Obstructed View – Reflections on the Newcastle (A) and Stoke (H) Games

Two games for the price of one? Yes, it must be the January Sales…..or it might be that Everton performances are beginning to gel together so that one match has the same messages as the next.

Clevs last kick

What we love is the grit and determination at Newcastle that saw us score in the very last seconds of the game (but even then I had a horrible ‘Bournemouth Feeling’ about it all), and what we don’t love is the seeming ability to gift chances to the opposition that can undo all the good work of the previous hard-working and at times gifted attacking football in a game, that has now seen us have an astonishing 82 shots on goal in our last 5 PL matches in December. That’s a hell of a statistic whichever way you want to look at it.

It is attacking play that gets the likes of pundits Murphy, Merson, Wright, Lineker and Shearer purring about how this is all “fantastic football for the neutral”. Well, forgive me, but in your regular Premier League fixture, how many neutrals are actually in the ground watching? Not many I’d guess, apart from the media, and even the regular punters watching Match of the Day are probably less interested in the attacking, flowing football you could see at an Everton game, than the disputed decisions that the show’s producers tend to focus on. As a self-avowed Evertonian, not even remotely “a neutral”, I have been thrilled by some of what I’ve seen this season, and you know what, it heightens the expectation levels, and guess what happens? 11th. That’s what happens. Because out of those 82 shots on goal in December, we’ve scored just 8 goals, although more to the point, our opponents have scored 9.

What’s going on?

If you read the rants (and they are largely rants, with some balanced exceptions – Terry  for example, you know who you are…!), and then if you’d believe them as well, the problems are easy to solve: a new manager, a new goalkeeper, a wild-child DM, and for some at least, a selling on of some of our prized assets. Oh yes, and new investment. Oh, and a new ground. And a new CEO. And better deals for buying our shirts (which some people want to be sold far and wide in the UK and on foreign shores because they think that the Everton brand has global appeal – cart and horse spring to mind). A new shirt sponsor. And as result of the new shirt sponsor, we can drink better beer than Chang (OK, might concede that one). And, and, and….

What’s my point? It’s quite clear to me that you don’t end up with balanced views if you read the timeline on Twitter, but what you do get is the outpouring of negativity that seems to keep many people happy, and if that’s your bag, that’s your right, so go ahead. But don’t expect me to enjoy reading it. Some of the critique is justified, but when you meld it all together, there is much more negativity around than there is positivity – far fewer characters are expended on us having a striker that at this half way point of the season has scored 15 Premier League goals, and already that’s 5 more than he scored in the league all of last season; far less written about the fact we have two players who are joint 3rd in the number of assists so far this season; and less on the fact Everton lead the League Table in dribbles per game; or lead the League Table in Goals scored in the last 15 minutes of matches; or lead the League Table in goals scored from open play (all stats from whoscored.com). I guess Twitter on football marries Twitter on life – you don’t read many posts that say : “Woke up this morning with a wonderful clear head, glad I didn’t drink a drop last night”.

Am I sweeping our frailties under the Goodison Carpet? No, my point is we lack balance as we less critique our Club and it’s performance, and more criticise – and criticise relentlessly.

Anyway, back to the football, what reflections have I got on our two not-very-festive fixtures?

The first point has to be Lukaku. There were times yesterday against Stoke when he was backtracking and helping the defence, back in our box making tackles, whilst also having time to score two goals; he could have had a hat-trick but for Elliot’s legs on Saturday as well. This indeed is the joint top scorer in the Premiership, alongside the much-vaunted Vardy. I’m not sure what’s in Marc Wilmots’ tea, but if he’s thinking of any other Belgian striker to lead his line at Euro 2016, especially the talented but more limited chaps from across Stanley Park, then whatever it is, it’s making him delusional. Just imagine a talent like that up front with players like De Bruyne and Hazard feeding his rapacious scoring appetite? For Everton, we don’t have Belgians doing that for him, we have Barkley and Deulofeu, each with 7 assists so far this season, and in the case of young Ross, a scorer of 6 goals himself. Not bad eh? Or is, as some people have written, Barkley the cause of some if not all of our downfalls? Give your head a wobble if you’re in that camp. Add the ages of these 3 players together, and the combined age comes to just a bit more than me on my own; now admittedly, they’re also a ‘bit’ better at football….

But what an exciting free-flowing threesome we have – add to that the mercurial talents of Mirallas that were on show at Newcastle, when he took control of a Coleman cross, and nearly squeezed his shot through Elliot’s legs (those legs again) for what would have been a spectacularly acclaimed goal. And even Lennon showed signs of the player we loved last season, and who may yet get more chances to impress as the mad January fixtures tot up.

