Neville returned from injury in Everton’s first game of the season, a 1-0 defeat away to Blackburn Rovers, but subsequently missed the next five – a run that saw Everton pick up just two points in the league, against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United, and win only once, 5-1 over Huddersfield Town in the League Cup. Since Neville’s return, the Blues are unbeaten, at least in 90 minutes, after a League Cup penalties defeat to Brentford – and the England international’s calming presence has been keenly felt. The most experienced player at Everton and, at 33, the oldest, Neville’s presence on the right of Everton’s defence has helped transform a back-line that leaked goals during the season’s early stages – eight in the first six games – to one that, in last half-dozen outings, has only been breached twice, and one of those was down to a Tim Howard blunder at White Hart Lane.
While Neville’s leadership has played a major role in strengthening Everton’s defence and therefore making positive results much easier to come by, it has not been the only variable. Everton are cautious without being defensive, they do not over commit, but do not park the bus either – and always get men behind the ball to defend. Such a tactic requires a centre-forward capable of playing with his back to goal, latching on to any clearances and keeping possession while his teammates break forward and, through August and September, an out-of-form Louis Saha and a struggling-to-adapt Jermaine Beckford proved unable. The dearth of fit-and-firing Everton strikers was such that for the visit of Manchester United David Moyes chose to go without a recognised forward, pushing Tim Cahill and Marouane Fellaini out of midfield, despite having both Beckford and Yakubu on the bench. The history books may record that game as a 3-3 draw but the Red Devils were comfortable right up until Cahill pulled a goal back in the 91st minute and for large parts of the second half, Everton were toothless.
It was after the defeat to Newcastle United a week later that Yakubu came back into his manager’s thoughts and, after a trying few years, the Nigerian has pushed his way back to the top of Everton’s striking pecking order. Coming on at half time against the Magpies, Yakubu has started every game since, including playing 98 minutes at Brentford, showing stamina many doubted he still possessed. And Yakubu has proven once again his aptitude for hold-up play, with deceptive strength, lucid vision and devastating ability to turn his marker on the half way line and switch defence to attack in an instant. The return to form and fitness of Neville and Yakubu are two of the most obvious and important changes from the first two months of the season, and bode well for the rest of the campaign.