On August 15th 2009, Everton faced Arsenal on a sun drenched, season opener and lost 6-1. Joleon Lescott pulled on a royal blue shirt that afternoon despite reinforcing his desire to leave Goodison Park and angering manager David Moyes. The team were without influential performers such as Phil Jagielka and Mikel Arteta and looked to be careering dangerously towards a long, hard season. How times change. Five months later, Everton are sitting pretty in eighth place and within touching distance of a second successive Europa League campaign.
Since that opening day shambles, Toffees have beaten Chelsea, drawn at Arsenal and more recently this weekend battled to a 3-1 victory at home to Manchester United. Moyes’s men suffered a shaky start and conceded early as Dimitar Berbatov poked home on the turn from 8 yards out, after a bullet of a low cross from Antonio Valencia. The goal served as a wake up call for the home side as Diniyar Bilyaletdinov thumped home from 20 yards into the bottom right hand corner just three minutes later. The Russian international took advantage of a poor headed clearance from Johnny Evans to score his fifth goal of the season.
As the second half commenced, Everton’s Phil Neville was assured defensively and Bilyaletdinov and Landon Donovan were majestic in their offensive play and passing. United began to struggle to find avenues to explore as their Merseyside opponents snuffed out crosses and denied any entry into their 18 yard box. The introduction of fresh youngsters Dan Gosling and Jack Rodwell provided a cutting edge Everton needed. This was a stroke of genius from Moyes as his substitutions changed the game. Stephen Pienaar and Donovan linked up tidily on the left side as if they’d played together all of their career, and Pienaar’s angled cross found Gosling who bundled in from 8 yards out to deservedly give his side a 2-1 advantage. In the dying minutes, 19 year old Rodwell took the ball from the halfway line, cantered past Evans whilst heading away from goal, and calmly fired the ball from his laces low into the bottom left of the goal. Moyes’s side are so often dismantled by injuries and star players Marouane Fellaini and Tim Cahill were unfit this weekend, ironically leaving places for two youngsters in Rodwell and Gosling to steal the show.
Moyes has crafted a squad beautifully, with academy players such as Leon Osman and more recently Gosling and Rodwell blending into the first team seamlessly. Pienaar, Bilyaletdinov and Fellaini were relative unknowns before joining from the German, Belgian and Russian leagues and transforming into irreplaceable talismen. The Scot, Moyes, also has Neville in the form of his career at the age of 33. The ex England man grafts hard ironing out any errors in defence and is a reliable figure who is good in the air.
Former Preston North End manager Moyes has to be celebrated for the way he was managed his squad with limited money and limited resources. This season and last term, Tim Cahill and Marouane Fellaini have played as makeshift strikers due to crippling, long term injuries to James Vaughan, Yakubu and Louis Saha. Cahill and Fellaini gave a decent return for midfielders masquerading as forwards and scored 16 goals between them last season. Australian international Cahill is truly deadly from set pieces, with his cunning runs and unbelievable spring and heading power for a man under 6 foot. Fellaini has gained a reputation as a hard tackler and an adroit runner with the ball. He too is a danger from set pieces. The loss of loanee Donovan to his parent club LA Galaxy will be a blow to the Blue half of Merseyside but Mikel Arteta is playing his way back to full fitness at the moment.
You talk about Wenger, Ancelotti, Benitez and Ferguson as esteemed managers, but the flame haired Everton boss deserves his recognition too. A top four finish, European football, an FA Cup Final and exciting youngsters have all been brought to Everton by Moyes. Let us not forget it was Moyes who unleashed Wayne Rooney onto the footballing world, when he shocked Everton’s recent 6-1 conquerors Arsenal with a curling beauty from outside the box. Rooney may have gone onto bigger and better things but had the face of a well beaten man when he shook his former mentor’s hand at the end of 90 minutes last weekend.