filled to some acclaim, but this displaces another top draw player – Leighton Baines.
I feel quite sorry for Bainsey, because whenever he has had a chance in the team he has impressed. Defensively he is very solid, he’s quick and his positioning is excellent, he’s a big threat on the overlap and with a natural left foot, adds an extra fluency to attacks down the left. Yet again and again he finds himself on the bench, as Moyes opts for Lescott instead, presumably to sure up defensively, as we have conceded far too many goals already this season.
But I am skeptical as to whether or not playing Lescott as a left back is actually making us more defensively sound. Yes, Baines is a more attacking wing-back type player, but he is also a natural left back, and I don’t think that Lescott is. Joleon is an excellent defender, his tackling and marking are superb, he’s unmatchable in the air (as he’s proved with his goal tally last season) and he is as solid as they come, and has a bit of speed to him for a defender too.
But he is a central defender, out and out. I often think when I watch him play that his positioning for a left back is a little bit off. He tucks in too much, playing almost as a third centre back at times, and this gifts the opposition space to play the ball into, and the right sided winger more time on the ball to pick a cross. And I think that this has been directly responsible for our weaker defence this season.
Whereas last season we were nigh on impenetrable, this season we have conceded a lot of scrappy goals, when the ball has been delivered, then dropped to a player in the box and been tucked away. I think this is at times because the winger has had more time to accurately place his cross, where usually they are under pressure and must simply get a yard then whip the ball in. This means that the ball is likely to find the opponents target men more, and though our centre backs do enough to prevent the direct goal, the ball can’t be cleared as comprehensively as it was last season.
Now hang on, you might say with good reason, Lescott played at left back last season too, so why the sudden change? A good point well made that, but I think that it may come down to the players mentality so far this season. He rightfully earned a lot of plaudits for his form last season, and I think it may have gone to his head a little bit. I’m not saying he’s cocky, but such praise relaxes a player a bit, and seeing as he is playing out of position, he needs to be fully concentrated on his positioning etc. because it does not come naturally. It seems to me that this focus isn’t always there tough, and so probably unconsciously, he drops back into a more central position, purely from natural instinct.
It may also be down to the fact that he himself wants to play at centre back. He has said a number of times that he’d prefer to be at the heart of defence, and in an ideal world that’s where he’d be. Unfortunately though, Jags and Yobo formed a great understanding last year, and thus have become the first choice defensive pair, even though Lescott is probably the most gifted of the three at an individual level. Because if this it may be almost a subcouncious resistance that drives him slightly further toward what he regards as his natural position.
I think then, that Moyes needs to change this. I am a big fan of both Baines and Lescott, but at this point in time, I think we need Baines playing at left back. It is his natural position, he is a very talented lad and can do the defencive duties at least as well as Lescott, in my opinion, probably even better. He also, with his left foot, provides an immense attacking outlet. He has shown earlier in the season what a threat he can be, I remember one game (the opposition won’t come to me) where he setup one goal with a cross and won a penalty, as well as making two goal line clearances.
I don’t think that this means Lescott should be dropped altogether though. Either Moyes could fiddle with his central partnership, which I wouldn’t advise as they look solid, or he could think about deploying Lescott at right back, if he really does want him in the side. I’ve said that Lescott is not a natural full back, and I believe that, but he is right footed, and so on the right hand side he would be a touch less awkward and may fare a touch better. That would mean he would replace the captain Phil Neville though, who has been playing well and I don’t think should be dropped, for his leadership qualities if nothing else. He could perhaps be moved to the midfield holding role, but with Arteta, Cahill, Osman, Pienaar and Fellaini all to fit into midfield, that poses another dilemma.
So Moyes has a few options up his sleeve and it will be interesting to see if the great man himself thinks he needs a change. This is just my own little theory, but to me I don’t think Lescott is quite right so far this season and if I were in charge, that’s what I’d be looking at. Let’s now look at my second little theory though, whcih concerns the attack, and introduces the choice between a straight 4-4-2 and our usually preferred 4-5-1.
