Norwich and Oldham and Reading and Moyes and That

David Moyes

After the Norwich City game a massive case of ‘better fucking things to do’ kicked in, hence no update for a bit.

There’s only so many ways you can describe Everton playing nice enough football but lacking the ‘firepower’ to reduce their opponents to sulky booking-magnets for the closing stages of the match. Try we must though, because at Carrow Road they led at half time thanks to a neat Leon Osman header from a Leighton Baines cross, but we only got the customary ‘good hour’ from the Blues who crumbled worse than David Price putting on a big hat as soon as the opposition played their joker.

The week before it was Oldham throwing Robert Pershing Wadlow into the mix that set Evertonian arses quivering like a bunny rabbit’s nostril; for Norwich it was the introduction of a fella on loan from Kansas City who actually does look like a cowardly lion. The five minutes when he scored the equaliser from a corner and then the news came through that Arsenal had retaken the lead against Aston Villa felt like the critical kick in this season’s bollocks.

To top matters off, pumpkin-headed goal-getter Grant Holt stabbed home a winner so deep into injury time that there were creatures lurking in the goalmouth that have never seen the sun. That’s deep.

David Moyes came in for criticism afterwards – for bleating about the amount of added time and petulantly refusing to shake the referee’s hand – but most of all because of a late substitution that pretty much summed up what most people, not just his harshest critics, see as his biggest failing: his lack of daring at crucial moments.

With Norwich forced to push on and take risks, and Everton dropping back towards their own goal, Nikica Jelavic became isolated up front. The pacey, direct Kevin Mirallas was on the bench, but instead of coming on to run at the home defence and lend support to the striker, he simply replaced him. An isolated centre-forward swapped for an out-of-position, and still isolated, winger.

Almost everyone else would have taken off Steven Naismith instead. He’s not having a great time, although people do sometimes wonder what sort of player he is and what his best role is.

To answer those two questions briefly:

a) Imagine if you took the tenacity and aggression of Phil Neville and the touch and vision of Leon Osman. Got it? Well, with what you’ve got left over…

b) A cone.

He clearly does his best, and he’s scored more derby goals than any of us ever will, but when you consider Jermaine Beckford and even Denis Straqularsi were jibbed off after one season in royal blue, you have to think his card might be well and truly marked.

The gloom after the Norwich game was almost overwhelming – it was hard to believe that this is the same squad of players that not so long ago people saw as genuine, strong contenders for a Champions’ League spot. There is any number of theories concerning why the Blues have fallen out of contention for fourth place, and may even struggle to finish above Liverpool, and they range from tiredeness, a lack of impetus after the transfer window, Moyes’s contract shenanigans and, as discussed already, the manager’s lack of adventure, especially when in a winning position.

All those factors may play a part to a lesser or greater degree, but a phrase that keeps springing to mind is one used a while ago by worthy but really-quite-joyless football writer Jonathan Wilson, and that is ‘regression to the mean’. In short, you might have a good start, a good finish, or you might just be ‘inconsistent’ throughout the season, but over time you will average out just about where your quality dictates. When you think about it, we accept that the best side finishes top of the league and the worst ends up at the bottom, so it’s probably fair to expect the seventh best will, well…you get the gist.

Arsenal always perk up towards the end of the season and are good at smashing the granny out of sides who have given up while Tottenham without the freakishly effective Gareth Bale are at least as good as Everton. And as for Liverpool, well, we shall see.

The Oldham game was thankfully straightforward, despite a scare when Jose Baxter struck a post moments after Mirallas had put Everton in front with the sort of instinctive finish that Jelavic must remember so vividly while lying awake at night staring at the ceiling. A Baines penalty and a glancing header from Osman meant that even when Smith eventually trundled on and scored from another one of the visitors’ tremendous corners there was never any real chance of another fightback.

That lifted the mood a bit, but there seems to be a real reluctance to get too carried away – we’ve all been here too many times before and no one is under any illusions about how awkward Wigan could be in the quarter-final.

