Salutations and welcome to the EB season preview!
A fair bit has happened during the close season months at L4. We’ve had the departure of the long standing oligarch Moyes, and the arrival of a new visionary leader in Martinez. The consequential ‘night of the long knives’ style carnage which ensued witnessed the Finch Farm back room team being deconstructed and reconstructed, with big changes also afoot on the playing staff as old warhorses were shown the door and new, younger blood brought in . This preview will aim to sift through the shrapnel and remnants of dead bodies to piece together how things now sit as we head into the opening competitive fixture of the new regime at Norwich next weekend….
Is the squad stronger or weaker than last season?
Numbers wise, the squad as of now has 1 more body to that which finished the previous campaign. High earning trio Mucha, Hitzlspberger and Neville have all moved on, with Robles, Deulofeu, Alcaraz and Kone coming in. John Stones would also probably be classed as a new player given he didn’t appear after joining mid way through last season meaning a significantly lower average age of the players coming in, which was crucial given that we had one of the oldest squads in the division.
Looking at the players recruited, Robles has obviously played in the division before at Wigan and will provide more credible competition than any of the previous kamikaze back up keepers we’ve had, although his gaff at Blackburn – combined with Howard’s good form in the ICC Tournament – means that realistically he will play second fiddle for the most part. Alcaraz is a wily old campaigner and as long as we can wheel him onto the pitch enough times he can bring experience to an already solid defence. Surprisingly, Stones looks ready to compete for a first team slot already following a superb show against Juve, although his part in the Blackburn goal is a reminder that he is still a tad wet behind the ears at this level.
Up front, Kone gives us a different option given that he is better on the ball than off it whilst the player who could be our ace in the pack is Barca ‘wonderkid’ Gerard Deulofeu who has arrived on a 12 month loan deal. Given the fact he is completed untried at this level there can be no expectation placed at the kids feet, but this could also be a strength in that opposition managers have absolutely no idea also what to expect and he seems to have the full repertoire of skills in his armour. Being completely honest here, I don’t see him starting many games before Christmas and it will be his ability to impact games from the bench in the meantime that will be the crucial factor in him getting more starts in 2014.
All this could change of course if either of Baines or ‘Man United target’ empty-head Marouanne Fellaini moves on. David ‘I don’t talk about other clubs players’ Moyes appears keen to take both, however having been caught with their pants down by United once this summer already it seems the board is keen to resist his Mark Hughes style approach to poach the duo on the cheap as close to the end of the window as possible to ensure we can’t sign a replacement.
Will three at the back be our default formation this season?
Personally I think anyone trying to second guess our formation for any game this season will be wasting their time. Against Madrid for example, the default 4-5-1 with Fellaini further forward and the customary high line to condense play in the opposition half and rely on Distin’s pace was very old Moyes. In other games like Blackburn though at times it looked at times 4-3-3 whilst the Juventus game – a match in which we played the best game of the pre season – there was a hell of a lot of change in systems with new face John Stones key to the dynamic.
“Certainly at half-time but even within the halves we’ve played different tactics and different roles. I think we can surprise people this season”
Signed by Moyes but previously coveted by Martinez, Stones lined up against the Old Lady on the right side of a back three, but as he is decent at right back the system meant that when we had the ball it was fairly easy for the 3 at the back to morph into a four with Stones right back, Coleman playing right up as a midfielder with Mirallas in a more advanced centre forward role. In this game you could argue we played at times 3-4-3 but also 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3. In short, the players are being asked to be more flexible during games and they appear to be responding to the approach.
Will the style change?
Martinez has spoken in pre season of creating a ‘unique’ Everton style which alludes to what most people would expect that change will come, but how much change? Despite evolving the style at times, Moyes was a reactive pragmatist at heart whilst Martinez is every inch the idealistic progressive. Will it be a gradual evolution or a full scale revolution? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle with evolution, not revolution the likely approach;
There’s a lot of talk about finding different styles and being attractive to watch. Clearly I’m excited about bringing a mixture of what Everton represents and what Everton stands for, together with my beliefs in the game and taking all the good things that Everton have done over the last few seasons. That’s a unique combination. We need to be a team that is capable of being flexible from a tactical point of view, We need to be in a position where we can keep the ball well and where we can break things down. That’s what I’m really looking forward to — coming up with a unique Everton style. We all need to drive together to be a team that can carry on being competitive in every game we go into, slowly growing into something special. I think when you look at the experience of this group of players, that’s always a helping factor. I’ve got no doubts over the success that this dressing room has had over the last few seasons and I know they can take football principles in very quickly.”
At Swansea, Martinez looked to gradually improve their passes made per game and consequently their share of the ball, moving from 200 passes in his first games to almost 3 times that figure as the team developed. At Wigan, pass completion and share of the ball went up each season, from 75.5% completion to 82.5% and share wise from 50.1% to 54.4% over his 3 seasons at the helm. The amount of fouls committed (a table we usually lead) was also reduced season by season, reducing from 496 to 452 over 3 seasons, all leading to a more progressive, fluid approach.
There have certainly been fewer back to front agricultural long passes from Howard and Jagielka in pre season. Instead, one of the midfielders that is more comfortable on the ball (Gibson or Heitinga predominantly) has been coming short to take the ball off Howard thus splitting the centre backs and allowing the wing backs to push on. A quicker passing tempo and anticipation of the second and third pass before the first are clearly aspects which have been ‘work in progress’ this summer and whilst there has been the occasional calamity using a more fluid passing game from the back – like the Vienna goal – on the whole even players less comfortable on the ball like Distin have looked comfortable.
