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My introduction to blogging…

This is the post excerpt.

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A life-long Evertonian, keen fisherman and nature lover, I’ve spent my working career in the automotive industry with over 30 years associated with Mercedes-Benz in the UK before working abroad in Sudan and Ghana.

My passion is sport and for over twenty years, as a hobby that turned into a job, I was heavily involved in professional ice hockey – a sport that afforded me the chance to write, broadcast on the BBC, travel and meet many sporting heroes and legends.

Football and Everton have always been number one and these days, I contribute match reports and occasional feature articles to the biggest independent Everton fan website at http://www.grandoldteam.com

I am also a keen environmentalist, Greenpeace supporter and Green Party member – in my opinion, it’s high time everyone – governments, businesses and the general public – thought more about the damage we’ve done and continue to do to the planet and its wildlife.

This, my first attempt at a blog, will therefore contain my thoughts on a variety of subjects (probably most about Everton) that I hope will be both readable and entertaining.

They’ll be purely my views on things that interest and concern me, thanks for reading.

Andy

Recruiting strategy is key…

Marcel Brands.jpg

For almost the entire season and especially since the Anfield derby the form of Everton has, at best, been patchy and at worst downright embarrassingly awful, and this has led to an increasing number of questions over the capabilities of the manager Marco Silva.

Now this article hasn’t been written with the outright intention of adding further fuel to the fires of discontent that burn in certain quarters and are reaching wildfire proportions in others in wanting to see Silva ousted, it’s an offering of how the appointment of key staff like a head coach or manager could/should be handled.

A little over two years ago, during the ill-fated Koeman/Walsh era, I published a couple of articles related to player recruiting, and somewhat ironically, Steve Walsh wrote in similar vein barely a couple of weeks later. With the benefit of hindsight and somewhat tongue in cheek on my behalf, perhaps he might have been well advised to read those articles and put the principles into practise, rather than Koeman and he adopting a scattergun, ‘look at the size of our owners chequebook’ approach to their player purchasing.

Now though, lets return to the present and a situation that may befall Marcel Brands if results and performances don’t improve between the resumption of play at Cardiff a week on Tuesday and the end of the season.

Opinion is split between whether we stick with Marco Silva and give him time to work with the players for the rest of this season and through the summer into next season or… if the worryingly similar trends of his time at Hull, Watford and to date with Everton cannot be rectified quickly, whether to end his tenure and start again?

Nobody wants Everton to be a club associated with constantly changing managers, knee-jerk reactions and having a distinct lack of patience, but modern day Premier League football is very much a results business. And if the results aren’t forthcoming, and for many Evertonians there needs to be a quality performance as well as three points, then changes are almost inevitably going to occur.

MB2

For the Director of Football then, there needs to be a strategy, a process by which suitable head coach/manager candidates are identified, researched and vetted before we actually get down to the serious business of offering a contract.

In both theory and practise it’s a relatively simple process. Football is a global game, and as such it’s probably asking too much of any individual to have his finger on the pulse of every market from where a new head coach or manager could be sought.

Marcel Brands will no doubt have built up, over a number of years, a considerable ‘black book’ database of contacts around the world, and it’s these contacts who you turn to on two fronts. Firstly to suggest that a position may be or is coming available for prospective candidates and secondly to hone in on people already known about.

When names are offered or clearly identified, then the most diligent and thorough research must be undertaken. No stone should be left ignored or unturned. Everything needs to be explored and thoroughly dissected. Every aspect of a candidates history in and out of the game should be considered. You talk to the candidates, and not just once or twice, but several times and at odd times of the day to see how they react and handle themselves.

References must be taken and very importantly, not just those offered by the candidate, because they’re nailed on to speak glowingly… nobody offers a reference who would badmouth them would they?

So you go about finding your own references and not just one or two, but as many as possible. Players who have played for them, coaches who have worked with them and coached against them, and importantly other Directors of Football or club General Managers who have worked with them previously.

It’s an exhaustive process and not one to be undertaken hastily or lightly. And it can be and perhaps should be a constant process. Nobody knows when a change may be needed and to suddenly and quickly have to make a key change without having such a procedure in place can prove dangerous and, in this day and age extremely expensive if it goes pear-shaped.

