Sunderland and Southampton and That

Before-it-got-all-punchy

The games are officially coming all Darren Huckerby now – that’s right, ‘thick and fast’ – so once again we adopt the lazy-arse scattergun approach of talking about what’s going on, Toffee-wise, at the moment.

Systems are no substitute for intelligence

The horrendous snafuckup that blew the Sunderland game was more down to poor decision-making than the Roberto Martinez ‘method’. Granted, if you watched a lot of Wigan Athletic over the last few seasons you would be forgiven that horrific blunders at the back were an integral feature of the Spaniard’s philosophy, but the responsibility for ‘doing a Caldwell’ has to lie with the players.

After all, it’s not as if our goalies have never rolled the ball out before during the past century or so of football at Goodison.

That said, if you do it every time without fail it does become a bit predictable and maybe encourages the opposition to make that bit more effort to pressurise the outfield player receiving the ball. Again though, it’s down to the players to make the right decisions – it’s not enough to take unnecessary risks at the back and then simply shrug and say ‘the manager told me to do it’ when it all goes cigar shaped.

Incidentally, a lot of people have said that Tim Howard made a further error by bringing down the Sunderland player and getting sent off. In that split second though, his instinct will have been to stop a goal. He tried to make a save but Ki Sung-Yeung was a bit too quick for him. It’s easy with hindsight to suggest he should have allowed the Korean to walk the ball in, but could you imagine the scenes at Goodison if he had stood there and ushered him forward like a footman doing the ‘your carriage awaits’ sweep of the arm towards an open net?

We need to talk about Romelu

With 10 men you need a heroic performance from your centre-forward, unfortunately though ours is having a horrible time at the moment.

Romelu Lukaku looked like an utter phenomenon when he first arrived at Everton but in the last month he seems to have fallen apart. A key feature of Everton’s play has become brilliant moves culminating with Lukaku and Ross Barkley shaking their heads at each other and pointing at completely different areas of the pitch as the ball dribbles out for a goal kick,  even during the majestic team performances at Manchester United and Arsenal, .

We’ve said it before but the burly Belgian needs to get back to basics. He has to accept that he can’t always have 30 yards of pitch to run into with defenders bouncing off him like Jonah Lomu, and that 90% of being a centre-forward involves getting the better of the jiu-jitsu skirmishes with the centre-half and taking your lumps for the team. Drifting out to the wings and making applause-prompting loping jogs to hurry the keeper up are all well and good, if you want to be Marcus Bent, but Lukaku apparently wants to be the best striker in the world.

When Nikica Jelavic is coming on and showing you up by winning a simple free-kick you know you need to have a look at what you are doing.

When we played Arsenal and they started getting a bit of joy towards the end of the first half, it was because Olivier Giroud was standing strong on the edge of the box and the attacking midfielders were confident that they could fire a pass into his feet, make a run past him and he would hold the defender off and try and ‘turn the ball around the corner’ for them. Everton are crying out for a bit of that simple stuff at the moment, especially given how much possession they have just outside the opponents’ box.

There’s no lack of effort by Lukaku – if anything he’s trying too hard.

How will Martinez cope with his first hint of adversity?

Two games away from going the whole year unbeaten at home, facing a team bottom of the league who traditionally get prison-petted all over the place at Goodison – ka-blammo, 1-0 reverse.

Everton that.

As they say.

Apparently.

It’s not a crisis, or even a mini crisis. Hell, it doesn’t even merit the term ‘crisette’, but things have been running so smoothly this season that even one rather unlucky defeat at home feels like a bit of a blow.

Anyway, as a result of that game the new Blues’ boss now has some selection problems ahead of facing a more than decent Southampton team.

Joel Robles obviously comes straight in for Howard while presumably Leon Osman, after having a good long think about just what he did on Boxing Day, gets to try and redeem himself in midfield alongside Ross Barkley and James McCarthy.

Gareth Barry’s experience will certainly be missed against a wily sort of Saints team – the wide-waisted former England man was magnificent again organising the 10 man assault on Sunderland in the second half on Sunday. Given that he is almost certainly the slowest player in the Premier League he should be getting mugged off constantly, but his first touch, anywhere from the neck down, is so immaculate, and he shields the ball so effortlessly, that it is almost never a problem.