“I was kind of doing two roles at once. It was a case of working hard all the time and even when we didn’t have the ball I’d be trying to close down and press defenders when they had it to get it back. Sometimes it was hard to get up and down all the time. Maybe you’d worked very hard without the ball then you suddenly get it and people had a lot of confidence in me to make a difference in the attacking third and do something decisive, and it can be tough. I like to get the ball to my feet, dribble and take people on – but if that’s suddenly come off the back of chasing around and defending for 10 minutes it can be difficult. You’re maybe not in the perfect condition to make that difference.”
– Kevin Mirallas on his positional play and fitness issues last season
From what I have seen so far there is a gradual evolution in style with more expression and a bit less of an emphasis on defensive shape when possession is lost. Mirallas is arguably the most likely to be the biggest beneficiary of this change in approach with less emphasis on defensive duties enabling more of an onus on expressive, expansive football. If he can stay fit he could be the key man in a more dynamic speedy team with other useful counter attacking options such as Kone and Deulofeu now in the ranks. Whether we will be as functional in terms of picking up points as we were under the previous regime is another issue however.
Who has shone so far and what is the likely line-up?
For all the comings and goings I don’t expect too much change in terms of personnel for the first game. I’d expect Howard to start in goal and the usual back four of Coleman, Jagielka, Distin and Baines to remain relatively unchanged. Heitinga appears to be seen more so by Martinez as a reserve midfield option with Alcaraz – who can play left or right of centre – the most likely to compete with the established order, followed by Stones in the pecking order at the back. Duffy’s inability to distribute will most likely culminate in him moving on before the window closes.
In midfield, I would envisage a triangle with Fellaini (if he’s still here) most probably sitting deeper with Gibson alongside him. Osman – who probably likes to take too many touches in the deeper role for Martinez liking – would probably be the most likely get the nod at the attacking point of the triangle although Barkley will press him, particularly given his close season protein intake which looks to have given him the physical prowess to better protect his silky skills. Resident boo boy Naismith has also had a good close season, particularly against Real Madrid, and this trio will scrap it out for a starting berth as the advanced midfielder.
In the forward roles, Mirallas will come in on the right with Pienaar on the left although the duo will play predominantly through the middle when we have the ball and then wider when possession is lost. Mirallas will look to play right up top as a striker with Piennar coming deeper in behind, often resembling a 4-3-1-2. Alongside Mirallas, despite Jelavic proving he can still get it up in pre season as been ace, however Kone will probably get the nod as the lone striker with Anichebe likely to be third choice.
What are the key challenges faced?
There is always a period of transition of some sort under any new manager situation irrespective of the results. If you look at last season, of clubs under new managers in the higher echelons of the table, Spurs and Liverpool both accrued more points than the previous campaign despite both overhauling the style bestowed by the previous manager. Both clubs took time to embed methods and at one stage each side occupied positions in the lower half of the table in the opening stages of the season before both finishing stronger in the second half of the campaign. In Liverpool’s case the evolution was more tricky with B-Rods boys heading the table at xmas for ‘most goals conceded from individual errors’ – a consequence of asking players such as Skrtel in particular to suddenly start playing out from the back like Franco Baresi.
Top 10 Challenges to overcome:
I’m running the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious here, but I’d guess the following will be high on Martinez objectives this season;
1. Identifying root cause of poor away form particularly in the second half of the season – we’ve won away just once in each of last two season’s post xmas
2. Breaking the reliance on set pieces/lessening the load of Baines to create chances & creating more genuine chances in open play
3. Cracking the code that witnessed a side that created the 4th most chances in the league (more than Man United) but had a conversion rate of the second worst in the league
4. Reversing a trend that seen us concede the 2nd most goals in the league from headers, without arguably our best aerial player Fellaini if/when he is sold.
5. Increasing passes made and % share of the ball to enable us to control games more particularly against rubbish sides.
6. Smoothen the transition by mitigating weaknesses of current players i.e Distin on the ball
7. Getting more numbers forward with emphasis on creativity and incision whilst retaining core strength at the back and recoveries.
8. Overhauling the mentality of a group of players who can often freeze under expectation and excel when the pressure if off.
9. Better use of first team squad and fringe players to better cope with dips in form and inevitable injury problems.
10.Developing the flexibility of players to be able to become adapt at different ideas, tactics and formations both game to game and during games
What is a realistic expectation for the new season?
If I was going to make a sweeping call on what will happen this season I’d say it’s more likely the edgy, tight 1-0, 1-1 games that became standard under Moyes – no matter who the opposition – will be replaced by higher scoring matches with us looking more daring on the counter but equally less resolute at the back than under the previous regime. Upping this expressive adventure whilst harnessing it with our greatest strength (defensive shape/work rate) will determine how high up the table we finish.
Martinez is an expressive character – just look at his Big Lebowski clobber – who gives his players “unbelievable confidence” as was shown at Wigan who regularly came from behind to take points, winning 38 points from losing positions in 3 seasons which would indicate there will be plenty of twists and turns along the way. In terms of a points tally, we accrued 63 last season meaning we’d need a shift of +10 to get near to the ECL berths, and a dip of -13 if we are to finish lower than 7th. A realistic expectation would be 6th or 7th and a proper shot at one of the cups which in a transition year ain’t too bad.
The caveat to all this of course is the transfer window and how we look after it closes with the futures of arguably our two most effective players – certainly numbers wise – still in doubt. To lose Baines – who created 1/4 of our chances last season – would be a savage blow, although it appears Fellaini’s departure will be mitigated by the arrival of either the Irish midfield passophile James McCarthy or Luca Marrone from Juventus. If we are able to get into September in good shape and with the squad relatively intact then anything is possible.