In much the same way as good managers and Directors of Football have a scouting system for players, there should, to my mind, be exactly the same research and scouting system for coaches and potential managers.

Football is way too expensive and dangerous a business these days to make hasty appointments of the flavour of the day, the first out of work name that springs to mind, or to leave things to chance and hope for the best.

If we were to be in any way critical of where Everton are at present, we could suggest that the appointment of Ronald Koeman was made largely on his undoubtedly stellar playing career in Holland and Spain and for the Dutch national team. His previous managerial stints particularly with PSV Eindhoven, Valencia, AZ Alkmaar, Feyenoord and Southampton were at best functional.

The appointment of Sam Allardyce in the wake of Koemans’ demise was a safety-first, guarantee us Premier League survival move and whilst Allardyce achieved what was asked of him, he did so with a total lack of ambition to do more, lack of charm, disregard for the supporters, lack of grace and an appalling style of football completely alien to the traditions of Everton Football Club. Twelve months on, his tenure as manager of Everton remains regarded as an indelible stain on our history.

And that brings us to the current manager Marco Silva, who came with a reputation for improving players technically, an important factor if the focus for the long term is on youth. After a reasonable start and fledgling signs of a style Evertonians could get on board with, the wheels have somewhat come off the wagon, and he will surely accept that there needs to be a dramatic upturn in what remains of this season.

Whether we make another change rests, I’d suggest, not only on the results but also on the nature of the performances between now and the end of the season.

My hope therefore is that Marcel Brands has a head coach/managerial appointment strategy similar to that I’ve suggested… because we can’t afford to get it wrong again.

For those interested, here are the links to the articles I published just over two years ago…

https://www.grandoldteam.com/2017/01/29/recruiting-need-character/

https://www.grandoldteam.com/2017/02/02/building-a-squad

Match Report – Everton vs Manchester City…

Valiant effort by the Blues, but City take the points.​

Everton 0-2 Manchester City

Goals from Laporte and Jesus in added on time at the end of each half saw City take three points from Goodison on Wednesday night but oh boy, did Everton make them work for them.

Going into this Wednesday night clash of the northwest Blues, Everton were licking their wounds after a desperately disappointing loss to Wolves last Saturday while City had bounced back from a rare defeat to Newcastle by comprehensively beating Arsenal on Sunday

Marco Silva, under pressure from many Evertonians, went into the game looking for a dramatic improvement from his team and in his pre-game media gathering, defending his use of younger players. “We took a decision to make some young players part of our squad at the start of the season, a decision we took as a club.”

Addressing the pressure on himself personally Silva noted calmly, “when you are winning games the things people say it is good. When you are not [winning], this type of situation is normal. It is nothing new in our club, but it is about the now.”

With Lucas Digne available again after serving a one game suspension and a shoe-in for selection, Silva still had selection issues in midfield where Idrissa Gana Gueye was expected to return.

The Everton team sheet was submitted reading: Pickford, Digne, Zouma, Keane, Kenny, Gana Gueye, Gomes, Davies (c), Walcott, Bernard and Calvert-Lewin.

The reigning champions arrived at Goodison looking for a victory to leapfrog them back into pole position in the race for the Premier League title and with a galaxy of stars for Pep Guardiola to choose from.

City won here 3-1 last season, but Guardiola needed no reminding that his first game at the Grand Old Lady saw Everton thrash him and City 4-0. But this City team are even stronger this season than they were last in lifting the title.

Guardiola was suitably focussed when he spoke ahead of the game, “Goodison Park is always a tough game for us, but the approach is the same – going there to try to win the game and of course, we have the chance to go top.”

City duly named their starting eleven: Ederson, Walker, Stones, Otamendi, Laporte, Fernandinho, Gundogan, Silva (c), Sane, Bernardo and Aguero.

On a cool, breezy evening, Craig Pawson was our referee for a game massively important to both clubs.

A good competitive first half saw City have more possession, but Everton match them every inch of the way effort until right on the break, the defensive frailty that has blighted the Blues all season struck again.

A decent start by the Blues saw DCL intercept and get away from Laporte to cross only for the ref to blow for a foul in the area. City countered to win a corner on the right that was only part cleared to Sane who controlled and drilled a low shot just wide.

City were settling into their passing game, but Everton were closing down well in midfield and not giving them the kind of time on the ball the visitors like to enjoy.