12 months ago you would never have imagined that we would all have a massive man crush on a player famous only for trailing in the wake of Mezut Ozil – can’t do the Umlaut – and that the form of Bryan Oviedo would have people weighing up whether a decent bid for Leighton Baines might be worth considering.

Something about Southampton

Their jowly young-Homer-Simpson-haired manager Mauricio Pochettino has essentially become the poster boy for sacking popular managers who appear to be doing ok. And for people who like to pass off as their own deep insights into the game the shite they read in the paper and hear on Match of the Day – for instance that clueless Portsmouth supporter on The Football Ramble when he does his ‘but seriously now, it’s just not good enough’ voice – it’s de rigeur that you mention Saints’ ‘high pressing game’ whenever discussing them this season.

So we just have.

They have some decent players and are ‘coming off the back of’ a good win at Cardiff City. Incidentally, can you wait to see who takes over there? Or even better, listen to their first press conference when they are asked about working for Vincent Tan?

‘I know what you’re saying like, but, you know, we’ve all got to put a loaf on the table, lad’.

And that’s where this thing just sort of peters out, almost apologetically.

Everton 2 Sunderland 1

After a run of games were Everton dominated but only drew, three points were welcome against Sunderland, even if they were much tougher to acquire than anyone expected.

Thankfully the whole match wasn’t ruined by James McClean’s decision to wear exactly the same shirt that he has on to play football every other week of the year. That’s because nobody in the real world actually noticed – the subsequent ‘furore’ about the Irish winger choosing not to wear a shirt with a poppy on it only existed in the Matrix, where most of these sorts of mini-shitstorms tend to dwell.

The whole poppy tyranny gets more excruciating every year, as what was once seen as a nice, and let’s face it easy, gesture – sticking a nicker in a tin once a year on your way out of Asda while avoiding the RAC fella and the LoveFilm student – has been hijacked and turned into this tortuous battle for the moral high ground.

As ever in these situations, if that’s all you’ve got to get concerned about, whether someone who you don’t know wears a paper flower or not, you are clearly winning the game of life. Go you.

After a very touching silence that James McClean notably didn’t break, the football got underway and the first half bore a striking resemblance to the first 45 minutes of the FA Cup match at Goodison last season. Sunderland were dead organised and with two or three crisp passes were doing what it was taking Everton 10 or 15 to achieve.

In the opening stages Stephane Sessegnon and Stephen Fletcher were both played in behind Seamus Coleman, with Tim Howard making a close-range stop from the first effort while the second rolled agonisingly wide of the far post.

John O’Shea, ably assisted by Carlos Cuellar, was excellent at the heart of the visitors’ defence and for most of the match marshalled Marouane Fellaini and Nikica Jelavic as well as anyone – they barely got a sniff until the second half.

The Blues definitely miss a bit of dynamism in the middle of the park at the moment – everyone knows that the ball is going to be ushered out to the wings at every opportunity when sometimes it is crying out for a midfielder to drive through the centre and have a dig or play a one-two on the edge of the box. That’s certainly not Phil Neville’s game, although he did force Simon Mignolet to make his only meaningful save of the first half with low drive from long range that the Belgian keeper pushed around the post.

The reaction to the first half was downgraded from ‘meh’ to ‘motherfucker’ on 45 minutes when, following a half-cleared Sunderland corner, Craig Gardner lofted the ball back into the box and Adam Johnson reacted sharper than Howard and Leon Osman to turn the ball into the Gwladys Street goal.

With Everton labouring, especially following Kevin Mirallas’s withdrawal clutching his hamstring, the second half did not look at all promising. And in all honesty Everton never looked particularly threatening after the break, a couple of Johnny Heitinga headers aside, until one of Goodison’s almost forgotten men, Apostolos Vellios, replaced Neville on 72 minutes.

Fellaini dropped a bit deeper, making him more difficult to pick up, and the Black Cats’ defence now had three big fuckers to deal with instead of just two whenever Everton got the ball into the box.

