Everton v Aston Villa Preview

Everton’s injury ravaged troops take to the field looking to build on a great run of form against a Villa side ravaged by internal fallouts and on going poor management by our old friend Mr Houllier in what is one of the classic games in the English Football calendar….

 

Villa Strategy/Intel

Villa arrive at Goodison amidst a poor run of form, particularly on their travels with just 2 wins on the road all season representing the second worst defensive record away from home in the league with no clean sheets and with only Fulham and Wolves picking up fewer points on their travels. It’s clearly an unhappy ship at Villa. Whilst O’Neil’s brand of football was blatantly direct and often horrible to watch, it did provide a great defensive platform for Villa to go and get results. Their strategy was to invite teams onto them and then break with pace in wide areas and up front. Since coming in, Houllier has opted for revolution and not evolution.The decision to appoint a washed up old mess like Houllier was incredibly dubious. He has tried to change the playing style to a more possession based game and in doing so to overhaul the squad but he has found to his cost that too much change too quick can have catastrophic results. With some people it really is hard to be objective and Houllier is one of these individuals. A massively overrated manager, he must secretly wonder just how he has got another top job in England. How long he will last though is another thing, with another ex-red, the portly Rafa Benitez, supposedly being lined up to replace him following his double sacking misery last year.

Villa will setup 4-4-1-1 with the known tormentor of Blues right backs in the past Ashley Young playing as a central winger in behind Bent. Villa are strong down the flanks with Downing and the impressive Albrighton often swopping wings. Their chief creator this season has been Downing, who has created 66 chances, creating a chance for an opponent every 41mins, resulting in 6 assists so far this campaign. Ashley Young has a lower chance creation total but the same amount of assists and also holds the dubious honour of having been fouled more than any other player in the league. Their midfield anchors will be Makoun and chief enforcer Nigel Reo Coker, who makes a successful tackle every 31 mins, in contrast to Heitinga who will presumably occupy this role for us who does so every 57 mins. The main goal threat will be Darren Bent, a man who was once offered to Everton whilst at Ipswich Town and who represents everything the Blues need up front. The England forward averages a shot on target every 81 minutes with 11 league goals this campaign and an impressive 84 in the top flight to his name.

Everton tactics and strategy

The Blues are in the midst of a major injury crisis with key personnel such as Saha, Rodwell and Fellaini all out for the remainder of the season and Arteta still some way off a return. Cahill and Coleman have also been nursing injuries but I would expect them to play through the pain barrier in this one. I would see us using the same formation  (4-4-2) as against Fulham, with the only personnel changes being Heitinga and Beckford for Rodwell and Saha.

The only fly in the ointment with this plan is that our Dutch utility man Jonny “probably in the top 4 centre backs in the world” Heitinga has again been shooting his mouth of in the press (although as usual he has been misquoted) so whether Moyes will want to play him is unclear. The back up option would be to shift Osman inside and play Billy left mid, although with Osman’s great form this month from that advanced left side I doubt Moyes would want to upset the apple cart.

Our main threat will be carried down the left with our play flowing predominantly to the Baines/Osman axis. I would expect some joy as Villa’s right side has proved to be something of an Achilles heel defensively this season, with the speedy Kyle Walker (another player who nearly signed for the Blues!) and Albrighton both boasting enviable attacking flair, but considerably less in terms of defensive shape and solidity. Baines will be looking for his 12th assist of the season – from defence, only Barca’s Dani Alves has more assists in Europe’s top leagues.

In the reverse fixture back in September the Blues dominated the game, completing more than double the passes of their hosts ( 457v174) but in what was to characterize our play pre Christmas, we simply had no end product. Since the turn of the year though (notably with the departure of Pienaar) our passes made and pass completion levels have both dropped, whilst Villa’s has improved as Houllier has looked to change O’Neill’s direct style of play.

 

Conclusion

This should be a fairly open game as neither team has collected many clean sheets this campaign, so I would expect goals. With the FA & League cup outcomes now rendering a Europa League placing pretty much out of our hands, the Blues only focus is to finish as high up the league as possible, and I’m going for us to edge it 2-1

 

 

Everton Academy: 5 to Watch

Everton’s academy has a rich history in developing and nurturing top talent, with players regularly graduating to play in the top flight. A recent study showed only Man Utd, West Ham & Villa have reared more players currently turning out in the Premier League. With the ongoing transfer limitations at the club, the next academy crop could prove pivotal to the clubs fortunes in the coming years. Here, we pick out 5 rising stars who have a really bright future at the club……

1. Eric Dier

(Graphical image on the right of each player file rates their attributes from 1-20 with 1 being poor and 20 being excellent – e.g for Dier his tackling is superb but finishing not as good)

Eric signed for the Blues on loan in the January transfer window on a short term deal until the summer when it is expected he will put pen to paper on a long term deal. He is a 16 year old from Cheltenham who is the first Englishman to play for  Sporting Lisbon. Born in England, Eric moved to Portugal in 2003 at the age of 8. He captained the club at U15 level and progressed to become a regular in the U17 side whilst also turning out for the U19s – a sign of his enhanced development. Under the mentorship of the iconic Paulo Cardoso (the man who scouted Ronaldo and Nani for Sporting) Dier had been expected to break through into the Sporting first team setup next season.