If this is the end of the Moyes era at Everton then it would be amazing if the players could rediscover their early-season form and send him off with a flourish. He has his flaws but to see his reign being described as almost 10 years wasted, as some recent articles seem to be suggesting, is hugely unfair.

If he doesn’t sign a new deal in the summer he will leave behind a club with a squad of internationals and a professionally run playing side that is a million miles from the disaster zone that he inherited from Walter Smith. It used to hurt to hear the Everton job described as a poisoned chalice, and it’s only Moyes’s efforts, in often very difficult circumstances, that have stopped the role being viewed in such a light.

It’s inevitable that every mishap between now and the end of the season will be seen through the prism of his non-committal to a new contract, and he has brought that on himself. That said though, he could argue that it would be more destabilising for him to announce a decision to quit with so much of the season remaining. You can guarantee he would be accused of it if he did.

In the unlikely event that he does extend his stay there will always be the suspicion that he is only at Goodison because of a lack of alternatives, which raises the question whether he might go even if there is no dream job available straight away in the summer. Could he ‘do a Rafa’ and have some time off and simply wait for another decent job to pop up? One thing’s for certain, one will, and sooner rather than later.

Despite a degree of revisionism and a marked willingness by some to take certain statistics out of any meaningful context, the 10 years under Moyes have, on the whole, been far more rewarding than the 10 that preceded them. Hopefully they won’t be soured by what could be the final couple of months.

The title mentions Reading but this piece has gone on long enough, quite frankly. So fuck ‘em.

Reading 2 Everton 1

Well at least this result made a change from drawing with really average teams.

David Moyes said that he was as pissed off as he has ever been after a game, but it couldn’t have come as that much of a surprise to him as an all too familiar pattern of play saw the Blues dominate the early stages, fail to open up a decent lead and then allow very limited opponents back into the game courtesy of hopeless defending.

Thomas Hitzlsperger, Der Spirit-Level, was a surprise starter in place of the injured Phil Neville while Steven Naismith continued on the right while we await the return of Kevin Mirallas.

In the first half Reading were shocking – the worst side Everton have faced this season. Indeed, the Toffees should have been ahead within the first couple of minutes when first Adam Federici blocked a Phil Jagielka effort from close range and then watched as the unmarked Nikica Jelavic volleyed Hitzlsperger’s cross into the turf and harmlessly wide. It was a passage of play that summed up much of the rest of the half.

A goal did arrive on nine minutes though as a Reading defence that looked like chickens with a fox in the coop every time the ball came into their box failed to deal with a straightforward bouncing ball, allowing Naismith to score from six yards.

After that it was the usual procession of Leon Osman pea-rollers, some decent saves and plenty of shrug-inducing misjudged final balls from Everton as they walked the ball to the edge of the home side’s penalty area with impunity. Jelavic and Marouane Fellaini should have run riot against such a disorganised back four, but the pair of them looked too casual and failed to get hold of the ball and do the basics consistently.

Jelavic’s only notable contribution should have seen a penalty awarded when his fierce shot was blatantly handled by Sean Morrison. It was the second Stonewall spot kick – so blatant it caused a riot in a gay bar – that referee Martin Atkinson failed to award. The first was when early-90s Dennis Leary-looking tripe-hound Kasper Gorkss clearly clattered Naismith.

1-0 at half-time then and you just knew that Brian McDermott’s team talk would be along the lines of: ‘We should be dead and buried here, so see this second half as an opportunity – be a bit more aggressive and we will get chances’. With some of those sort of crouching fist pumps he does thrown in for good measure.

Lo and behold, after only five minutes Martin Atkinson gave a bollocks free kick against Hitzlsperger, it got lofted into the near post area and Adam Le Fondre, hardly the most fearsome target-man, found himself free to head past Tim Howard.

Only Sonny and Cher playing over the public address system would have made the whole mood feel more like Groundhog Day.