In recent games, when we have had Cahill back fit and from suspension, and Fellaini playing well and Saha back in the goals, we have still lacked a bit of cohesion going forward. And while it is great to see Louis Saha back playing well because he is a class player when fit, and the Yak is always a threat, even if he is a little lazy for my liking, I must admit I think we need to revert to the 4-5-1. It surprises me to say this as I have always preferred teams playing with two strikers as it’s more attacking, but I think in our case it actually holds us back.
Because while Saha and Yakubu are both great players, they are too similar to really function as a partnership. Both have a bit of pace but aren’t really willing runners. They rarely make runs that can be found with a cutting little pass, yet with players like Arteta, Osman and Pienaar in midfield, that is what we do best.
In full flow last season (the European game against Larissa springs to mind) Everton played amazing quick, often one touch passes, interchanging positions across the midfield and then setting either the Yak away, or Osman or Pienaar who then played a square ball or a cut back into the danger area. This season though, our attacks break down at the edge of the box, and we look a bit stale.
Some people have criticised the midfield for this, Arteta in particular has been on the receiving end with people suggesting he is always playing sideways. But there isn’t any movement for him to lock on to. Yes he can (and has been) go past his man and then send a cross over, but that is only one way to build an attack, but so far, it has been the only way we’ve really scored. We are at present a one dimensional attacking force.
I think what needs to happen is for Moyes to revert to his five man midfield. This gives Osman and Cahill in particular the freedom to roam forward and play just off Yakubu, while Arteta, Fellaini and Pienaar are a bit more withdrawn (with Arteta and Pienaar on the wings too). Then the withdrawn three have the physical presence of Yakubu to aim for, as well as the flitting runs of Cahill and Osman, and then with deft one-twos and overlaps and more movement on the edge of the box, the opposition will be far more easily dragged around and gaps created. As coaches always say, marking a still player is easy. I’m not saying marking Yakubu or Saha is easy, they’re both very strong, but staying with Yakubu, Cahill and Osman and retaining your shape all at once is nigh on impossible.
The problem then is which player should make way. Saha is in the goalscoring form, but Yakubu is Moyes’ main man really, and has just broken his duck. Both are excellent players but as a partnership I’m not sure how much chemistry they will ever have. There is also the point to consider that we could need a holding midfield player in the ‘Lee Carsley role’ to allow the system to work. I agree that it does free up the other midfielders, but from what I’ve seen of Fellaini so far, I think he has it in him to do that job, as well as providing an attacking threat.
He is always the first midfielder back to help out in defensive situations, and often, when we’re building an attack will be found sitting a touch deeper and conducting the play from side to side. of course as such an aerial threat it is important he be allowed to burst into the area sometimes too, but i think that the other midfielders are intelligent and disciplined enough to provide temporary cover on these occasions. For me that is the ideal solution, because brilliant as Carsley was for us (more than we realised at the time) I always wished he could contribute a bit more with the ball. Fellaini seems to me to have that mix of attributes and will become a very important player for us I think.
In all then, I would like to think that Moyes has a lot on his mind this week. Though his team are getting results, I am certain he will not be happy with the level of performance he has been seeing. These then are the areas in which i think that we need to take another look, but maybe Moyes has different ideas. The weekend will probably shed light on that, and we’ll see what he does with his lineup. In the end though, thta Moyes must choose between Lescott and Baines, or Lescott, Jagielka and Yobo or Saha and Yakubu simply shows how far we’ve come. A few years ago we had a shallow squad with talent but no quality in the depth. Now Moyes has really strong replacements in almost every position, and that is a vital ingredient in having a successful season. Whether or not this turns out to be a successful season for us will, possibly, depend on how Moyes utilises this strength in depth, so I will be watching his decisions closely.