Some good defensive work from Kenny and Keane saw them snuff out a threat from Aguero. A quick header forward then by Aguero set Sane going in a foot race with Keane and despite a bit of a miskick , the Everton defender prevailed to work the ball clear.

Bernardo was next to try and open Everton up with a ball from right to left for Sane but Zouma was quick to get to his cut back cross and clear at the expense of a corner, which Gundogan fired to the back post where Laporte climbed for a free header that went wide.

Fernandinho found Sane again in space and his quick pass to Silva saw his quick cross find Gundogan, but his close range shot came back off the crossbar.

Everton having got through the opening twenty minutes then began to press forward themselves with DCL and Kenny combining to get the ball into the area for Walcott, but Stones was able to head clear. A fine tackle by Gomes won possession back as City tried to break out and he fed Davies whose first touch sadly let him down.

Evertons’ best move saw Kenny and Davies combine to find Walcott for a cross that was met by the head of Bernard, Ederson tipping his effort away for a corner.

Digne from the left found DCL and a nice turn saw him get away from Stones and cross for Davies with City happy to concede another corner.

Sane with a quick breaks as the Blues defence in a bit of a scramble but they didn’t panic and got the ball clear. But with one added minute signalled, a rash tackle by Gana Gueye on Fernandinho on the right gave City a free kick that Silva floated to the back post where Laporte climbed again the plant a firm header back across goal and beyond Pickford.

It was tough on Everton who had far from disgraced themselves in an entertaining first half.

Half Time: 0-1

An early cross field ball from Gana Gueye saw Laporte clatter into Walcott, both players needing attention while the Bullens Road fans howled for a yellow card for the City player. From the free kick, Everton won a corner that was cleared out to Gana Gueye to hit a powerful 25-yard shot straight at Ederson.

Evertons’ next attack saw Fernandinho somewhat agriculturally take down Davies with no yellow card from referee Pawson, Digne hitting the wall with the free kick.

City really should have increased their lead in the 58th minute as a Bernardo cross came out to Walker whose shot bounced up nicely for Aguero but his put his bicycle kick wide. City made their first change bring Sterling on for Sane while Everton took the goal kick.

Stones over elaborating played a poor ball across his own area that Walcott got to but his cross was poor and City survived. Davies again turned to get away from Fernandinho who again took him out and again, no yellow card.

Everton swapped Gylfi Sigurdsson for Andre Gomes on 63 minutes.

City got forward through Sterling and the Blues defence worked overtime to block shots from Sterling and Silva to eventually clear only for City to come again with Gundogan finding Silva with Tom Davies making an excellent block to clear the threat.

On 72 minutes, referee Pawson finally showed Fernandinho a yellow card for a foul on Gana Gueye and Everton withdrew Bernsrd in favour of Richarlison.

Everton were battling for every ball and not giving City any time on the ball with excellent showings from Kenny and Davies, the enthusiasm of youth shining through.

Changes on 78 minutes saw Jesus replace Aguero and Cenk Tosun replace Theo Walcott.

A quick ball out from Pickford saw Richarlison beat Walker and send the ball towards Tosun, but Ederson was very quick off his line to gather and deny the Turk a shooting opportunity.

A high, hopeful ball into the City saw Ederson gather as Tosun and Otamendi collided, both needing some brief attention.

City made their final chance on 88 minutes, de Bruyne replacing David Silva.

Many of the 39,000 plus crowd were surprised when seven added minutes were signalled before a quick break by Tosun to feed Richarlison saw his cross deflected nicely for Ederson to gather.

And cruelly, City wrapped up the victory in the dying seconds as a ball into the box saw Jesus loop a header over Pickford to settle into the corner of the Park End goal.

City may well go on to successfully defend their title, but Everton made them work for their victory and will take a lot of heart from their own performance against arguably the best side in the country and possibly Europe.

Full Time: 0-2

Everton, we need direction and some answers…

Directionless

Everton, bereft of leadership, concentration and a coherent gameplan yet again, were comfortably beaten for the sixth time in nine Premier League games as the malaise that has flatlined their season deepened. The spotlight will inevitably fall on a manager who appears powerless to react to the slump or galvanise his team but players who are going through the motions at Goodison shoulder responsibility too. They have become the epitome of a nothing team.

