A morale-boosting 5-1 League Cup victory over Huddersfield Town was the perfect tonic for an Everton side suffering a lack of confidence after a poor start to the Premier League season, but when the league campaign resumes on Sunday at Villa Park, Everton will be faced with a Jekyll and Hyde home outfit.
Will David Moyes be faced with the Villa side that dismantled West Ham on the opening weekend of the season, or the one that crumpled against Newcastle United in their last domestic outing? Gauging which Villa will show is nigh on impossible for Moyes but the Scot will be wary of a backlash after the Midlanders’ hammering in the North East, particularly if the home players are fired up by caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald in a last-gasp attempt to get the job permanently. But that is not the only dilemma facing Moyes – after making six changes for the game with Huddersfield, the question now becomes whether to persist with the alternates or return to the staring XI those dropped for the visit of the League One side.
Of the half-dozen newcomers, two – Seamus Coleman and Magaye Guyere – are certain to be watching from the substitutes’ bench at best. Coleman, who plays with a joyous attacking abandon rarely seen in top flight football, and Guyere, a summer signing from Strasbourg, are both exciting prospects but are unlikely to be deemed ready for what is usually a bruising encounter in Birmingham. Phil Neville may be fit enough for a return to the side but if the captain does not make it, choosing Coleman over Hibbert would be a major surprise and major gamble from Moyes, a departure from the usual approach of seniority and solidity taken by the 47-year-old. Hibbert is unspectacular but reliable, and what he may not offer as an attacking outlet he makes up for with an unflinching commitment to his defensive duty, always a useful characteristic when travelling to another Premier League ground. Coleman’s time will come, when he reconciles his attacking dynamism with craftier work in his own half – there is a reason Coleman’s sense of attacking abandon is so rare.
Jack Rodwell is perhaps the most likely of the six changes to retain his place against the Villains, although as the fitness of Marouane Fellaini continues to improve, the two are in direct competition to partner Mikel Arteta, along with John Heitinga, who had possibly the unluckiest game of his career against Huddersfield, what with an own goal and missed penalty his main contributions to the tie. Everton have not looked themselves defensively this season, a problem that could be remedied by keeping Heitinga at centre-back, the position he took against Huddersfield, to partner Phil Jagielka. That would leave Rodwell and Fellaini fighting it out for the responsibility of partnering Arteta and there have been few signs of cohesion between the Spaniard and his Belgian teammate in their appearances together this season. Fellaini started in the defeat at Blackburn Rovers and made a substitute appearance in the draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers, and each time very much looked like a man returning too soon from a serious injury.
Fellaini and Arteta do not have a great deal of experience of playing with each other – between late August 2008 and early February 2009, when Arteta was injured, and January 2010 to February 2010, when it was Fellaini’s turn to sit on the treatment table, are the only points both have been fit at the same time – and at least part of the former spell would have seen Fellaini act as an emergency striker. The two are only going to gel through game time, and Fellaini’s elegant defensive work could be the perfect complement to Arteta’s cultured probing, but Rodwell’s continual improvement poses a genuine selection headache for Moyes.
Both Rodwell and Fellaini played 90 minutes on Wednesday night – and both got on the score sheet – but just as the Fellaini-Arteta partnership cannot develop fully unless it sees action, the same is true of Arteta’s link with Rodwell and the 19-year-old’s own progress. For his midfield to grow stronger Moyes must balance the team’s needs with the needs of each singular player, but when it comes to the crunch the collective trumps the individual. The balancing act starts all over again at Villa Park and Moyes has many tough decisions to make.