With the 2012-13 English Premier League season on the horizon, Tezini’s crew of soccer experts is here to get you ready for all the cracking finishes, devilish challenges and unforgettable drama. Over the next two weeks, we’ll give each club its proper due in a free-flowing roundtable discussion. We continue with Everton.
AJ: In some ways, Everton are the most reliable club in the English Premier League. They start out slow every year, weather the winter months with a stoic defense and put together enough quality on the other side of the ball to finish in the top eight. Here they are again, succeeding on a shoestring budget, even finishing a place above their more heralded Merseyside rivals in 2011-12.
The Toffees are a rich man’s Fulham to me. They seem comfortable in their breeches, almost to a fault. The big-money signings go out, the small-money signings come in — soon to be future big-money signings — and at the center of it all manager David Moyes works his magic with a roster that appears perilously thin, but ends up having more than enough depth to power Everton through the grind of the long Premier League season.
I’m not sure what else to say here, and we know there’s a resident expert waiting to chime in, so I’ll finish with a few smaller thoughts. I’m sad to see Tim Cahill go to MLS, though let’s face it, it was time. I’m glad to see Steven Pienaar back in blue, because he’s one of my favorite players in the league to watch. Finally, Nikica Jelavic would have been the signing of the season were it not for Papiss Cisse.
Have at it.
Mark: I keep wanting to say that I worry about Everton — that I’m afraid that the Newcastles, Liverpools, Fulhams, and even Stokes and Sunderlands are going to nip just enough at their heels and that this’ll be the year that they finish in the bottom half. But I think I say that every year, and here they sit a surprisingly comfortable seventh after 2011-12. Don’t get me wrong — they have players, including possible-best-left-back-in-England Leighton Baines, it’s just that this team uncannily relies on one or two guys making the leap each year. Maybe we can put this all on Moyes, or maybe it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right historical time with a glut of mediocrity mid-table and the collapse of Liverpool, but I don’t know to what I should provide attribution to their almost-boring consistency.
The team itself plays on quite an even keel — they’re good but not great in possession, good but not great at passing, good but not great in the air, they protect leads and know how to apply pressure in an opponent’s half, very rarely scoring on the break. Baines provides one of the best crosses in the league, and so did Landon Donovan in the handful of games he’s played for them over the past few years (any takers on a third loan spell for Landycakes? I’d sure love to see it).
Jelavic was an absolute revelation — nine goals in 13 league appearances last year, including six in the month of April (with another in the FA Cup against Liverpool for good measure), must have Everton fans excited about the prospect of a full season alongside Steven Naismith, who joined the club after Scottish giants Rangers collapsed harder than the Greek economy. Given that Mikel Arteta and Cahill were the absolute soul of the attack for this team over the past several years, it’ll be interesting to see what Moyes has up his sleeve in the way of support for these two. Is Leon Osman going to play in a more advanced role? If so, should Everton fans be comfortable with that? Marouane Fellaini (Sam’s guy!) has simply improved every year he’s been in this side, so much so that he’s now attracting the attention of some of the bigger clubs on the block. Tactically, I’d like to see him moved up the pitch a little bit if Osman isn’t up to the job, since his passing is really quite good but rarely utilized.
Speaking of Greeks, by the by, how about 20-year-old Apostolos Vellios? That dude scored within 18 seconds of being on the pitch against Chelsea and may play a larger role this season. Doesn’t he seem like that one Everton player that makes the leap each year? Or maybe this is the year Seamus Coleman finally breaks through? Perhaps even Jack Rodwell can put it all together. Suffice it to say, someone is going to, which will simultaneously surprise everyone and no one.
Sam: Can you please keep Chelsea out of the Everton preview?