The above statement was penned, perfectly in my opinion, by Andy Hunter in his report in the Guardian on the defeat by Wolves at Goodison on Saturday.

In just 74 words, he has encapsulated the feelings of so, so many Evertonians, growing increasingly fed up with our once proud football club continuing to disappoint with alarmingly regularity. And those final nine words read like a gravestone epitaph.

Being an Evertonian in recent years has been far from easy. The club has stumbled through four managers in the past five seasons and is again, disturbingly and worryingly at a crossroads. What direction are we going in and do we stick with Marco Silva or make another managerial change?

Saturday’s loss to Wolves appeared – to me from my seat in the Main Stand – to be the game that might just have broken the resolve of many Blues. With twenty minutes still to play, huge numbers of fans headed for the exit disillusioned by what they were watching, a team playing with no apparent plan, no pace and defending uncomfortably again from set pieces.

The post-match radio phone-ins were almost unanimously critical of the manager and the way he sends the team out to play, without pace and almost suicidal defending with poorly executed zonal marking.

Contrast that aspect alone with the way Wolves employed it. Whenever we got the chance to throw a corner or free kick into their penalty area, their back five and in particular the three centre backs knew exactly where they should be and what they were doing individually and collectively.

Their second goal served to highlight the difference between well-coached and executed zonal marking and the mess that has been set piece defending this season by Everton. Moutinho chipped a simple free kick into the space for a forward to run onto and Raul Jimenez duly obliged, escaping the attention of Coleman and Richarlison while the rest of the Blues defence were, not for the first time this season, blind to the threat, static and unable to prevent the goal.

I seem to recall from my long, distant schooldays, defenders being instructed, ‘be first to the ball.’

Wolves went into the game with a clear plan and evidently with all their players fully on board and confident in their ability to execute said plan. Wolves were efficient without being spectacular, played with belief and at pace and always looked threatening on the break.

Everton for all their possession, 64%, didn’t appear to have a plan. Gomes worked hard and scored a stunning goal to bring the Blues level, but was rather fortunate not to see a second yellow moments later with an unseen, by referee Mason, foul on Jota.

But too many other players went missing in action. What has happened to Theo Walcott and Gylfi Sigurdsson? Richarlison was largely a spectator and we simply cannot carry passengers any longer.

A huge question that needs to be asked and answered is this – who on the Everton medical and coaching staff approved the selection of Leighton Baines? We all know Lucas Digne was unavailable due to his one game suspension, but picking a patently obviously less than 100% match fit Baines was, quite frankly, a ridiculous decision.

The player will almost always ‘pass’ themselves fit to play, they naturally want to play as much and as often as they can, and with Digne unavailable, Baines probably felt ‘obliged’ to declare himself fit to play.

But following the way he left the game at Huddersfield on Tuesday, grimacing in pain, surely the manager and his medical staff need to be asked some searching questions. Baines lasted 36 minutes during which time he conceded the penalty for the opening goal and looked increasingly uncomfortable until finally indicating the need to come off.

How on earth could one of the manager, his coaching staff and the club medical staff not have foreseen this likelihood?

How often do we hear the phrase, ‘Play your strongest side’? You don’t need the benefit of hindsight on this occasion to know that Jonjoe Kenny should have started yesterday with Baines, at best, on the bench.

Looking ahead, our next five home games see us take on Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.

What’s the betting we hear someone use the often quoted, sound-bite, one-liner, “the players will raise their game for these ‘big’ games”?

My questions are… Why do they have to raise their game? Shouldn’t they be playing at their highest effort level every game? Shouldn’t they take every opposition as seriously as the likes of City and Liverpool?

Will City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and United ‘raise’ their game to play Everton – No. And the reason why… because they play at the ‘raised’ level every game.

Did Wolves raise their game on Saturday – No, they didn’t. They had a firm and well drilled game plan and executed it almost flawlessly.

Let’s assume for a moment that any of those next five home game opponents do have an off day, they all have managers capable of getting or making their players ‘raise’ their game – be honest do we? Andy Hunter suggests in those 74 words that we don’t, and there are thousands of Evertonians who will all too readily agree.

Guardiola, Klopp, Sarri, Emery, and even Solskjaer to a lesser degree than the others, have all shown they have what it takes to instil a belief into and extract a greater effort from their players. I venture the opinion that sadly, Marco Silva does not have this skill set… yet.