Standing at 6 feet 2 inches, he has the make up to be a commanding centre half and his coaching at Lisbon’s academy is such that the ball playing aspect of his play has been greatly nurtured. Dier is a cultured centre back whose style has been cultivated by the marriage of  contrasting football cultures . Dier has a tidy athletic pedigree: his grandfather Ted Croker (former Secretary of the English FA) and great uncle Peter both played professionally for Charlton Athletic whilst his dad was a pro tennis player.

His exploits have been recognised by the Portuguese national team, who attempting to select him for a recent U17 international. For Dier, though, there is only one international ambition, to attract the attention of the England FA and represent the country of his birth. His development was noticed by Umbro who pressed for Dier to front their England merchandising launch, circled below alongside former Toffee Wayne Rooney. Since his move to Goodison, Eric has been working with the Academy side but given his exposure in Portugal I would expect that he would be able to move up through the ranks rapidly and could be in the first team squad as early as next season. Asked about whether he was a typical English centre half, Dier said

I can do that as well but I can pass it and I’m very comfortable on the ball. In Portugal it’s all very technical and that’s what they emphasise most. People tell me that I am a leader and very competitive. I’m not the quickest but I’ve been working on that — I have seen a speed specialist, Margot Wells, for the last two summers — but I think I read the game well, which compensates a bit. I don’t really like to compare myself to anyone but I like watching Nemanja Vidic, Ricardo Carvalho and Gerard Pique”


2.       Shkodran Mustafi

Shkodran moved to Everton in the summer of 2009 from HSV in Germany. He is a tall, commanding centre half of Muslim Albanian descent and has more than a passing resemblance to former Chelsea and Germany centre back Roberth Huth.

He made the move from Germany to England at the age of just 17, and his transfer was seen as something of a coup for David Moyes. Mustafi’s performances for Germany’s Under-17s side had seen him listed as one of his country’s most promising talents and the Toffees swooped to prise him away from the Bundesliga, with the player reportedly impressed by Moyes’ willingness to give youth a chance.

The transfer to Goodison riled the HSV club, whose Head of Youth Academy Jens Todt said at the time: ‘we really tried to keep Shkodran at our club, but when there is a club from England coming up we are unable and unwilling to compete financially, It is tough to accept, but it will not destroy us. We are just hoping this is not going to happen too often again.”

Mustafi signed a three-year deal on Merseyside, Everton paying no transfer fee for the German.  Shkodran began as a striker before finding his niche at centre-half. He has worked mainly with the reserves in 2009/10 but made a handful of appearances on the subs’ bench – emerging for a short debut in the game against BATE Borisov in December before coming off injured.

3.       Hallam Hope

Hallam Hope is a youth team striker with a very impressive goalscoring record in his early career. Hallam joined the Blues as an 11 year old in 2005, making the short switch down the M62 from Wythenshawe, having previously turned out for Manchester City’s junior side. The striker scored a treble in the Milk Cup Junior Final in 2008 against Watford to announce himself at the club. Since then he has featured regularly for the Under-18s and was part of the Toffees’ 2010 FA Youth Cup squad. Hope signed a full-time scholarship with the Blues in July 2010, and was an integral part of the Under-16s set-up during the 2009/10 campaign.

Hallam made his first international appearance for England against Wales in the Victory Shield in October 2009, going on to score twice for his country in the Young Lions’ 3-1 win over Ukraine in France. Since steeping up to England U17’s he has registered 7 goals in 7 appearances. Although he has represented England at international level, Hallam is also eligible to represent Trinidad & Tobago and Barbados.  His key strengths lie in his pace and fearsome right foot. His limitations would be aerially and with his left foot.

This season has been a productive one for Hope; he is the youth team’s top scorer with 10 goals and is in the running for the player of the season gong. He has just turned 17 and looks a real prospect for the future. The next steps for him would be to make the move up the reserves squad.

4.       Ross Barkley

Currently recovering from a double leg break, Barkley is a player who many believe will become the next big star to emerge from the Blue’s youth ranks. Internationally, he shot to fame by scoring against Northern Ireland in the Under-16s Victory Shield game in October 2008 when he was still just 14.

Capped for the England Under-17s, the Wavertree born player is primarily a box-to-box midfielder. He is the epitome of the modern day player being comfortable in numerous positions, indeed he played as a forward in Everton’s FA Youth Cup team. Barkley is a big, imposing player whose very versatility would make him even more valuable at a club like ours.

