By Natalie Bargery
The term ‘Second Season Syndrome’ is a condition most commonly associated (but not exclusively) with foreign strikers experiencing a challenging second season in the Premier League. Symptoms include; missing sitters, an inability to hold up the ball and eventually becoming fearful of missing chances to the extent that the player hides in areas of the penalty box were no cross can possibly find him.
Sound familiar? Despite Nikica Jelavic’s popularity amongst Evertonians there can be no doubt he suffered all these symptoms during his second season with us. I remember watching the penalty area as Baines wound up to put in one of his customary pin-point crosses last season. It was obvious to all that the ball had to be played into the near post however Jelavic dashed to the back post and the ball was easily cleared. You could almost see the cogs turning in his brain as he took a step to make the correct run to the near post before changing his mind. It was an inevitable consequence of missing chances all season (e.g. Southampton away). Sadly, it was not just Jela’s lack of goals, in a team that was creating plenty of chances, but his general performance level was not up to scratch either. The phrase, ‘couldn’t trap a bag of cement’ springs to mind! No one could have foreseen this turn of events at the end of the Croatian’s first season with us.
His confident one-touch finishing could not be questioned and we were left wondering how we did not face stiffer competition for his bargain signature. In fact, Evertonians spent that summer worrying how we were going to keep hold of him in a years’ time. The thought he’d spend the next season in turmoil did not cross any of our minds. The only visible change was his strike partner, an in-form Fellaini instead of an out of form Cahill. Both physical players, good in the air and both played upfront close to Jelavic, particularly at home. He thrived playing with Cahill so why not with Fellaini? What had changed and what could be done to get Jelavic firing again?
A number of solutions and theories were suggested throughout last season….
Theory 1: ‘He just needs a goal’
The rip-roaring finishes to the home games versus Spurs and Man City supplied by the hat-stealing, shirt-twirling Jelavic suggested that the odd-goal, no matter how memorable was not going to cause a quick upswing in his performances. Furthermore, Jela did not go on a scoring run last season, apart from 3 goals in 2 games against Southampton and Wigan early in the season; he was unable to gain any momentum. Momentum cannot be physically seen or touched but may be believed in by more people than any God. It is a psychological phenomenon that is triggered by a particular event such as, THAT Phil Neville tackle or Adrian Heath’s goal at Oxford United. It seems Jela was unable to take advantage of his own triggers (goals against Spurs and City) and gain momentum for himself. Moyes said when he signed Yakubu he ‘was told by some people that he tended to score in six games and then not score for another six games, that’s just the way he is’. Consequently, the idea that Jela ‘just needed a goal’ may not have been appropriate for him as the odd-goal was not sufficient for him to gain any momentum. Similar to the Yak, Jelavic may thrive on scoring sequences.
Theory 2: ‘He needs a break- take him out of the firing line for a bit’
This was something Moyes tried. The Croatian started only 4 of the last 15 league games of the season. Yet, his performances did not improve whether he started or came off the bench and neither did his goal tally – he scored only one goal during this period. Consequently, dropping Jelavic may not have been the best solution. Psychologists have principally found the role of a substitute to be a negative experience. Players feel anger, frustration and a lack of control as they are left to watch from the bench. Some positive factors can be experienced, such as increased focus and motivation but Jelavic only scored one goal coming off the bench last season. This indicates Jela did not find any motivation sitting on the bench.
Theory 3: ‘Moyes has this effect on all our strikers’
Moyes got it right a lot more times than he got it wrong in the transfer market but there is a question mark about the consistency of the strikers he brought in. Andy Johnson, Yakubu and James Beattie all arrived for large sums of money but never really hit the heights we thought possible. It seems the blame for this and Jelavic’ form was being levelled at Moyes for making strikers work too hard, run the channels etc. and not spend enough time in the box. However, a large part of AJ’s game wherever he has been, has been to work hard and create space for others, he scored plenty of goals for Crystal Palace playing that way. While, many fans accused the Yak and Beattie of being ‘lazy lardarses’ during their time with us, so can’t have been much running the channels there. Jelavic regularly popped up on the wing last season with many shouting for him to get into the box but I don’t think this was Moyes influence. More likely, this stemmed from a loss of self-belief which made him fear making mistakes and missing chances. This fear meant Jela was no longer willing to take risks and it was much safer to stay out wide but if any sportsperson is unwilling to take risks then he will not progress and simply, stagnate.
However, loss of self-belief and fear of making mistakes are still only effects of poor performances and few goals. What the root cause of a player’s drop in performance level, basically over one summer, is the key (very difficult) question? If I could answer this question then I would be getting paid a shed load of money by Everton, as I’m sure they tried numerous ways to find the answer last season but here are a few potential theories….
