By the time you read this, the draw for the FA Cup fourth round will have been made, and last season’s beaten finalists Everton were in the hat thanks to a 3-1 win over Carlisle.
The FA Cup provided welcome respite for the Blues during a turbulent 2009, and Everton’s fans, players and staff will be hoping for a change of fortune this year. That looked unlikely for much of Saturday’s victory over Greg Abbot’s Carlisle, however. The League One side arrived at Goodison Park without fear, and it showed in their football. They were confident, aggressive and composed, with the only slip coming for Everton’s first goal, a misplaced backpass from midfielder Adam Clayton. James Vaughan nipped in, rounded the goalkeeper and put Everton ahead. It looked like being a comfortable day, but as ever with the Toffees, things were not that simple. Instead of exerting their authority on the game, Everton retreated, played dull, unimaginative football and left their loyal fans wondering where the team that finished fifth two years in a row has disappeared to.
The easy answer is injuries, but that has become a crutch for many on the blue half of the city. Everton have certainly been unusually plagued by serious problems with their key players, with Mikel Arteta, Phil Jagielka, Phil Neville, Joseph Yobo, Sylvain Distin, Yakubu, Stephen Pienaar and others missing extended periods at various times this season. Some, including Arteta and Jagielka, are still weeks away from a return. But that does not excuse some of Everton’s performances this season, starting with the 6-1 hammering Arsenal dished out at Goodison on the first day of the season. A defence containing Joleon Lescott was ripped apart by the Gunners, with the only upside being things were bound to improve from there.
In what proved to be Lescott’s final game for Everton, a team containing eight full internationals was destroyed by Arsenal’s brand of slick football. There was immense speculation surrounding Lescott’s future before the game but that served as no excuse for one of the worst results in Everton’s history. The spate of injuries David Moyes has been forced to deal with offers little justification for some dire showings this season, particularly at home to Stoke City and Wolves and away at Hull. Matters have improved in recent weeks, with spirited performances against Tottenham, Sunderland and Burnley, but everything between Carlisle’s 17th minute equaliser and Tim Cahill’s 50th Everton goal, nine minutes before full time, was a reminder of how low Everton have frequently sunk this season.
Injuries have without doubt played a part in Everton’s troubles, but they are not the only reason and some of the other causes of the Blues’ misfortune have been brought on by themselves. Robbed of Arteta’s creativity and vision from February 2009 onwards, Moyes eventually dipped into the summer transfer market to bring Russian international Diniyar Bilyaletdinov to Merseyside for a fee believed to be in the region of £9m. But the man known to Evertonians as Billy is a cultured left-sided midfielder, a position the mercurial Pienaar has made his own in his time at Everton. Indeed, the South African’s connection with full-back Leighton Baines is one of Everton’s most potent attacking threats, which begs the question why Bilyaletdinov was signed in the first place.
In recent weeks, Pienaar has regained his left sided berth and Bilyaletdinov is toiling away on the right flank, but cuts an increasingly disconsolate figure. He has shown flashes of brilliance, including a memorable goal in the Europa League against AEK Athens, but that is small return for such a high price tag. Moyes is often rightly lauded for such transfer success as Arteta, Tim Howard and Cahill, but big-money signings such as Bilyaletdinov, James Beattie and Per Kroldrup have been less than impressive. It is a massive change, going from Russian football to the Premier League, and Moyes will be hoping Billy follows the path of another expensive import, Marouane Fellaini.
The big-haired Belgian joined Everton for a club record £12m, rising to £15m on appearances and other clauses, and immediately divided opinion amongst Everton supporters. His backers spoke of an innate knack for goal scoring, the calm, measured presence he often brings in the centre of the park and the lung-bursting runs he is capable of making to support the lone striker Everton usually employ. In contrast, the anti-Fellaini brigade point to a terrible disciplinary record brought on by a clumsy tackling style, a lack of mobility around the pitch and poor heading ability despite standing well over six feet tall. Since being moved to a deeper midfield role, the former Standard Liege player’s influence on the game has grown.
It has become Fellaini’s job to take the ball from the central defenders and look to build the attack, instead of being the focal point of it himself. From splitting judgement like few other Everton players before him, Fellaini has been universally praised for his performances over the last few weeks. Along with Vaughn, he was one of the brightest sparks on a disappointing day against Carlisle. Vaughn is a quandary for Evertonians. Beloved for being a product of the prolific academy and for his all-action style, the amount of injuries he has amassed in his short career have slowed the progress of a player who threatened to be the latest in the long line of domineering Everton centre-forwards, a player in the mould of Bob Latchford, Andy Gray, Graeme Sharp or Duncan Ferguson.
Take away Vaughn’s desire to chase every ball and contest every header and you are left with a player with fewer injuries, but also less impact. His goal against Carlisle was a goal none of Everton’s other strikers would score. The likes of Yakubu, Jo and Louis Saha would be content to see that ball trickle back to the goalkeeper, but not Vaughn. The no.14 hared after it and got his reward, a second goal in as many games. Landon Donovan has arrived in Liverpool to bolster Everton’s forward options, but he will have a tough time displacing Vaughan at the minute, but given the 21-year-old’s propensity for injury, Donovan’s chance could arrive at any minute.
Injuries have masked Everton’s real problem this season, and that has simply been lacklustre performances. The nadir was reached in November, when an Everton side packed with eight full internationals collapsed against relegation-threatened Hull, falling three goals down inside half an hour. Every team in the league would miss players the calibre of Arteta and Jagielka, but the remaining blue-shirted folk are more than capable of climbing the table without their stricken teammates. After an erratic first half of the season, there can be no more excuses.