I would be confident that Barkley will make the first team squad within 6 months of his return from injury. He is a superb passer, is strong in the tackle and carries a powerful shot.

On turning 17 last year the midfielder signed a 2½-year professional contract with Everton, the maximum allowed for a lad of his age

5.       Luke Garbutt

Luke Garbutt joined Everton from Leeds United in a controversial deal in the summer of 2009, much to the annoyance of the consistently irritating Ken Bates. He is a self confident lad with a good football brain and impressive reading of in play situations. He is comfortable on the ball and as such can play in midfield as well as defence. Similarly to Rodwell, he perhaps needs to develop the defensive side of his game a bit more before stepping up to the senior squad.

He has been predominantly deployed as a left-sided defender since signing on as a scholar with the Blues. Highly-rated and incredibly versatile ( Garbutt can play left-back, central defence or in midfield) he has been a great addition to the Blues academy squad and has progressed to play in Alan Stubbs reserve team this year.

Internationally, he’s already played for England ‘s Under-16s and Under-17s, scoring for the latter side.. Earlier this year Garbutt made his debut for the England Under-19s, featuring as a substitute in the 1-0 defeat to Germany.

It is interesting to note that we only have Leighton Baines as an orthodox left back in the current senior squad (although Neville/Distin can cover). It will be interesting to see if Moyes looks to recruit cover for this position in the summer or if he would prefer to keep the space free for Garbutt as Baines understudy in the coming seasons

Transfer crossroads loom for midfield stars

Speculation continues to surround the impending transfer activity out of L4 this summer. Boss David Moyes gave weight to this recently when he confirmed what most fans knew already that we have no money to buy new players, with the knock on effect being we are left vulnerable to other clubs picking off our best talent. Speculation has focused on our two midfielders, Jack Rodwell & Marouanne Fellaini. Whilst I retain the hope that we can keep these top young talents at the club, it is looking increasingly like one of them could be sacrificed. This article will take a look at the impact both players have had in the last 3 seasons and which is the most expendable asset and will look at the squad balance in general …..

Statistical Analysis

A brief synopsis of the below table would say that Fellaini is a much more effective presser than Rodwell, making a successful tackle every 35 minutes – Rodwell takes nearly double the amount of time to win a challenge and has a lower tackle completion than the curly haired general. Rodwell is elegant on the ball and has a better passing completion than Fellaini. Crucially though, Fellaini has more incision to his passing in the final third, creating a goalscoring chance for a teammate every 92 mins, something which takes Rodwell significantly longer to do.

The below table is based on Premier League games only……..


Market Value + Contracts

Both players are on comparable 5 year contracts for around £30,000, worth in the region of £8m over the duration of the deal. Rodwell is younger (19) and crucially he is English, a variable which in this country distorts transfer values massively… the transfer of the highly mediocre Nigel Reo Coker for £10m springs to mind. Rodwell is often compared to Rio Ferdinand during his formative years at WHU in terms of being a classy, ball playing defender, although this comparison is skewered by the fact that all of Rodwell’s displays in blue have been in midfield. Ferdinand made the move to Leeds at the age of 22 for £18.5m in 2000, then moved onto Man U for £30m 2 years later. The figure of £25m is mooted for Rodwell but I’d be surprised if somebody would fund this given his inability so far to add beef to the clear potential he possesses. Deals of £15m up front with add ons going up to £20m would in my view be more likely.

Fellaini’s contract only has 2 yeas left to run, expiring in summer 2013. After the £15m investment in him the club will be loathe to lose him at a loss. People mention Pienaar and the club allowing him to run down his contract, but this investment was just £2m and thus incomparable to the Big Belgian.  I would seriously question whether the current board would allow Fellaini to enter the last year of his deal with no contract signed and therefore I think they would listen to offers for him to guarantee they get a return on their investment. If this materialized I think we could command a deal worth in the region of £22-25m with the bulk of this paid up front.

The following charts are based on league and cup games each player has started over the last 3 seasons…with Fellaini having the edge in terms of % games won.


Rodwell has recently signed improved terms on a deal that runs up until 2015. Therefore there is no risk currently that he could walk away for a reduced fee. The risk with Rodwell though is that should  he fail to build on his reputation as has been the case this season  for another year, this could lead to any inflated fee being reduced.

Unbalanced squad

The squad at the moment is very unbalanced. Central midfield is an area we are strong – this season Fellaini, Arteta, Rodwell, Heitinga, Neville and Osman have all played there and you also have Cahill who can play there and young Ross Barkley who will be ready later this year. It is a position we are top heavy in, whereas upfront we have just 3 strikers currently available – one is not competent for this division, one is still very much a work in progress and the other has fantastic ability but is injury prone and will be 33 when the new campaign kicks off.