And if he hasn’t got that skill set yet, how long is it going to take for him to acquire and exercise it and more importantly, can Everton afford to wait that long?

Sadly Marco Silva seems to be demonstrating he is a man incapable of changing set ideas. All his teams in England – Hull, Watford and Everton – all have or do play zonal marking and all leaked goals from set pieces. Lots of goals. Regular goals. This is a man who does not (or worse will not/cannot) learn from his mistakes… Stubborn.

It’s like being at the fairground and the same rides come round again!

There is a nicely argued article on http://www.GrandOldTeam.com – saying if you don’t give a manager/coach time then you are forever in transition from one set of ideas to another. Very fair comment, and in the interest of balance so that everyone can make up their own mind, here’s the link to it… https://www.grandoldteam.com/2019/02/02/the-silva-debate/

But the harsh, stark reality of Saturday was Wolves brushed us aside, not by playing dazzling unanswerable football, just by employing a well thought-out, well executed game plan.

I and so many other Blues cannot see ours. I and so many other Blues cannot (yet) see his philosophy. But, if this – what we’re watching – is the level he thinks is good – then there’s the door son. All the best, and take your coaching and medical staff with you.

And as a final sobering thought for everyone reading… just how many wins and points do you honestly expect this Everton to earn at Goodison from City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and United?

Don’t Go Breaking Blue Hearts…

yinmh

In 49 years of watching Everton, I’ve seen some wonderful footballers play some magical football, the Holy Trinity, Latchford and Thomas, the Kendall mid-80s’ sides and the occasional flirtation with success of the ‘punching above our weight’ teams under Moyes.

Along the way there’s been trophies and despair, but in hugely uneven proportions the wrong way. Too many times we’ve been the bridesmaid when being the bride was within reach – 2009 FA Cup Final and the 2016 League Cup and FA Cup semi-finals to name just three.

But that was history and we have to deal with the ‘now.’

Up until the mind-boggling added-on time defeat at Anfield, there were some reasonable signs of improvement emerging, albeit slowly. But given the depths of anguish under Koeman and Allardyce we were seeking to break free of, Evertonians well used to needing patience in bucket loads, were sensing daylight at the end of a very long, dark tunnel.

Since that derby loss though, the despair has returned as the signs of improvement have all but disappeared. The green shoots of recovery have either died or gone back into hibernation awaiting sunnier days.

We’d begun to play some attractive, attacking football. We’d begun to look like a team, something we haven’t done, dare I suggest since season one under Martinez. We’d begun to play some footie with a swagger, a style was emerging and hopes were raised, maybe prematurely, that a corner was being turned.

Almost all of that pre-December optimism has disappeared, evaporated into the ether and Everton Football Club needs to fathom out precisely why, and furthermore implement strategies and policies that will prevent it ever happening again.

Is it the players, is it the coaching, is it the manager, is it the board of directors, even is it the supporters? We all have opinions, some much stronger than others as to what the hell has and appears still to be going wrong.

Boxing Day at Burnley was a most welcome Yuletide gift, but we didn’t build upon it. Was the somewhat fortunate win over Bournemouth a new dawn? We earnestly hoped so but after a quite shocking and supine defeat at Southampton, the rather overwhelming thought now is that we aim for the mythical forty point survival mark and then take a deep breath of relief.

Farhad Moshiri joined the club and has invested heavily. Bank debt was resolved, Goodison got a facelift, ambitious plans for a new stadium at Bramley Moore Dock were launched and the transfer business went into overdrive.

Almost three years have elapsed since Moshiri arrived, but for the rank and file supporter, little appears to have changed for the absolute better where we can see the evidence – on the field of play.

Borrowing a catchphrase from National Rail about problems on the trains, we need to ‘See it, Say it, and Sort it.’

Moshiri upon listening to and reading the match reports from St.Marys’ might find himself thinking, “Do I need this?” But then, if you’re a billionaire, I guess you also think, “I have (some) responsibility for this…”

Let’s cut to the chase… it needs saying… Moshiri probably needs to be wondering whether Marco Silva is the right man for the job, or organising and getting the best from a group of young men? Moshiri might need to be calling a meeting with his newly appointed Main Board Director of Football Marcel Brands to ask, “Marcel, what do you think right now?”