Pressure of Expectation
Jelavic arrived on the crest of a wave. He’d been scoring goals for Rangers, got a huge welcome against City, started scoring quickly for us and even got a goal at Wembley (we’ll forget what happened after that). He was definitely ‘in the zone’. When a player is ‘in the zone’ performing is effortless and the player plays without fear or self-consciousness. Jela did not have time to stop and think, he just kept scoring and enjoying himself. However, when the season finished and Jelavic went off on his holidays he did have time to stop and reflect. He maybe then started to contemplate the future and question if he was capable of doing it all again? He could have then started to feel the pressure of expectation. He will have felt pressure from fans, family, teammates but most significantly on himself to perform again.
In this situation it is vital to think positively and turn expectation into a positive outcome of the Croatian’s excellent performances. Some players can thrive under that pressure and find it easy to see the positive side. It seems evident that Rooney wants to be the main man at his club and he won’t settle for anything less but not all players appreciate that weight on their shoulders. The weight of expectation may have been too much for Jela following his first 6 months with us. So, he found it testing to get himself back ‘in the zone’ once he stopped and realised what was expected of him. Expectation is no longer solely on him and has shifted heavily to Mirallas. Consequently, Jela may thrive as the focus moves away and he may well find himself back ‘in the zone’.
Jelavic appears to enjoy playing without fear or conscious thought ‘in the zone’ as he has never gone through such a difficult time in his career before last season. He has always kept a reasonable scoring rate and so, injury has been the only thing keeping him on the sidelines not his own performances. So, Jela may have become anxious as he struggled find a way to turn it around. When athletes feel anxious a chain of physical (e.g. heart rate changes) and mental (e.g. assess the demands of the situation) processes take place. However, individual differences also take affect and one difference is the athlete’s personal experience. If an athlete has experienced an issue before, that has caused them anxiety, then they can think back to how they dealt with it and use that knowledge again. Jela has not had such a challenging period in his career so he could not rely on his competitive experiences to help him through. So, maybe Jelavic was feeling a great deal of pressure resulting in anxiety and due to lack of previous experience he was struggling to find a way to cope.
Alternatively, Jelavic may have taken a different attitude during the summer. It’s possible that he may have taken his foot off the gas and become a bit blasé about the future. The best sports people never believe they have finished learning and keep working hard to achieve their goals. Sylvain Distin is a prime example as he takes the attitude that with age you have to work harder and keep fitter to keep playing at the highest level. He could use his age as an excuse to train less and miss more matches but Distin does not let up. If Jelavic did take this attitude last season then he will have been mentally unprepared for the challenge ahead. Jela may actually have been in a state of ‘under-arousal’, which means the Croatian actually wasn’t anxious enough. Anxiety is not always seen as debilitating as it can be facilitative to performance at the right levels for the individual. If an athlete is under-aroused they are not suitably ‘psyched-up’ for their performance. In a team example it goes someway to explaining how a premier league side can lose to lower league opposition. They are not motivated for the challenge ahead as they believe all they have to do is turn up to win. Furthermore, it explains why strength in-depth is vital to clubs as players are unable to rest believing their position in the team is safe no matter what, consequently reducing motivation.
It is possible that Jelavic was too relaxed about his position in the team and the number of goals he was going to score. However, from what I know of Jelavic I do not believe this to be the case. Due to his high work rate, enthusiasm and visible desire to do well for Everton, I can’t see him becoming too arrogant about his early achievements for us.
On the other hand Jelavic’ problems may not have started over the summer and rather an issue occurred that could not be foreseen. I can’t comment on Jela’s life off the pitch but poor performances can stem from difficulties at home. Relationship issues, bereavement, health of family members, struggling to settle in a new environment or culture can all affect a player on the pitch. It is exactly the same way for everyone; we can’t perform as well at work if we’ve got something on our mind that’s happening at home. This is common sense and applies even more to footballers who are in a performance focussed career yet, this consideration is never given to players and little research has been conducted. I attended the player of the month lunch in December, the month Pienaar was the winner. During his on stage interview he thanked Moyes for the support he received the previous month. Pienaar felt his performances during the previous month were below par due to a problem he had off the pitch. He didn’t elaborate on what he was referring to but he felt he owed Moyes and so, performed much better once the problem had been sorted the next month. If Jela was suffering in some way off the pitch and the problem could not be sorted, then playing him 90 minutes, dropping him or the odd-goal would not have made any difference as nothing happening on the pitch could solve the issue off it. Instead, help could have been provided to address the problem.
One thing is for certain, the crowd definitely stayed on Jelavic’ side last year. He received encouragement when other players would have been met with howls of derision for the same performances. It is important the crowd stay with him again during his make or break season. He will have spent the summer preparing himself to impress a new manager, with a clean slate. However, has also watched as we’ve bought a striker the manager knows and trusts, Arouna Kone. How this has affected his psyche only time will tell? Jela certainly faces a challenging season ahead and may well find himself sat on the Carrow Road bench come 3:00 on August 17th. Yet, if he can learn from last season and attack the challenge with a positive attitude I feel he can regain the form he displayed in early 2012. If not then he may just have to pray that Kone comes down with an equally demoralising strain of second season syndrome!
By Natalie Bargery
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