If we could ship out Heitinga this summer it would bring in a decent fee from his sale, albeit not for a massive sum since his stock has dipped since his appearance in last year’s World Cup Final. Removing him from the wage bill would remove one of the clubs top earners -reported to be on £70k per week – which would potentially save the club £11m in wages from the remaining 3 years of this deal. We also have £35,000 per week from Yakubu which will be skimmed off the wage bill in the summer, plus a moderate fee for the Nigerian forward.

Should we cash in, it could give us the opportunity to bolster the forward line and bring more balance to the squad. Moyes will be pushing for the fees recouped to be ploughed back into his transfer kitty, with powerhouse 21 year old Venezuelan striker Rondon the #1 target. Moyes has visited Malaga to watch the man who has 12 La Liga goals to his name this term. Rondon has a 20m euro buy out clause in his contract, but crucially like with the Fellaini deal, would be available at a reasonable wage package and offer the potential for future sell on value.

Conclusion

Fellaini has played a significantly more vital role to the team and if you were to look at who would make the bigger impact next season, you would have to go with Fellaini. After what happened with Rooney, Lescott and Gosling, you don’t really expect loyalty from players nowadays, and conceivably both of these current players could be on the move in the coming years – therefore if we are looking at short term, I would say Fellaini is the best option if we can keep him.

Everton 2-1 Fulham

Lineups

Everton made two changes from the Birmingham draw with Tim Cahill returning to the forward line to support Saha and Neville restored to the midfield at the expense of Heitinga in a 4-4-2. Fulham lined up in a 4-4-2 with Dembele and Andy Johnson up front with dangerman Dempsey starting left midfield

A common misconception with our formation is that with Cahill we play 5 men in midfield, hence the often ‘4-5-1 at home Moyes’ shouts.  If you look at the above average position map, Cahill (17) and Saha (8) are circled, notice how Cahill is actually playing further forward than Saha, so in essence a  4-4-2

Blues control the play in first half

Everton’s passing was sharp in the first half and Osman again was our architect in chief. The pint sized schemer is one of the best passers at the club, and has a pass completion of 75% for the season, including 4 assists, creating a chance every 68 minutes. This is still some way short of our top creator Baines who lays on a chance for a team mate every 51minutes.

Osman’s cross enabled Coleman to bury a header past Schwarzer’s outstretched right hand for our opening goal. In the build up to the goal, Hangeland, who once had a trail with the Blues,  gets pulled out of position leading to Salcido covering his position centrally which thus leaves  Coleman un marked at the back post. Coleman had a great game and registered 87% pass completion, well above the team average.

Passing Dashboard – Fulham made many more successful passes than the Blues and their pass completion in the 2nd period was much better than ours, although a lot of this was in front of our defence as our pressing higher up the pitch in the first half subsided once we had the 2 goal advantage.

Jack Rodwell has been the subject of great media interest this week and the young midfielder had a quiet afternoon, registering just 15 successful passes, non of which went into Fulham’s 18 box.  Compare this with Baines who successfully delivered  49 passes, 7 of which were made into Fulham’s box. One of Rodwell’s  few surges from midfield was to lead to the Blues second goal, as his run on goal was checked by Etuhu and the resulting free kick was slamming in by Saha after being teed up by Baines.

Fulham back in business

With the 2 goal advantage in the bag, Everton sat back and defended on our 18 yard line, with pressing pretty much non existent until Fulham reached 20-25 yards from our goal.  This wasn’t helped by Heitinga replacing Cahill , when Beckford for me would have given us more of an out ball and enable us to get further up the pitch.

Fulham were camped in our half for most of the last 30 minutes and looked a lot more potent with Zamora now up front, Dembele on the left and the impressive Dempsey now occupying a more central role.

In the build up to Dempsey’s goal, the American had shifted from left mid inside, Rodwell is circled picking him up but gets caught ball watching enabling Dempsey to get the space required to get in a superb goal.

Conclusion

A well deserved victory for the Blues which gives us 10 points from the last 12 available. Great individual displays again from Baines and Coleman gave Everton more of a cutting edge than Fulham and ultimately this secured us the win here. COYB!

Everton v Fulham preview

Everton host a mid table matchup against Fulham on Saturday with the Blues looking to continue their recent up turn in league form with another 3 points  in a league fixture which the Blues have won 17 times on the spin……..

Fulham Intel

The Cottager’s under Mark Hughes have been tough to beat. They are compact and heavily focused on defensive shape, as was the style under previous boss Woy Hodgson.  Thus, a lot of their matches have been tight – they have Drawn 8 out of 14 games away from home and only Manchester City have conceded fewer goals on their travels . They are limited up front also and only Wigan has scored fewer on the road.