AJ: Here’s what I think is the key to Everton’s continued success: David Moyes is very probably the best manager in the Premier League at identifying young talent and then bringing it along at the perfectly appropriate pace. Rodwell and Ross Barkley are Youth Academy products. Seamus Coleman was plucked from the Irish League as a teenager. Vellios hails from little-known Greek Super League team Iraklis. Every stone is turned over, these players are brought into the senior team, and yet there are enough reliable veterans — the Cahills and Jagielkas and Heitingas, and even Pienaars — that there never seems to be too much asked of these promising young talents right away.
By the time they hit their prime, it feels like they’ve been around forever, because they sort of have. Take Rodwell, just as an example. He’s got loads of Premier League experience, and yet he’s only 21. The learning curve for a normal 21-year-old just isn’t there, so if and when he does put it all together, Moyes will have another excellent weapon at his disposal. The point is it feels like Everton always has a couple of guys like Rodwell lying around along with a ridiculously sturdy corps, so that if just a few of them make the leap they end up right where they usually are, somewhere between fifth and eighth place.
Much of this may be out of necessity. I’m sure Moyes would prefer not to worry about a Leighton Baines type leaving every time the transfer window is open, but damn if it’s not impressive all the same.
Sam: Everton’s unremarkable success (Can success be unremarkable? That’s probably a question for another day) lies in their solid, unswerving approach. This hallmark of Everton spans across all facets of the organization. From youth development, to behavior in the transfer market, to their style of play on the field, Everton’s patience shines through. The informed EPL fans get the sense that this attitude emanates directly from one man: David Moyes.
The three-time League Managers Association Manager of the Year enters his 10th year at the club as the third-longest tenured manager in the Premiership. He’s also a staunch “Labour” Party supporter (I don’t know why I know that). The continuity and the system that he’s implemented at Everton seem to make it not matter how many times they lose their best player in the summer transfer market, and Everton’s success will ultimately hinge on Moyes himself, which is why it’s a good bet to think that Everton will finish between sixth and ninth again this season.
As always with Everton, the main concern here is injuries. Since they have such a thin squad, the depths of which are populated by youth players, any injury to one of their major players will likely scupper their chances of being in contention for European football in right out of the gate. This has happened in recent years with Arteta, Fellaini, Cahill, Rodwell and Jagielka.
I’ve already fellated David Moyes enough (see above) so I’ll shift my focus to the players that are poised to make a huge impact this year. Nikica Jelavic (ooo that’s fun to say) has been touched on, but, as Mark basically said, he gives the team their first legitimate No. 9 since, oh, Andy Johnson?. Gone are the days of Fellaini, Cahill, or the ghost of Yakubu/Louis Saha playing up front for the Toffees. With Jelavic and the hilariously-named Vellios, Everton might *gasp* have a little bit of depth at striker.
I also love Jack Rodwell (thanks AJ), Gnarls (Ross) Barkley, Magaye Gueye and of course Seamus.
Honestly, Everton is poised to be Everton. They’ll start slow, pick up gritty results during the horrible English winter, and have a couple of strong victories over big clubs as one or two new players assert themselves in a squad that is already solid (before those same players are sold in the next offseason).
Mark: Man City seems to have signed Jack Rodwell, by the by. [Ed. Note: Indeed, they did.]
AJ: The Citizens just didn’t want to cooperate with our preview schedule, did they? Overall, though I have plenty of praise for Rodwell as a player, this doesn’t worry me from a Toffees perspective. For one, Fellaini is still around, and he can fill roughly the same role (though I think Everton is better when Fells is allowed to press further up the pitch in a Yaya Toure-lite kind of way). For two, that’s quite a lot of money (£12 million up front, as much as £17 million in add-ons) for someone like Moyes to work with, and it seems to me that Everton might be able to use the funds to a.) better mount an effort to hold on to Leighton Baines, b.) fill the sizable void left by Tim Cahill (about two seasons ago, to be exact) or c.) do both.
In a way, this echoes my earlier point. Everton, thanks to their shrewd manager and a great youth pipeline, always seems to have replacements at the ready. Keep calm and carry on.