Of course, we don’t seem to have a problem going forward and creating chances, although we could do with converting more of them, what we need to address is behind these dashing Musketeers. I’m going to start by discussing Howard. Now I know we’re all great goalkeeping coaches, so it’s no surprise to find a consensus, by and large, on the fact that Tim Howard is past his best. There’s also pretty much a unanimous clamour for him to be replaced by Joel Robles, who appears by not playing very much at all, and nothing whatsoever for the last month, to have been elevated to a goalkeeper with the skills and stature of a Banks, a Lev Yashin, a Dino Zoff, a Shilton, or almost even a Southall. Funny how that happens isn’t it? I notice Naismith has got a lot better by not playing as well. For me, Howard needs to be replaced, if for no other reason than to take him out of the spotlight and allow him to re-focus. Joel has been OK this season when deputising in the League Cup, and did pretty well this time last year as he had an extended spell in the side with Howard injured. The problem with a keeper who has lost it a bit, is the impact on those around him. Maybe the uncertainty that many of us play out about Tim is getting through to the players, and a young back line doesn’t need any more help at the moment at making cock-ups, so perhaps an equally young (Joel is 25) but arguably more trusted-than-he-was keeper is the answer. What I can’t stand is that every time we concede a goal, too many people are quick to criticise Howard. Take yesterday, I even read someone say that Howard’s positioning for Shaqiri’s second goal was awful. Yeh, that’s the reason. He should have been further back on his line, that place that everyone else criticises him for being glued to. Come on, get a grip. He was probably at fault for their 3rd, but we could always say that it was a wicked and brilliant cross by Arnautović; I don’t remember many plaudits for his point-blank save against Newcastle from Wijnaldum. It’s a bit of balance needed here I think, but don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly up for giving Robles an extended spell between the sticks, but longer term suspect a top No1 Goalkeeper has to be on the shopping list in the Summer.

It has been said before, but Howard can only save, or attempt to save, what shots those in front of him allow, or flap at the crosses that those to the side of him don’t prevent. Everton are 14th in the league table of shots conceded per game, a fact that is made worse by some of those who have conceded less – e.g. Villa, Norwich, Swansea – and more curious than some of those who’ve conceded more – e.g. Stoke, West Ham, Crystal Palace. The stat that really matters is that we’ve conceded 28 goals this season (19 at home, more than any other PL side, but only 9 away, only bettered by 4 teams), whilst scoring 35. Only Leicester and Citeh with 37 have scored more than us, but only 6 clubs have conceded more, and 3 of those are the bottom 3 (and another 1 is Chelsea!). I’m not going all statto on you this week for any other reason than to suggest it is more than just an issue we have with our Goalkeeper. Howard may well have cost us some points, but any keeper will do (Cech has not been blemish-free at Arsenal, Hart likewise at City, and Butland conceded 3 in a game for the first time this season against us yesterday), it is the personnel or the system that is giving the opposition so many chances. Or both.

In Baines, admittedly absent against Stoke, we have the Country’s best Left Back; in Coleman, the Irish Right Back, and one of the best in Europe; in Funes Mori we have an Argentine International, admittedly at the start of his international career, but they don’t give caps out like confetti; and in Stones, one of our treasured gems, we have a player that has been lauded by the Evertonians, the media, and even selected in his World XI by Gerard Pique, and none-too-shabby defender himself. If you extend the ‘defence’ to include those just in front, you have Barry, a remarkable player to still be performing week in week out at the ripe old age of 134 (as some would have you believe), and still one of the best in his craft. If you lob in Galloway as an emerging talent, you have a pretty impressive roster of personnel. Young Brendan was singled out for criticism against Stoke, but frankly I doubt if Baines would have been any better in the situations which he faced. No, I don’t think it’s the players, I think we have a commitment to attack (especially at home) that seems, like the views expressed on Twitter, to lack a balance. Last year, we bemoaned our often drab play as one dimensional and lacking the famous Plan B – we weren’t able to break sides down. Now, either McCarthy or Cleverley (Besic next given injuries to these two?) go hunting, and are given licence to push much further forward; with our Full Backs seemingly spending more time in the oppo’s half than their own, we are gifting enormous tracks of space to our opponents, and Stoke showed far better than Newcastle, just how to exploit that space. We need a rethink. Either the Full Backs don’t push on quite as much, and we lose a couple of attacking options; or we get a second sitting DM alongside Barry rather than a Hunter (perhaps not Besic then); or we don’t operate the high press that immediately gives acres of space behind us to potentially be exploited. And two of the sides that can exploit that to great effect, are the next two visitors to Goodison, one in the League, and the one I’m half excited about and half dreading, the other in the League Cup. Something has to change. Martinez can continue his attacking philosophy when it’s right to do so, but to be so one dimensional and use the same style against sides like Stoke who have the excellent players that thrive in the space we leave behind, is just plain daft. No one wants to see us score fewer goals in theory, but if I said to you we’d win all the rest of our games 1-0, then not many would be too disappointed. Or just play a bit more like we do Away from home perhaps?

Sorry, bit of a ramble this week.

My summary – change the defensive system, change the keeper, keep the manager, keep Lukaku scoring, keep the creative talents of Barkley and Deulofeu, Mirallas and Lennon to the fore, but most of all, my plea is to fellow Blues – keep the balance. I don’t want to be 11th either, but there are ways Everton can change that, and I have the faith that they will.

Ross Crombie

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