Their top creative force is Simon Davies with more assists (4) and more chances created (46) than any other Fulham player. Clint Dempsey is their most potent performer this campaign with 37 shots on target – only Tevez and Drogba have had more in the top flight – unsurprisingly he is their top scorer with an impressive 9 goals . He will start left midfield but you will see him coming inside when Fulham have the ball on the right flank.  Former Blue Andy Johnson will lead the line for Fulham, although in his last 58 league appearance the speedy forward has scored just 9 times. I would expect Fulham to setup 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 with Murphy and Etuhu anchoring midfield and the wide men in midfield tucking in.

Everton Strategy

Everton have no new injury worries for this one and the only real dilemma would be whether Phil Neville returns at right back for HIbbert or anchor for Heitinga. Although Heitinga scored a great goal in our last match, for me Hibbert’s display was superior and I would retain him and restore Neville to the midfield. The creative burden of Mikel Arteta’s injury will fall on our left side with Baines width and Osman’s movement inside key to our chances of breaking down what will be a stubborn Fulham defence. The key man to stop is Dempsey cutting in from the left side – Coleman and Hibbert will need to ensure his movement is tracked throughout.

Conclusion

Fulham offer little going forward on their travels and this for me will be a similar game to last time out at home to Birmingham – can Everton break down a stubborn defence with the limited flair we are going to be able to select in tomorrow’s midfield? Can we cut out the comedy defending from crosses which has blighted our season? I’m not too confident we will and think this could be a frustrating 1-1 draw.

Player Focus: Jermaine Beckford

9  of the top 10 transfers in football history have been paid for either playmaker or strikers. Whilst a team can be drilled into defending and stopping the opposition, in the final third the extra money is paid for players who have something natural; either the vision to play a slide rule pass or the composure and ability to score. In the summer our continued lack of finance led David Moyes to turn to free agent Jermaine Beckford to boost our striking options at the club.  This article will examine the impact he has made this season both individually and in comparison to the club’s other forwards. We will look at his strengths and also analyse the areas of his game which are still very much a work in progress for the speedy forward….

Finishing/Composure

This campaign Beckford has scored 8 goals from  the 13 games he has started, albeit there has been a lot of sub appearances on top of that figure. During the times when he hasn’t been finding the net his confidence has not been affected and he has a real appetite for hitting the ball early, as shown by his blockbusting volley against Blackpool this season. The below stats show his goalscoring record and shot completion stats in comparison to our other forwards currently at the club….

Throughout his career he has averaged a 1 in 2 ratio, albeit in the lower leagues. The campaign started slowly for him, failing to register a league goal until November. There are clear signs though that he is finding his feet and has now racked up  goals on a regular basis since the turn of  year . I think Moyes would have set a target in his mind of between 10-12 goals so this is well within reach.

His partnership with Saha also looks promising. In the 5 games they have started since the turn of the year the Blues have won 4 and drawn one, and looked much more penetrative in behind opposition defences.

“What will be different for him is other parts of his game which will be required in the Premier League. Can he link us up, hold the ball up and help us out in other situations?”

David Moyes, July 2010

Movement

This is an area in which Beckford has a great deal of ability, both inside and outside the box. His 8 goals are below loaded onto a chalkboard, all of which coming from inside the box where he really comes alive.

Moyes has been very complimentary about Beckford’s movement in the press:

His movement is as good as anyone I’ve seen, and it’s the best of any of our strikers. His movement outside the box is good too. his movement in the box is as good as I have seen from a lot of the best. He can lose defenders and go one way and then the other. He is fantastic at that.”

David Moyes, Feb 2011

A classic Beckford goal for Leeds angling a run from left to right to finish with his right

Beckford goal v Sunderland, curved run into the Mackems penalty area

Hold up/link up play

This is for me the biggest weakness in his overall game. He struggled particularly early on this campaign when he was the lone striker, his stats against Villa for instance where he only won 2 out of 7 tackles and 4/5 of his aerial challenges showed that the ball wasn’t sticking. His pass completion rate of 64% is decent for a Premier League Striker in terms of linking up the play, but not spectacular. Alongside Saha however, who has the capability to hold the ball up as a targetman, Beckford is able to play in a role he is more accustomed , making runs around Saha for the ball. David Moyes said as much after the derby game in which the ball repeatedly didn’t stick with Anichebe and Beckford upfront.

Beckford chalkboard for challenges vs Aston Villa, Sept 2010 – blue are those won, red are those lost


Conclusion

Beckford has certainly brought something to the table for the Blues this season. Our goal per game ratio with Saha and Beckford starting together in games since the turn of the year has been 2.4 (season average 1.5). With Cahill & Yakubu up top we where strong in terms of hold up play an aerially but extremely limited in terms of getting in behind defences which requires pace and movement. Beckford has this in abundance and whilst he has a lot to learn in terms of hold up play and as a link man, you cannot doubt that he brings us something we have been clearly lacking since the exit of Andy Johnson in 2008.

