When asked to give a summary of the average Premier League season for Everton Football Club over the last decade, most observers would say the same thing year after year. Poor start, great finish. If only the season started in January. But it won’t have escaped anyone’s attention that the Blues have made their best start under David Moyes since 2004/05 when they miraculously finished fourth in the table with a very average squad and thus made it to the qualifying stages of the Champions League, although don’t get any Evertonian started on what happened once they got there!
Nothing in the overall situation of the club has changed. Rough estimates have the club around £40-£50 million in debt, the under fire Chairman and Board of Directors remains in place and no new injection of funds or influx of big money signings have arrived. So what has got the perennially slow starting Toffees up and running at such an early stage of the season?
In contrast to the start of the previous campaign, Goodison Park hasn’t seen an exodus of some of its best assets. Around £20 million worth of talent was sold off just over a year ago to satisfy the Bank’s desire to bring Everton’s overdraft under control. This year only Jack Rodwell’s £12 million transfer to Manchester City has reduced the playing staff numbers and these proceeds have been given to the Manager to strengthen the squad. A move that has been sorely needed for some time. The early indications that something was changing goes back to the transfer window of January 2012 and the addition of two key attacking options.
One thing lacking from all of Moyes’ teams in his tenure on Merseyside has been a regular goal scorer leading the line. Much advantage has been taken of the defensive solidity and ability to nick games by the only goal, but this has often been to the detriment of creative and attacking intent. The £6 million capture of Nikica Jelavic from financially hamstrung Rangers was, at the time, a bit of a gamble. He had a decent enough record north of the border and in general play was certainly a notch above the quality generally seen in the SPL. But could he make it in the faster, more competitive EPL? There were more than one club willing to take the risk at a very affordable price but Everton were the successful bidder and neither party has looked back. The ability to not only get into goalscoring positions, but to finish so accurately and consistently when those chances present themselves is valuable at any level. At Goodison it’s priceless.
Equally, if not more vital to the upturn in fortunes has been the re-integration of Steven Pienaar. The South African will o’the wisp was always a huge influence in the Blues’ starting XI, and during his brief and unsuccessful dalliance with Tottenham, the X Factor was conspicuous by its absence from Everton’s play. His boundless energy, fancy footwork and footballing savvy makes Everton tick. So often in the past Pienaar existed in the shadow of the more exalted Mikel Arteta and Tim Cahill. He is now receiving the praise and profile his qualities deserve and more importantly he is back in tandem with his partner in crime Leighton Baines. This combination is widely viewed as the most deadly attacking partnership currently slicing its way through opposition defences.
And what of Baines? Seemingly he has been a bit of a slow burner in the consciousness of most Premier League supporters. But ask any Evertonian about Baines and they will wax lyrical about the qualities that have enjoyed for two to three years and they see as irreplaceable. He possesses the necessary physical and defensive attributes a top flight left back should, but when you combine that with the vision and wand-like left foot comparable to that of Toffees legend Kevin Sheedy, you can begin to understand the attention he is deservedly having heaped upon him in match highlights packages and in-game analysis footage.
Add to these key weapons the maturing and increasingly influential Marouane Fellaini who so often struggled to consistently live up to his £15 million price tag but is now flourishing into the complete midfield colossus, the versatile and skilful Belgian forward Kevin Mirallas and the usual steady-eddies such as Leon Osman, Phil Jagielka and Phil Neville and it becomes evident that ambitions in L4 have grown from simply wishing to punch above their weight.
However, it is in the dugout where the greatest sea change may have occurred. David Moyes has grown his reputation on working on a tight budget, searching out nuggets in the transfer market and developing young and lower league players into high value assets to be sold on to satisfy the clubs accountants. Operating under such conditions has been difficult and to maintain Everton as a top 8 side for so long has meant that pragmatism has prevailed over entertainment. Moyes has created a team able to compete and combat but until now not so able to thrill. Events in the summer may have contributed towards this change in attitude.
When Harry Redknapp departed his post at Tottenham the bookies instantly made Moyes the odds-on favourite to take over. Most pundits saw this as the obvious next step in his career to move to a club with more ambition and resources to fulfil his own desire to finally add the elusive piece of silverware to his already impressive CV. But it became obvious very quickly that the White Hart Lane hierarchy weren’t convinced he was the man to take Spurs to the next level. This must have been a real dent to the Scotsman’s ego whether he was actually interested in that vacant position or not. Is it realistic to believe the Spurs board didn’t think he was up to the task of making them a force at home and abroad or perhaps they didn’t think he played the correct brand of football demanded in that part of North London? Unless Everton are able to attract the destiny changing investment enjoyed by the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City then eventually, David Moyes will have to move on. The informed opinion is that the close relationship he enjoys with Sir Alex Ferguson means his name could be pushed to the top of the Old Trafford list when Fergie finally decides to put his feet up and enjoy more time at the races. But the one thing missing from Moyes’universally admired reputation is the ability to send out an attacking team capable of wowing its followers. Football may be a results business but the big boys require a level of free flowing entertainment capable of selling TV rights, replica shirts and corporate boxes.
Maybe this realisation has changed the Manager’s attitude for purely selfish reasons. Maybe he has had enough of scrapping for every point and coming under occasional fire from the Goodison faithful for the brand of football being produced to pick up those points. He has now gathered together the best group of players in his 10 years in the hotseat and has come to the conclusion that it’s now time to take off the handbrake and go for it. Whatever the answer is, no one is complaining and the feel good factor is certainly breaking out amongst the fans who have been craving such a period at this stage of a season.
So, can Everton achieve anything of real substance this season? Over to you, Mr. Moyes.