Welcome to the new season at EB and one of many pre season pieces coming your way in the next week or so until we inevitably get bored and normal service resumes. Plenty has happened since last time with the transfer record broken, our manager signing a new deal and most importantly no one jumping ship. Plus we have the added delight of the Europa League to pontificate over. This sort of preview to the new season will take a look at the current health of the squad and ponder what lies ahead over the next 9 months.
So then, has it been a positive pre season?
Its a resounded ‘yes’ from this misery guts.
Obviously if problems with the new kit, thunderspunking money on any old shite as long as its done by June 1st, or pre season results are your bag then it’s not been a great one. But even an RT from Alan Myers couldn’t remedy any of that misery. The Europa League being shite narrative is also a load of old codswallop, as I go into more elaborately in this ramble.
Anyone looking for a reason to be cheerful should take a look at this pre season quote from 2007 from Moyes;
“I think it will be as hard to get into the top ten of the Premier League this year as maybe it has been to get into the top four in the past. Blackburn, Villa, West Ham, Portsmouth, Manchester City are all doing well, so it will be really tough.
Or this cracker from 2011;
‘ I have said many times we are going to have a tough season, it’s going to be hard for us, but I’m hoping the experience we have got, the players we’ve got, will come through and show their quality.I am expecting us to push on if we can, but I have always thought this would be a tough season for us. I don’t know exactly in what way, but I have always thought this would be a hard season because we know what we have not got,’
Give me Martinez and his ridiculous over optimism anyday. Anyway, I’m going violently off the subject.
For the first summer in a long time we’re not going into the new campaign minus a big hitting first teamer or one that remains albeit with a turned head, plus the club have secured last season’s key man Gareth Barry. We have also broke the transfer record for Lukaku and freshened up the midfeild with the potentially ace Besic coming in for relative buttons. The acquisitions of young tykes Galloway and (possibly) Henen represent a clear investment in youth. This, coupled with the long term deals secured for impish colts Barkley and Stones has given an ageing squad that had the whiff of a real ale society bore into a much more hip, bitchin gunslinger vibe.
How is the squad looking?
Tim Howard will no doubt be energised by a decent, if perhaps hyperbole world cup after arguably his best ever all round season last time. His deputy and newly installed boo boy figure Joel Robles doesn’t inspire confidence with the fans. Arguably it would be better to bring in an arl arse keeper with experience who could fill in for Howard and let Robles make the mistakes he needs to in less pressure environments than the FA Cup quarter finals. Whilst shaky he is still young and could be a good keeper for us, just not right now. U21 Czech keeper Jindrich Stanek will slot in as third choice keeper but is still to make a first team appearance either at Goodison or previous club Sparta Prague. Previous third choice stopper Mason Springthorpe has been released.
Seamus Coleman has missed most of pre season due to injury as has Bryan Oviedo although hopefully the Irishman will be ok for the big kick off next week. Tyias Browning has played in various positions across the back four in pre season and could be a versatile asset as we compete on 4 fronts this season. Tony Hibbert may feel lucky to have bagged a 2 year deal, and presumably this was in part due to our Europa League (EL) squad needing to contain 4 players UEFA classified as “local club trained players” which means they must have trained at the club for 3 years between the ages of 15 and 21. Luke Garbutt impressed against Tranmere as well as in the spirit crushing Leicester pre season game and looks to have benefited from his various loans in recent years. Whilst Leighton Baines is unquestionably still ‘first pick’ young Garbutt could feature against either the EL bottom feeders or in the dead rubbers should we progress with games to spare. At 21 he also covers one of the 4 “locally trained players” slots.
Big things will be expected of John Stones given his impact at the tail end of last season which almost ended with a World Cup spot. The young Yorkie is obviously ace but does makes a fair few mistakes positionally and can get caught in possession as happened last week in the Celta Vigo friendly. The good signficantly outweighs the bad though, and I’d imagine he will start 15-20 games as cover to ageing senior duo Phil Jagaielka and Sylvain Distin. Fellow veteran Antolin Alcarez will be fourth choice followed by Shane Duffy at 5th pick and you’d imagine he’ll go out on loan again after his decent spell at Yeovil last season. MK Dons rookie Brendan Galloway has also been brought in for a fee which could rise to as much as £5m. A left sided centre half who can also play in a defensive midfield role, you would imagine the thought is he can be groomed into Distin’s slot when (or should that be if?!) the big man ever retires. I’d be surprised if he gets a sniff of first team action this season.
As a centre midfielder himself, Martinez has overhauled this area of the pitch more than any other since taking office last summer. If you remember the Wigan cup debacle when square pegs Neville and Fellaini occupied the midfield engine room the situation now couldn’t be more transformed. We now have potentially 7 players who can play the 2 anchor roles, each with their own particular skillset enabling Martinez better options depending on the opponent.
Mo Besic is a potentially astute purchase in the holding midfield slot. His long range passing is very good and his positioning and awareness to plug gaps defensively seem good, plus as he can also play at the back which gives Martinez the option of moving from a back 4 to 3 to close out games without having to waste a substitution. Besic’s lean exterior, hunger and snide factor combined with his penchant for ruthless violence will hopefully see him ruffing up the bloated cheeky nando’s identikit prem midfielders in a similar fashion to Furio Giunta’s arrival from Naples in 2001.
The risk of course is that his desire to win the ball back can leave a hole in behind if he is bypassed. In the Paderborn game for example he made 5 fouls in the first 15 mins and was booked after 2 mins and I fancy he will bring an inevitable raft and pointless bookings.. The obvious caveat here is that he’s never competed in a serious European league before so it could take a bit of time to get up to speed.