Everton 1-1 Birmingham

Anyone who thought the Newcastle victory would lead to a relentless surge into the Europa League places by the Blues would have been massively disappointed as a gutsy but ultimately blunt display leaves the Toffees marooned in midtabe and edging closer to the unwanted Premier League draw record…..

Lineups.

Everton made one enforced change in personnel with Jonny Heitinga a like for like replacement for Phil Neville in midfield. Strategy and formation wise it was the same from St James on Saturday, however an early injury to Arteta would see Leon Osman switch to the left flank and Coleman slot in on the right. Birmingham also suffered an early injury to Bentley so Murphy played left mid,  Larsson wide right with Beausejour the closest central midfield support to the often stranded Jerome.

Blunt Blues

The injury to Arteta was a massive blow to our chances of breaking down a Birmingham side who as mentioned in the preview are built on defensive shape and getting bodies between the ball and their goal. As soon as the Spaniard pulled up you could sense the feeling around the stadium that this wasn’t going to be our night. Fair play to Leon Osman though who slotted into the role of the most advanced midfielder and turned in a man of the match display, although Tony Hibbert ran him close to this honour with some great old school sliding tackles that you very rarely see in the modern non contact game of ‘The EPL’.

With Arteta sidelined we basically had 3 born and bred defenders (Heitinga, Rodwell & Coleman) playing in midfield and this was reflected in the lack of incision in Birmingham ’s final third. The chalkboard analysis below shows the passing of our 2 centre mids- notice how combined only 1 ball gets played into the Birmingham 18 yard box all night. Not for the first time this season our most threatening player was marauding full back Leighton Baines who was unlucky not to add to his growing back catalogue of assists with several delicious crosses, notably to Coleman in the first half.

Blues concede first again.

Not for the first time this season the Blues conceded the first goal of the game, and again the origin came down our left side, but as the screenshots show Heitinga was at fault….

Heitinga and Beausejour circled in the build up to the goal…Notice in the next shot below Heitinga shows poor concentration by switching off allowing Beausejour to drift into the box unmarked and head home


Quite damningly, it was the 7th time we have conceded from a cross into our  box in our last 8 games. In games against well organized but ultimately limited offensive sides like Birmingham ,with our own attacking deficiencies you simply have to keep a clean sheet to have a chance of winning the game. This has been endemic in us now racking up 13 draws – just 3 away from equalising the Premier League record of 16 – Birmingham have also chalked up the same tally.

We struggled to create any clear cut chances and the goal from Heitinga really came out of nothing. The Dutchman did superbly to curve a shot over a host of Birmingham players and into the roof of the net after Osman’s corner had been deflected into his path. For the most part watching the permanently angry Dutchman this campaign, he has lacked application and looked uncomfortable in any position he has been asked to deploy… but this goal was a gem

Birmingham shape – Brum’s defence is built on shape, notice how they have 2 banks of four in close proximity to each other to squeeze any space between the lines. They will not compromise this shape  – notice that when Saha drops deep (blue arrow) to look for the ball/create space Jiranek doesn’t track him and maintains his position. On the few occasions Birmingham’s centre backs did get pulled out of position there was no movement into the space created by Everton’s static centre mids.

Second Half

The second period was pretty much the same as the first, something of a poor man’s version of the Attack v Defence exercise witnessed at the Nou Camp on Tuesday, as Everton dominated the ball but, unlike Barca, simply couldn’t find a way around Big Eck’s well drilled unit. With their fullbacks tucking in and Mutch and Bowyer sat in front of the centre backs, Birmingham were happy for us to have the ball and only pressed us once we got 35 yards from their goal.

Conclusion

7 points from the last 9 available represents a tidy return for the Blue although many fans will be rightly dismayed that again we have failed to put a team from the league’s lower echelons to the sword at home. We have now failed to beat any of the bottom 5 clubs in the league at home, and the problem is blindingly obvious. You can bridge the financial gap to some extent with a well organized defensive unit and through belligerence, but in the final third money talks – until the grim financial situation changes at the club I fear the results and frustration which we have witnessed this campaign will continue.

Everton v Birmingham Preview

With back to back league wins secured for only the second time this season, the Blues have an opportunity to make up more ground on the top places with a game in hand against a Birmingham side who have seen their Carling Cup success coincide with dropping into the relegation places…..

Birmingham Intel & Strategy

Big Eck’s mob have a fairly simplistic game plan and you rarely get much variance in terms of tactics and strategy. They have 2 solid banks of 4 who will play fairly close together to compress any space in between the lines. Their defence has been the bedrock for the stability McLeish has brought to the club, with Carr,Dann,Johnson & Ridgewell a pretty solid unit over the past 18 months. The 2 fullbacks will often tuck in and the 2 centre mids (usually Ferguson & Bowyer) will play deep to form a wall of 6 bodies (see below diagram) This is setup to encourage the opposition to play the ball into wide areas were there is space to cross -safe in the knowledge they have an abundance of bodies in the box to cope with the aerial threat.

