Well, I suppose you can always count on the opening day of the season to bring your pre-season optimism crashing down to earth can’t you? After a great pre-season Everton lost 1-0 to Blackburn today, dashing our hopes of getting off to a good start in the League for the first time in a long while. On the bright side, I suppose it’s better than last season’s 6-1 loss to Arsenal, and not as bad as Wigan, West Ham or West Brom’s starts, but with such high expectations before the match, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
Obviously, it is not the end of the world though. This was the first game of a long season and many teams will get beaten by Blackburn at Ewood Park this season. However, if Everton are to have the superb season that we need to have, and that this squad has the potential to deliver, we need to change the way we approach matches like this. We weren’t at our best today, and Blackburn defended well, but I would have liked to have seen more ambition from Moyes going into this match.
I must start by saying though, that Everton have lost this match because of a horrendous goalkeeping blunder from Tim Howard. Coming out to claim a ball played through with Kalinic in close attendance, Howard claimed the ball cleanly initially before he tried to get a bit clever and hold the ball under one arm, at which point he dropped it at the feet of the delighted Rovers striker, who tucked the ball into an empty net.
Now many Everton fans – and indeed football fans the world over – rate Tim Howard very highly, as one of the Premier League’s best ‘keepers. I am not one of those, as I’ve stated many times on this site. For me, Howard is a solid ‘keeper whose occasional spectacular and world-class saves disguise his penchant for making silly mistakes, his weakness against shots from distance and his poor command on aerial deliveries.
However, I had hoped that with the arrival of Jan Mucha, a far more competent back up ‘keeper than we have had for a number of seasons, Howard might be forced to push himself, to really focus and to improve those aspects of his game which need improving. This makes it all the more disappointing that on the very first game of the new season, Howard has made a blunder due to over-confidence that has cost us the match. If I were Moyes, I would be thinking very seriously about sending Howard a message by giving Mucha a chance at Wolves next week.
Because Howard’s nonchalance did cost us this match. We did not perform at the level we should have and know that we can – which I’ll come to – but at the end of the day, if Howard hadn’t made such a basic error then Blackburn would not have been able to shut up shop so completely for the rest of the match. They defended superbly, but given that they barely bothered to attack us after going ahead in the 14th minute, breaking them down was always going to be an uphill struggle.
This does not excuse what was an extremely lacklustre performance from Everton though. I would still expect us to be able to break down a Blackburn side who have parked the bus, but we lacked a little spark, we looked a little off the pace and our usually crisp and precise passing was off – with simple passes falling short so often I seriously wondered if Big Sam had decided to let the grass grow long to thwart opposition passing. In reality though, the surface looked immaculate.
The most disappointing aspect of this game for me though, was Moyes’ team selection. Moyes – who is an Everton legend and a phenomenal manager, whatever criticism’s I make of him here – has assembled the best squad that Everton have had for many, many years; which just makes it all the more frustrating that he did not utilise it to its full potential today at Blackburn. I think Moyes played it safe, and tried to counter Blackburn’s physical style rather than trying to play the game our own way.
Moyes said before the season began that he would believed that this squad had the potential to challenge not just for the Champions League spots, but for the Premier League title itself. I share that belief, but I’m realistic enough to admit that to do so we would have to suffer little to no injuries, get our fair share of luck along the way and perform consistently near our best. However, if that is our realistic aim – and it should be – we also need to back ourselves to be able to dominate games as true title challengers do.
“I’d like us to finish first, even if it’s perhaps unrealistic. But I can’t sit there in front of my captain and my players and say I want to finish fifth or fourth. I couldn’t do that to my team. I have to say we’re going to finish first.” – David Moyes.
That means that when going to places like Ewood Park, we don’t send out a lineup that is designed to negate their threat, we send out our most threatening line up. Moyes didn’t do that today. The inclusion of Phil Neville at right-back where he is defensively solid but extremely limited going forward epitomises this. Seamus Coleman had a flying pre-season but wasn’t even included in the match day squad – despite Moyes confirming pre-game that Victor Anichebe was his only injury going into the season.
Indeed, Coleman featured so heavily at right-back in pre-season that Neville looked a little out of sorts there at times against Blackburn. He spent much of his pre-season at defensive midfield or left-back, and it showed occasionally in his positioning. Another player out of sorts was Leon Osman who Moyes played out of position on the right side of midfield. Osman is a cracking little player, but not when played out wide – something he’s done often out of necessity in recent seasons.
Yet now, we have options there. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov is a much better choice in that position. Not an out-and-out winger (we can’t currently afford one of those), he does have the flair, vision and delivery to perform out wide and his ability to cut inside an unleash thunderous left footed shots is priceless – especially in matches, like today’s at Blackburn, where clear-cut chances are hard to come by.
Yet Moyes went with Osman because he is more solid defensively. Despite his diminutive stature Osman works incredibly hard for the team and tracks back excellently – better than Bilyaletdinov. But this is the point. Moyes, in playing Neville and Osman rather than Coleman and Bilyaletdinov, set out to counteract Blackburn’s strategy, rather than playing to our own strengths. This, given that we have some very handy strengths, is a mistake.
If this season is to be as successful as we hope it will be, we need to show more ambition. Moyes needs to have faith in his best XI that they can go out onto a pitch with a hard-working but technically inferior side like Blackburn and dictate the game. That they will be able to control the ball, keep possession to such an extent that the fact that we don’t quite match up physically wouldn’t be an issue. We need to be proactive instead of reactive.
Of course, the simple fact is that the side that Moyes put out today should still have been capable of beating Blackburn, so the blame is not solely with him (let’s face it, most is with Tim Howard). The players who were out there even showed that they had, deep down, the ability to win the game because for large portions of it they kept the ball beautifully, not giving Rovers a sniff. Yet for some reason, our usual cutting edge, the ability to tear opponents apart with our passing, was missing.
Let us hope that these are simply signs of early season rust. This is a supremely talented group of players and I’m not going to let one bad result dampen my enthusiasm for the prospects this season has to offer. But – and Moyes will know this – we need to get going quickly. Competition amongst the top eight clubs is going to be fierce this season and every match against the ‘other twelve’ teams in the division must be approached as a must-win fixture if we are serious about challenging for the top four.
The way to do this is, I’m certain, to back ourselves. I hope that Moyes will show more ambition at Goodison next weekend. I hope that the players will be a week fresher, with more match-fitness under their belts and the cobwebs blown off. I hope that Howard realises the pressure he is under and ups his game, or that Mucha comes in and grasps his opportunity with both hands. I hope that we can get our great season underway, and that all the pre-season promise and optimism doesn’t go up in smoke. COYB.
What do you think about today’s match? What would you have done differently? Leave a comment below…