As well as the first choice of Besic, McCarthy, Barry you have the returning Darron Gibson and you could also thrown into the pot the idea of Baines starting there (originally an idea put forward by the hapless Steve Round) and young Ryan Ledson could get some gametime in the EL. From the looks of his gait in pre season you wouldn’t fancy Gibson to be thrown into battle alongside fellow fatty – albeit on a lower scale – Barry and with Barry first pick Gibson’s chances of gametime look increasingly remote.
In the attacking midfield berths the situation is less clear. Ross Barkley can also play in DM but will more than likely play in the No 10 spot and his output will more than likely go up compared to last season. He will likely dovetail with Leon Osman who you would imagine would continue to provide vital cameo’s as he did last season especially given that we haven’t strengthened numbers wise in this zone. Kevin Mirallas had a go here against Cardiff but is more effective in the wide spaces and he’ll be looking to improve again in terms of goals / assists as he did last season.
Gerard Deulofeu’s departure has left a hole which looks Christian Atsu shaped, but the Chelsea winger’s loan is still subject to a work permit. Atsu doesn’t possess the trickery of Deulofeu but could provide more substance than his predecessor certainly based on his outputs in the Dutch league. Although there is a gulf in the quality of the leagues we can draw conclusions that Atsu will put in more of a shift going back towards his own goal, is more of a team player and is also more erratic. The African Cup of Nations is the obvious fly in the ointment to this deal.
Steven Pienaar was peripheral due to injuries last season – and lesser so the style of play – and given his age it remains to be seen if he can scale the heights of previous campaigns. For me he’d still be a first pick and replacing someone of like for like quality will unquestionably be Martinez most difficult recruitment project in the next few years. Aidan McGeady’s cameos pretty much won us 4 points alone against West Ham and Fulham last season and whilst he still probably doesn’t have the tools or consistency to be a first pick his trickery and ability to commit tiring defenders is a great option in the final thirty minutes of games.
Up front, the protracted and ultimately successful purchase of Lukaku represented a ‘phenomenal moment’ for the football club. Big Rom has plenty of holes in his game, notably his link up play outside the box and attacking crosses in the air, but these are all coachable. If he can focus on ironing out these creases and not harping on about how great he is then the 1 in 2 goal ratio he brings to the table could be crucial in where we finish. Alongside him, Steven Naismith is probably the most serious alternative based on his many ‘unbelievable moments’ last season.
Arouna Kone is no way near as bad as some make out and if he can avoid injury should be good for 8-10 goals. Improving our scoring on the road is the principal development area for us this season and arguably the key component in us finishing higher than last season. Whilst we had the 2nd best defence on the road last season we weren’t even in the top six for goals scored away from L4 with a miserable return of just 2 goals from our trips to the other sides who made up the top six. Kone could be a factor here in supplementing the expected yield from Lukaku both in terms of goals and in applying serious pressure for his place and filling in when his form dips which it will at least once.
Beligan youth David Henen is a wide forward whose sum total of club experience is for Monaco B so I’d expect he will slot into the u21 side if he ever actually signs. Some of the Moyes shrapnel like Velios and Gueye have been taken out the back and shot in the head . Ressie strikers Long, and Hope and McAleny all got gametime in pre season but you’d suspect that if we bring in a final striker on loan that 2 or all 3 of them will secure loan deals of some sort. Certainly after his excellent goal against Paderborn you would think that Long could be the one who stays and gets the most sniff of first team action.
Have we got enough bodies then?
Based on what the manager said earlier this summer its a resounding ‘No’ ,unfortunately. Martinez stated that “You need around 27 players plus the keepers for Europe.”. I make it that we have 20 senior outfields players so we would be 7 short based on this logic.
Defenders: Coleman, Hibbert, Baines Distin, Jagielka Alcaraz, Stones Oviedo, Midfielders: McCarthy, Gibson, Barry Besic, McGeady, Pienaar, Barkley, Osman Forwards: Mirallas, Naismith, Kone, Lukaku
Garbutt and Browning have both featured in most of the pre season games and I’d be surprised if either was allowed out on loan so could supplement that figure to 22. Plus the final signing which we think may be Atsu or another winger would give us 23, so we would be 4 players short of Martinez magic 27 figure.
Surveying the terrain….
Last season was the closest we have come points wise to 4th spot since 2009/10 when we also finished 9 points off this position, albeit last season we accured 7 more points. From 7th down the league looks weak and even if we did dip due to the EL – which is in no way a given – it’d take a rapid decline to see us finish any lower than 7th which would probably ensure at least europa qualification
In terms of the sides we were competing with closest last season, namely Arsenal, Spurs Man United, 2 of the 3 have changed managers, both appointing more credible stewards. All three squads are stronger than ours but in the case of Spurs and United both are unbalanced with one side having no credible strikers and neither having any really competent defenders. Arsenal’s relative stability and the capture of Alexis Sanchez combined with Libepewl’s loss of the racist will probably see these two swap positions so I’d expect the slog for 4th to be between us and those 3 sides with Chelsea and Man City followed by Arsenal ensconced in the top three.
Last season our main struggles and loss of points came when 2 or 3 of the first choice eleven succumbed to injuries just after Christmas when all of the back four plus Lukaku missed games due to injury. I’d say the squad hasn’t been beefed up enough for this to not happen again so hitting the 72 point marker could be tricky. That said I think a lower points total could get 4th this season so we could conceivably fare worse points wise and still achieve what is the number one objective.