Birmingham v Everton Sept 2010 – BCFC Defensive Unit is based on keeping its shape at all times – (defenders circled red, midfielders circled blue)

The way to combat this is to ensure the crosses going into the box are accurately drilled low and at pace. Last season at Goodison we were a bit naive in doing this, leading to 28 unsuccessful crosses – a completion rate of just 15%.  Moyes clearly learnt his lesson and in the game this season at St Andrews we scored both our goals from low deliveries (again, from our potent left side).The injury to Dann has compromised this belligerence somewhat and they have looked less secure since with Curtis Davies now partnering Johnson at the back…Ridgewell is also tipped to miss out through injury.

Offensively they are limited. With just 26 goals scored they are the lowest scorers in the league, having also recorded the fewest shots on target (91) than any other side. McLeish has been deploying 2 out and out strikers in recent games (Jerome & Martins) and they are supported in wide areas by Bentley and Beasejour, who will often swop flanks. The player with most assists (5), is Seb Larsson, however he is currently out of favour.

Everton Intel

I would imagine the Blues would go unchanged from Saturday providing Phil Neville’s injury doesn’t keep him out. Rodwell and Neville will anchor midfield with Osman on the right and Arteta the furthest forward playing on the left cutting in. Should the skipper miss out I would imagine Heitinga will deputise although his displays in central midfield this campaign have been really poor.

What was interesting on Saturday was that we made fewer passes and had our lowest pass completion of the season, yet took the 3 points. The switch to 4-4-2 means a man less in midfield. Arteta is the key variable here, by shifting him out wide you get more traction in the final third, but you do lose some fluency from the centre of the park on the ball as both Rodwell and Neville are more defensive minded by nature. The Blues are going for a 3rd straight league win, something we haven’t achieved since Jan 2010.

Prediction

I wouldn’t be expecting a goal fest here I’m afraid. Birmingham are notoriously cagey opponents and will set out to restrict the Blues and stay in the game at 0-0 as long as possible. I’m going for the Blues to edge it 1-0 and keep our good run of form in the league going.

 

 

Newcastle 1-2 Everton

The Blues bounced back from Tuesday’s cup exit to deliver an excellent victory against Newcastle in a game which once again showed the importance of Everton’s left sided fluency………

Line-ups

The Blues made two changes in personnel with Jermaine Beckford able to start and replace Billy with Tony Hibbert coming in at right back and Seamus Coleman dropping out. The big changes from Tuesday’s horror show involved a switch to 4-4-2 and Mikel Arteta switching to the left side with Phil Neville coming into the centre of midfield and Leon Osman switching to the right flank. Newcastle had injury problems down their right side with Barton and Ireland out, so Simpson was pushed forward to right midfield and Steven Taylor slotted in at rightback. Both sides were pretty much 4-4-2 – not a familiar sight in the Premier League nowadays.

Arteta revitalised

Mikel Arteta has had a frustrating spell this season from the centre of Everton’s midfield. During a previous post late last year I asked the question whether the Spaniard could be switched out to the flanks where he had his most productive campaign with 9 goals and 13 assists in 2006/7.  My argument is that in the modern game teams flood the midfield in 4-5-1 battles with teams often having 3 centre mids each, the area becomes congested and the room to manoeuvre creatively is reduced. Out wide though, you get more time and space and with 2 centre mids Neville and Rodwell’s remit purely to defend, he was almost given a free role to create chances. Although based on the the left side, like Pienaar he tucked in centrally between the lines and Newcastle simply couldn’t handle him. His run and ball to setup the excellent Leon Osman’s equaliser showed the advantage of having him playing in the final third to utilise his creativity, as opposed to being crowded out 25 yards further back in the middle of the pitch.

In the opening exchanges Arteta is fed the ball out wide, Newcastle often keep a high line and with Simpson caught up field and Taylor sucked inside to his more usual centre back slot, Arteta has acres of space to run and then get a shot in which Harper saves well….the same move led to the Blues opener shortly after.

The 2007/08 campaign also saw Arteta on the flanks and in this campaign he was the most fouled player in the league, fouled every 28.8 minutes in season. This ability to win free kicks was to prove key in us taking control of the game, as the Spaniard bought a foul from Tiote in an area which Baines thrives on whipping in dead balls. It was to see Baines go into double figures for assists and break his previous best of 9 assists in a season– the most for a Premier League defender in the last decade with Jags the beneficiary this time. Our recent focus on Baines and our left side showed it had accounted for the source of 75% of our goals this season. Somebody should have told Alan Pardew.