Fellaini hit a post with a header and Hitzlsperger volleyed narrowly wide, but there was no real conviction from a generally sloppy and off-colour Everton team.

To top it all off, on 78 minutes winless Reading took the lead from the penalty spot courtesy of a ridiculous challenge by Seamus Coleman. The young Irishman’s enthusiasm is always commendable but in all honesty, the Southampton game aside, he has looked something of a liability during this spell covering for Tony Hibbert. He makes too many bad decisions when he’s under pressure – none more so than his leap into the back of Le Fondre. It looked like someone trying to break down a door but realising while in mid-air that it’s a lot harder to do in real life than it is on television. Even Atkinson couldn’t miss it, and similarly Le Fondre was always going to do the business from the spot.

It’s hard to know what Moyes is meant to change about his team given that most of what they have been doing this season has been exemplary. Even at the Madejski, where the second half was really disappointing, they should have scored at least two or three before the break, and that’s besides the two denied penalties.

The return of Mirallas will obviously be a welcome one, and dare we say it Hibbert’s too, whenever he’s fit. The forwards could do with being a bit more aggressive – they look as if they give balls up a little bit too easily at times and hardly won a free-kick all game – and the defenders might consider not conceding at least one soft goal every single game.

Other than that, we are still in fifth place, but it’s not lost on anybody that a mass of points have been dropped unnecessarily over the last month or so. And the upshot of that is we are now going to have to beat some pretty good teams if we want to maintain any genuine ambition of a fourth place finish.

Reading And England And That

On the back of their slightly ropy but ultimately exhilarating comeback against Sunderland last weekend, Everton pay a visit to yet another team who fall under the category of ‘really should fucking beat these’.

What’s more, West Bromwich Albion are at home to Chelsea so there’s every chance here that we could go three points clear of the Baggies and thus stop the bastards continually putting our season into perspective, for a week at least.

Reading are still without a win, which you could say makes them dangerous, but alternatively you could also, with some validity, suggest that it’s because they really aren’t that good. Their defence in particular looks weak, as demonstrated quite remarkably in the Capital One Cup when they lost 5-7 to Arsenal. Everton seem particularly adept at dominating games against these ‘play some nice stuff’ types of teams, even away from home, and so you would suspect that once again this encounter could be decided by just how ruthless the Blues are in front of goal.

The increasingly influential Kevin Mirallas will miss out with the hamstring strain that saw him withdraw from the Sunderland match, but the good news is that he is expected to return for Norwich at Goodison the following week. Steven Naismith will probably get another chance to try and convince everyone that he is actually any good.

Reading boss Brian McDermott, who looks like he should be wearing an ill-fitting pinstripe suit and sweating profusely in the Dragons’ Den, could be without Jimmy Kebé. That was according to some website or other, anyway. Incidentally, Kebé’s middle name appears to be Boubou.

Boubou!

Check for yourself.

The real danger man for the Royals is Pavel Pogrebnyak – he’s only scored two league goals this season but always looks the part, and indeed did when he was at Fulham last season as well. He is officially our ‘one to watch’ then this week, in a feature that will almost certainly never be mentioned again.

Back to Everton, the complete non-story about Marouane Fellaini possibly leaving Goodison in January took another non-twist when he told a Belgian paper:

There is interest in me. But Everton are an ambitious club as well I don’t think they’ll let their best players go just like that. I want to play for one of the biggest clubs one day. But I am patient.

David Moyes said some bits after the Sunderland game about Fellaini’s future perhaps depending on whether Everton get into the Champions League, but deep down we all know that’s not really the case. The determining factor, as with every player, is who is going to pay him the most money. If Everton make it into the Champions League they will be the beneficiaries of a financial windfall, but that has to be measured against the wealth of the clubs who play in the thing every year and also have enormous financial backing from external sources, be they the sovereign wealth of some oil state, the personal fortune of an energy oligarch or just massive, massive fucking debts. That last one is Manchester United, in case you couldn’t work it out.

