The expected return of Steven Pienaar to Everton is the issue dominating most of the discussions around Goodison Park this pre-season, but later in the summer comes the testimonial of a player less celebrated but almost as popular, Tony Hibbert. But the full-back’s celebratory friendly draws attention to another area in which David Moyes could strengthen.
Moyes’ senior options at right-back are Hibbert, club captain Phil Neville and Republic of Ireland international Seamus Coleman. Each has their drawbacks and their merits. Coleman is adventurous. He is the most attack-minded of the three but for that reason is also the least often seen in defence. That attacking mindset is put to use further forward, although Moyes has spoken of Coleman’s long-term position as right-back.
Coleman has however tailed off somewhat from his startling early performances. A string of injuries have seen his progression slow. When Coleman was at his best rampaging up the right flank he was clearly acting out of instinct rather than forethought. Now the time has come to add to his game and, as a midfielder, it has not happened. Perhaps a switch back to defence is the answer.
The most usual occupant of the right-back position last season was Neville. The former Manchester United defender offers experience that few still playing in the Premier League can match. Once an England regular and winner of practically every trophy available while at Old Trafford, there is not a situation in which Neville has not previously been. And his dedication to the Everton cause can never be questioned. Neville is very much the manager’s representative on the field.
Is that enough to account for what Neville lacks? That, namely, is technique. His first touch is occasionally unsure and his range of passing is limited, although he is capable of devilish deliveries into the penalty area. But often Everton’s attacks break down because the ball finds its way to Neville and his contribution is a poor one, bringing the move to a halt. Neville is also 35, and so does not have long left regardless.
And then there’s Hibbert. Most teams have a player like Hibbert. Full-blooded with a bond borne of watching him progress through the academy, Hibbert’s character is never questioned. Nor, for regular observers, is his defensive ability. Hibbert times tackles with the precision of a Swiss watch maker. A crowd favourite for that reason and his 300 games without scoring, few are as quirkily popular as 31-year-old.
But many of the criticisms levelled at Neville can also be attributed to Hibbert. He is not a marauding full-back like Leighton Baines on the other wing. He does not contribute a great deal going forward – as his hundreds of scoreless games show. And he is also the wrong side of 30, albeit only by a year.
For all the positive and negatives of his right-backs Moyes is unlikely to add to that position. Money, inevitably, is tight, and it appears all resources are going on bringing Pienaar home. But if cash was flowing a little more freely, right-back would be an area the manager may seek to overhaul, testimonial or no testimonial.
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