Before this, Newcastle had taken the lead against the run of play when Best converted after Nolans effort was parried by Howard into his path. For the sizeable unit that he is, Nolan has the ability to find space inside the box and he was a threat on more than one occasion to the Blues rearguard.

Newcastle kept the ball better throughout as the passing stats show, overall completing 73% of their passes to our 65%, which is the lowest figure we have recorded all season

Second Half

Like us, the Geordies are also better down their left side with the consistently excellent Enrique and Gutierrez making good combination play, and the left flank was the source of their opening goal. With Enrique now on the sidelines through injury, Gutierrez was taking the fight to the Blues himself. His ability to beat his man was suspect and out of the 13 times he took on his opponent he only emerged victorious 3 times.

Chalkboard Analysis – Everton shut down Newcastle’s left side better than our opponents with more interceptions

Conclusion

An exciting game between 2 sides looking to exploit their respective strengths down the left flank. Crucially, the Blues looked defensively more solid in defending their right side than Newcastle. For the first time in the league this season the Blues conceded the first goal and came back to win, it was also one of the few occasions this season where the Blues have seen less of the ball and been inferior to an opponent in retaining possession, and yet made more of the ball when in possession to win the game. The midweek game with Birmingham now beckons and if we are to salvage something from this season we need to show consistency and back up the great results we have had against the better sides in the league by picking up points against teams from the bottom of the table.

Newcastle v Everton Preview

After the low of Tuesday night and the hammer blow of Fellaini’s injury, Everton are in desperate need of some respite as David Moyes and his jekyll and hide squad travel north to play Newcastle

Newcastle Intel & Strategy

Despite the best efforts of the massive bell end that is Mike Ashley, Newcastle have been incredibly steady on the pitch this season, comfortably treading water in the middle ground of the Premier League. Their success this campaign has been built on solid week in week performances from  Barton, Nolan, Tiote and the consistently excellent Enrique at left back.  Despite having the look of an ageing out of shape darts player, Nolan has been impressive for the Geordies, chipping in with 11 goals.  This has been vital as with Shandy Carroll now ensconced at The Tin Mine, they look a bit short of goals up front with Peter Lovenkrands, Leon Best and Shola Ameobi. It is interesting to note then that St James Park has seen more Premier League goals than any other ground this season, with 51 being scored in total, an average of 3.6 per game.

Evertonian Joey Barton has provided the creativity spark, with 6 assists although he is an injury doubt for this fixture with Stephen Ireland on standby to make his debut. Tiote has screened the defence well, winning more tackles than any other  NUFC player with a completion rate of 77%, he is tidy in possession also as the below chalkboard shows. Whilst impressive in the tackle, his completion is quite a way behind Seamus Coleman, comfortably our best tackler with a success rate of 88%.

Tiote Chalkboard from Everton 0-1 Newcastle , September 2010 – successfully completing 46 out of 47 passes in the 90minutes. Impressive.

Everton strategy

With Cahill and Fellaini out injured David Moyes doesn’t really have too much in terms of selection dilemmas for this match as the team pretty much picks itself. Beckford and Saha will start up front with Rodwell and Arteta both probably playing quite deep in midfield. Osman will continue on the left and Seamus Coleman will play as the most advanced midfielder on the right with the defence unchanged for the 4th game on the spin.   Newcastle can often keep a high defensive line and this could present us with an opportunity with Beckford and Coleman’s pace in behind. Baines again will supply the biggest threat from the left flank and from dead balls.

As the above graph shows, we tend to keep the ball better than Newcastle and this will be key to us getting any kind of result in what will be a tough fixture.

Recent Form

The Geordies have been steady throughout although their best results have come on their travels with wins at Arsenal and also at Goodison back in September.  They have been solid at home under Pardew only losing once since he took the reigns. Our form is erratic. Great displays home and away against Chelsea and last weeks solid win against Sunderland have been punctured by woeful reverses to lesser sides in the shape of Bolton & Reading.

Last time out

In the reverse fixture at Goodison a great strike from Ben Arfa gave Newcastle a deserved 3 points in a game were Everton simply didn’t compete. As good a goal as it was from Ben Arfa, the failure to press the Frenchman by Heitinga was criminal and summed up the angry Dutchman’s limp contribution to our season. Ultimately our defensive record has been poor all season; with a common theme of giving away cheap goals early on in games and not having the ability to break down well organized teams. In many ways the Newcastle defeat at Goodison was a microcosm of our season.

Prediction?

I have been reliably informed from a Newcastle fanzine that the Toon haven’t recorded a home top flight  win on a  Saturday 3pm kick off for 2.5 years!…a record stretching back to 23 Aug 2008. Newcastle have drawn 43%of their home games and Everton 50% of their away games, so this game has scoredraw written all over it and probably 2-2.

If you are looking for a preview from the opposition perspective, I would recommend this blog by a Newcastle fan – well worth a read.