I spent the last week watching Everton try to squeak out matches by the thinnest of margins. Everton’s brand of football has nearly become dire to watch, and the situation brought itself to a head in today’s 1-2 home loss against bottom Bolton. These problems have been brewing for the past 12 months, and there may be no end in sight.
Thus far, the problem has been partly masked in the table by a relatively strong defensive showing. Up until today they have taken 3 points in almost all of their matches against weaker sides. The sides they have beaten look like a who’s who of the bottom feeders, while every side in the top 8 besides riot-denied Tottenham has beaten the Toffees. They sit mid-table, scoring anemically along the way. This dry river of goals was typified in today’s loss at Goodison, where their lone goal was freakishly scored by Tim Howard from distance with a gale gust at his back. Owen Coyle picked a wicked day to give Adam Bogdan a start, and Howard looked dismayed at earning a place in club scoring history, given Bogdan’s unenviable position.
But Everton ended up as the ones with egg on their face after failing to generate attack for much of the second half. They truly looked like a lifeless bunch in this match. The return match for Landon Donovan became the definitive display for their inefficiency in the final third.
If you want to see a common thread to this goal drought, look no further than manager David Moyes’ first choice attackers Louis Saha and Tim Cahill.
– Saha once was a solid striker for Fulham, and had moderate success at Manchester United. He has given Everton some finishing touch up front in recent years. Now at 33 years of age, Saha doesn’t seem to have the speed or flair he once exhibited.
– Cahill, now 32, was a beast in the air for many years. The Australian internations always found ways to wreak havoc in the opponent’s area. But 2011 was a goalless year for Cahill at the club, and there hasn’t been a real sign of him getting back into the swing of things. As far as his aerial prowess, here are his statistics for aerials won per game over the last three years:
Are Cahill and Saha beginning to experience age-related decline in their abilities? If that’s the case, it would be tough to expect them to get back to a similar level of output as in past years. That could spell trouble down the road for the Toffees.
It seems that Moyes may be trying to find another role for Cahill, but to little effect in my opinion. In both their 0-1 late victory over West Bromwich and today’s match, Cahill found himself as more of a holding central midfielder position. Cahill’s ability to be a target forward and attacking aerial specialist (one of his past attributes as a CAM) is greatly diminished as he is asked to fall back into the midfield. Another aspect of dropping into a deeper role is distribution, something that Cahill has never been great at doing. Cahill has ranked 14th on the team the last three seasons in pass success percentage, averaging around 74% completed (thanks to Who Scored). Going from a guy like Mikel Arteta, who led the team with about 86% passing success) to Cahill in central midfield is a huge drop off.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this is the loyalty that David Moyes has shown to Saha and Cahill. One or the other (or both) has started every match since October 23rd against Fulham where they scored three times. Since that match, they have scored two goals only twice, and one of those was on a Leighton Baines penalty. Their highest scoring forward, Apostolos Vellios (3 goals), hasn’t started in a month. And today’s result has given goalkeeper Tim Howard as many goals this season as Saha and Cahill combined.
Should Moyes begin to shuffle the deck? One issue is, who? They have young options up front in Vellios, Conor McAleny, and Victor Anichebe, but they are largely unproven. Denis Stracqualursi is on loan from Argentina’s Tigre, and who knows if Everton could afford to purchase him from the South American club. Ross Barkley looks like a solid up-and-coming attacking midfielder, who might be a good replacement for Cahill long-term, but again is an unknown commodity. And of course, Donovan could be an option up front for two months, but in today’s match he played as a winger who cut inside, which was his typical role in his 2009-10 loan stint.
That could be the reason Moyes has decided to go with a more defensive 4-4-1-1. Recently he has played backs Phil Neville and Johnny Heitinga as defensive midfielders. This definitely has helped them to secure the back end. In today’s match however, Phil Jagielka was injured and Heitinga had to move to center back. That is a drop-off defensively for Everton, and the team struggled to keep the game scoreless. They managed as Jack Rodwell was in that holding midfield role after Jagielka went off. But Rodwell also got injured, and the Toffees crumbled defensively with Cahill in that position. The lesson may be that Everton can succeed as long as their defense remains healthy, because their depth at the back isn’t great.
The situation is unfortunate for Everton. The club needs a new stadium and financial backing in order to right the ship, and with the core players (Neville, Saha, Cahill) beginning to get on in years, David Moyes needs to find that new blood to help the club contend for European football again. The biggest question is whether he will have the resources to meet those needs. In effect, that may be the reason for Moyes playing such a defensive formation, because he knows that his attacking options are limited. With as thin as they are on defense, the club must hope for continued health, otherwise their scoring doldrums could cost them dearly.