If one of those clubs wanted to buy Fellaini then Everton simply couldn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, try to compete with the enormo-wedge they would offer in terms of salary.

As we’ve mentioned before though, the saving grace could well be that while admiring how Fellaini is playing at the moment, the clubs who could afford to buy him might not actually want to. For instance, Chelsea are the ones that keep being linked, but would a player like Fellaini be a priority for them at this point in time? If we are genuinely talking in the region of £30 million, as keeps being quoted, then would they not be more tempted to put that money towards someone like Atletico Madrid’s Falcao, as a replacement for the struggling Fernando Torres? After all, it’s not as if they are short of attacking midfielders at the moment.

The alternative is that they would see him as a replacement for Jon Obi Mikel, but Fellaini has never looked completely convincing in that deep-lying midfield role – you could almost certainly get someone else to play there who is less of a gamble, and for a lot less than £30 million.

Manchester City seem unlikely, although you never can tell completely with them freaks, while Manchester United have Robin van Persie playing off Wayne Rooney – they don’t seem to be in the market for an extremely expensive understudy.

The other thing to bear in mind is that none of these clubs came in for Fellaini in the summer, so why would they bid massive money now?

The outsiders because of the kind of dough it would involve are Arsenal, although they would be the club with the most motivation. With their season already going a bit awry and a number of their summer signings failing to impress, you wouldn’t be surprised if Arsene Wenger wanted to try and shake things up at the Emirates, and Fellaini would certainly do that.

The most likely outcome though is that Fellaini stays where he is, at least until the summer. It’s Leighton Baines we should be more worried about, as he would go straight into any of those top sides without them having to change their style of play in the slightest. He was immaculate for England in Sweden – the runs he makes off the ball and the angles at which he makes them are just crying out for arrows and dotted lines to illustrate them and their inherent geometrical beauty.

And if ever a player’s technique deserved to be defined as ‘textbook’ it’s his.

His club colleague Leon Osman made a decent debut for England as well. Early on he got lost in no-man’s land a bit, but eventually he realised that Steven Gerrard needs less assistance in the ‘take the ball off the centre-half’ role than Phil Neville and so began to commit himself forward with more conviction. He forced the goalkeeper into making a handful of saves and used the ball intelligently – apart from conceding the free kick for the third goal he hardly made a mistake all night. His performance probably merited another cap, but at his age it’s difficult to imagine just how well he would have had to have played to become a genuine contender for a starting place in a competitive match. It’s hard to see his undoubted experience being enough to edge him ahead of the younger, quicker Tom Cleverley and, most notably, Jack Wilshere, a man who could only look more Cockney if he wore a stupid suit covered in shiny pearl buttons. And drove a sherbert.

Footballers are not normally the most demonstrative people, so you get the idea of just how much respect Osman’s teammates have for him when Tim Howard says:

This could be a blanket statement for the whole team but I don’t think I’ve been more excited for a human being than I was for Ossie. You’re talking about one of the greatest guys to be around, a guy who’s hard-working and so deserving of that call-up.

There have been a heck of a lot less deserving guys down the years to get caps

He’s just so fantastic and he’s been a rock for this club.

I was delighted for him – so, so happy.

You big soppy get!

The one unfortunate thing about the night for Osman, apart from the result, was that if it does end up being his only cap then he will show people the photographs in the future and the first thing they will say is, ‘What’s with the creepy muzzy?’

Obviously it’s for a good cause, although to be honest, despite the amount of publicity ‘Movember’ itself is getting, do you actually know what charity it’s in aid of? Oh, and have you noticed James McClean hasn’t fucking grown one. Just saying, like.

Anyway, finally, some news on Darron Gibson. Nah, not really, we haven’t got a clue what’s happened to him. In fact, the fidelity of his fitness status updates are starting to reach ‘Gazza two weeks from full fitness’ levels.

Play up Blues. Play up.