Everton were brought crashing back down to Earth with a bump by Blackburn Rovers on Saturday. The Lancashire side’s good fortune and obstinate defending left the Toffees’ vaunted midfield ineffective in the face of constant harrying and pressure from their opponents.
In this respect, Everton fans now know how Arsenal supporters have felt all these years. Indeed, in the past, Everton have been one of the teams that set out to frustrate the Gunners and their ilk, sometimes successfully. However if anything marked the evolution of David Moyes’ team from stubborn to stylish, it was the tactics Rovers employed at the weekend and Everton’s own response to them. Sam Allardyce had his team pack the midfield with a deep defensive line leaving no space for Everton’s wide men to exploit, tasked his hard-working and industrious midfield to crowd the Blues’ creative players out of the game and utilised pace and physicality on the break to continually unsettle the visitors as they pushed forward. They are the same ideas behind Allardyce’s regular betterment of the Gunners and, just as Arsenal often fail to switch to a Plan B, so too did Everton.
Past years would have seen Duncan Ferguson pulled from the bench to fight Rovers’ fire with fire, but today Moyes could only instead call on Jermaine Beckford, unproven in the Premier League but a distinctly un-Ferguson like player. Victor Anichebe, who missed the game through injury, has been converted from a raw centre-forward to an equally raw winger, to exploit his pace and strong, head down running, so even he may not have been an option if Moyes had wanted a more direct approach. Moving Everton away from the days of Ferguson and Kevin Campbell, another physical but limited player, may be Moyes’ greatest legacy in the absence of a trophy. Midfielders the calibre of Mikel Arteta and Steven Pienaar have not been seen at Goodison Park since the glory days of the mid-1980s, and while each is capable of surviving the rough and tumble of the Premier League, when they get dragged into a battle, as they were on Saturday, they are anything but favourites. The fruitless outcome was that the attack was starved of the ball, crosses were launched from deep, and Blackburn came away with a valuable three points.
The weekend’s defeat is part of a greater debate surrounding modern football – is it preferable to play football the supposed ‘right’ way for most of the season but suffer the odd defeat to a team who out-muscle you, or do you follow the path of Rovers and Stoke City and play percentage football, full of long balls and hard running with a safety-first mentality? Moyes has clearly put himself in the former group, particularly with Everton’s lack of a genuine holding midfielder – Marouane Fellaini may play there, but he possesses more technical ability than what passes for the average holding midfielder in the Premier League, and has the freedom and talent to create when the opportunity arises. After four years under Walter Smith, between 1998 and 2002, when Everton were guilty of some dire play, and three years of Joe Royle’s Dogs of War from 1994 to 1997, a manager who prioritises a good first touch, creative vision and dynamic movement over great stamina will be welcome for a good while longer.
Moyes has never signed a midfielder who offers little but hard work, although his pursuit of Robbie Savage and Sean Davis in the past suggests he has been tempted by that kind of player. But the case of Lee Carsley suggests Moyes would have made more out of them, as it took the Scot’s arrival and tactical expertise to get the best out of the ex-Blackburn player, signed by Moyes’ predecessor Smith. Prior to Moyes’ appointment, Carsley appeared in the Savage-Davis mould and never endeared himself to the Everton fans, at times looking lost on the pitch and uncomfortable with the position he was given. A year under Moyes, however, and Carsley grew to become a key component of the Everton team, to the extent that, after the Irish international left the club, his absence was blamed for any on-field problems the team suffered. Moyes helped Carsley grow from an artisan to an artist just as he has taken Everton from the Dogs of War back to the School of Science of yesteryear. One defeat will not change that and Moyes should be commended for returning Everton to the principles of years’ past.