The impact was immediate – on 76 minutes Osman rolled the ball into the feet of Fellaini in space on the edge of the Sunderland penalty area. He spun, took a touch and cracked a low shot through O’Shea’s legs and into the bottom corner before Mignolet even saw it.

It was a goal from absolutely nothing and to compound Sunderland’s frustration a second followed within two minutes. Again Osman pushed a pass into Fellaini who nonchalantly flicked it ‘around the corner’ – again through O’Shea’s legs – and into the path of Jelavic.

One touch, bang, the Croatian cracker is back in business.

To be fair to Sunderland they played pretty well – although not quite as brilliantly as Martin O’Neill stated in his post-match interview – and might have levelled matters during the vinegar strokes of the game when Cuellar got onto a loose ball in the Everton box but smashed his shot against the back of his own player.

Everton introduced Thomas Hitzlsperger for the last five minutes, just to prove that he isn’t some Antony Gardner-type Sasquatch figure, and Der Hammer actually managed a couple of speculative digs from long range. As someone suggested at the time though, he looked like he hit them with the curved part that you use to pull the nails out with and that almost certainly has a proper name used exclusively by real men who know about tools and wood and stuff. Anyway, he fucking missed.

All in all though, a jolly good game. Because we won.

Sunderland And That

We need to be up front here and confess that originally this piece was going to feature a slightly zany joke at the expense of Everton’s ‘raunchy’ new calendar. The setup was something about being surprised that David Moyes got so involved and the punchline would have been a photo of a pale and shirtless ginger chap, preferably looking like one of those that featured on the old Mr Muscle oven cleaner adverts.

Where the whole thing fell down though was finding a photograph. Google images and some quite specific search terms were the order of the day. Oh my, oh dear, oh sweet Lord forgive us all. The things we saw. Things no one should ever see.

Thankfully though, hours of repeatedly watching Taliban beheadings and an old VHS copy of Faces of Death have provided some small measure of catharsis – enough to continue with the rest of this nominal match preview anyway. So here goes…

Let’s leave all the false modesty, not-tempting-fate guff out in the porch here, all the signs point to Sunderland coming to Goodison Park on Saturday and being the recipient of the Uber-knacking that some bleeders or other have got coming from Everton.

Even at the best of times the Black Cats struggle against the Blues, especially when they come to Merseyside. In fact, the last time they won a league game here Paul Bracewell was in their starting line-up. Oh what happy memories we all have of that night, when Michael Bridges came on as a late substitute with the score at 1-1 and veritably skipped through the Everton defence to score two goals. Genuinely, for one of them he utilised a weird, skipping Eddie-Izzard-doing-an-impression-of-someone-running-with-wolves stride to just underline how easy the whole thing was.

Great days.

They also won a League Cup tie on penalties in 1998 but there are only so many times we can rehash the lengthy, oh so lengthy, events of that particular evening. There are grown men who still wake up like Martin Sheen, tangled in their bed linen and sweating under a lazily spinning fan, recalling the stark horrors of the referee miming at Ibrahima Bakayoko for him to take his sweatshirt off before placing the final kick in the Park End seats.

Apart from those games though, generally we murder Sunderland, home and away. In fact, in the past 20 or 30 years you would struggle to find opponents we have beaten more consistently.

Last season they actually came and played well in the FA Cup quarter final, especially in the first half, and definitely thought they had broken the back of the job when the final whistle went to signal a replay at the Stadium of Light. Their fans definitely had one eye on Wembley when Everton rolled up and put on what was widely recognised as their performance of the season. They may end up looking back at that night as a watershed moment in Martin O’Neill’s time in charge, because two weeks later they returned to Goodison in the league, got thrashed 4-0, and have looked pretty desperate ever since.

O’Neill has had a reasonably amount of money to spend since he’s been Sunderland manager, but in all honesty every month that passes sees the further deterioration of a reputation that blossomed the longer he was on his sabbatical from the game. His glory days of winning cups with Leicester City seem a very long time ago while managing Celtic is a job that requires a very particular and exacting skill set that doesn’t necessarily translate directly to the English Premier League. Where at one time he might have been seen as being cut from similar cloth to our very own David Moyes, he is beginning to look more like Kenny Dalglish: a man mystified and frustrated by the fact that all his old tricks just don’t seem to work anymore.

That said, he did ape one of Moyes’s less inspired recent moves by offering a short-term contract to James McFadden. When you hear of these deals it seems as if there must be some secret society (almost inappropriately called it Masonic then) that players and managers are inducted into that obliges them to find ‘work’ for even the most clearly finished of their number.

Poor old McFadden, once a fresh-faced, rat-tailed scamp, now looks as if he’s permanently nursing the sort of exaggerated hangover only ever seen in sitcoms and soap operas whenever his waxy features peer out from the voluminous folds of an oversized Wenger coat on some bench or other. And just to underline the futile nature of his deal with the Black Cats, he did his hamstring almost as soon as the ink was dry on the contract. He’s probably gutted, but it does seem like the ‘real world’ equivalent of shaking hands on a new job at an interview and then immediately sitting back in the chair, lighting up an Embassy Filter and letting rip with a prodigious fart.

‘Anyone fancy a pint?’

Louis Saha is the other former Blue in the Sunderland ranks, and it has not gone unnoticed by anyone that the ‘mercurial’ striker – mercurial being a term that can stand for whatever you like, but more often than not means ‘mostly shit’ – has yet to score for his latest club. We hate to be the perennial footy mythbusters here, but he isn’t actually ‘bound to score’ on Saturday – we would actually wager that players returning to their former clubs are in fact no more likely to slot than in any other game, it’s just that everyone makes a big point of highlighting the ones that occasionally do.

Whether Saha is still actually any good is a mystery, because his appearances have been so sporadic, well, during his whole career, that it’s hard to observe any real trends in his level of performance. Tottenham were happy to let him go though, and he was hardly mourned when he left Goodison, so you have to lean towards the conclusion that his best days are way, way behind him now. It shouldn’t be forgotten though that at times he was absolutely sensational for Everton. In terms of ability combined with athleticism, at his best he was as good as any other striker in the country. Which is why Manchester United paid over £12 million for him back in 2004.

So, when his name is read out on Saturday, rather than dwell on his lacklustre final season or so, when he was roundly berated for being lazy – sometimes fairly, sometimes not – think back to matches like the home one against Chelsea in 2010 when he Vanessa Peroncelled John Terry all over the place and scored both Everton goals in a magnificent 2-1 win.

Granted, you may have to mentally gloss over the fact that first of all the soft twat missed a penalty in that game, but still, you get the gist.

Ooh, ooh, another belting brace comes to mind here as well – the two he scored in the last 10 minutes at West Ham in 2008. Incidentally, the teamsheet for that one shows Leighton Baines only started on the bench, replacing Victor Anichebe for the final five minutes. How times change.

Baines has established himself as an England regular now, and is joined in the latest squad to face Sweden next week by none other than Leon Osman. Salem’s Lot Shelvey’s in as well like, just to put the game into some context, but you can’t help but feel pleased that Osman is getting some sort of recognition for his talents. He’s not soft, he will see it as a bit of a novelty and a nice day out for the family, and who would deny him that?

Actually, we don’t know him or what goes through his head, so he might think this is it, he’s cracked it and finally demand a transfer request to a club who can meet his ambition to play in the Champions League every season. It’s quite cool that ‘every season’ had to be tacked on the end there seeing as it remains at least a possibility that he could actually do that with Everton in 2012/13 at least.

Another product of the Everton youth system experiencing slightly different emotions to Osman at the moment is former striker Michael Branch.  The one-time wonderkid has been sentenced this week to seven years inside for drug dealing. Dead smart.

For fellas who spend their formative years in professional football, where they become used to great money for very little graft, perhaps it is unsurprising that narcotics seems to be an increasingly popular line of work – they can continue to be the envy of all their mates, right up until the moment they get caught.

Speaking of that sort of caper, you often read in the papers or hear on the news about ‘drug deals gone bad’. They never talk about all the other ones though; the good ones that are really amicable and take place without the slightest hitch.

It’s just lazy journalism.