What such a conversation might need to also address is… is this manager ever taking this club into serious European competition?

He can be given all the statutory soundbite statements – support, patience, adjustment period blah, blah, blah but beyond his bent to attack, which is admirable, where’s the philosophical steel that players can cling to when things go wrong? And as many are posing in lots of other forums, if there was a plan A yesterday there certainly wasn’t a plan B.

Whether that conversation takes place and what might be said, is all a matter of pure conjecture. And as we’re still carrying financial responsibilities for previous managers and coaching staff, it’s probably reasonable to suggest that Marco Silvas’ position is safe… for now.

So let’s look at other issues…

Not for the first time this season, at Southampton our team were beaten, simply and pretty straight forwardly by another ordinary team – because that’s what we are at present – who simply wanted it more.

Southampton came into the game off the back of an exit from the FA Cup last week that went to extra time and penalties. Shouldn’t they have been both mentally and physically tired, well if they were they gave a pretty fair imitation of not being. They were hungrier for the ball, quicker to the ball, stronger on the ball and they played to their strengths, as individuals and as a team.

Their manager put together a game plan based on quick counter attacking and occasional Route One football, and his team clearly understood and adopted the plan successfully… and Everton failed to see it and consequently had no idea how to adjust to nullify the hosts.

In contrast, it was hard trying to figure out exactly what our game plan was other than to dominate the possession. Sure we did that but in so doing, failed miserably to register one shot on target in the first half and only two in the second half.

Playing Richarlison as a lone striker just doesn’t suit the boy, lumping balls out of defence for him to try and win in the air was and is futile. Gylfi Sigurdsson saw the game pass him by for long, long periods, he’s got skills of that there’s little doubt, but does he have it within him to take a game by the scruff of the neck and run it… the jury is out.

The adoption of zonal marking continues to astound and confuse many fans and seemingly one or more of the players too.

Andre Gomes has gone from looking breath-taking in November to looking lost in January, and his early substitution didn’t appear to come as any surprise to him. Collectively, Everton were second best all over the field, with the possible exception of Jordan Pickford and on loan Kurt Zouma.

We played with no great pace, too often – as in recent seasons – players looked for the safety first pass, more in a ‘get rid’ way of playing rather than a way of trying to hurt the opposition.

If we’re not going to do any January transfer business as appears likely, surely we need to stick DCL up front for the rest of the season with the service to him from Richarlison wide left, Lookman wide right and Sigurdsson from midfield?

There’s no real need to go much further with a hatchet job on the performance at Southampton, we’ve all seen pretty much the same traits since the beginning of December. We’ve lost that sense of confidence, swagger and style that was slowly emerging and we’ve scuttled back into our shells, hoping the next error or goal conceded can’t be blamed on me.

There’s another question that also needs to be asked and answered… about leadership. Right now, we just don’t seem to have a natural leader on the team. We’ve had no fewer than five starting captains this season but I still cannot see a player who all the rest can and will readily turn to for direction, guidance and inspiration. Moreover, who in this current squad can we honestly point to and say, ‘he cares as much as we do.’

I’ve only ever been a fan and being honest, it’s been a few years since I went traipsing all over the country to cheer the Blues on, these days my season ticket in the Main Stand is my footie fix, but I admire and respect the stoic steadfastness of the fans who do still make the every week effort to follow the Blues.

What I know for absolute certainty though is that a fan lays his or her heart on the line every single time the team comes out to play, the roar that greets the players merely serves to confirm that.

We all know we can’t win every game and if we played Barcelona tomorrow, we’d expect to get beat, but equally, we’d expect our team to play to the best of their ability.

When that simply doesn’t happen and on a hideously regular basis, a fans heart breaks.

Back in 1976, Elton John wrote the following lyrics, and they describe perfectly the relationship between football fans and the club they support… “Right from the start, I give you my heart, Oh… oh I give you my heart, So don’t go breaking my heart…”

It seems in this day and age, that doesn’t count for diddley-squat.

And as a final thought we perhaps and albeit reluctantly have to accept, that clearly Guardiola and Klopp are the best and most recognisable examples that it is possible to take and mould a bunch of strangers into a functioning, proud unit.

Right now, this Everton squad are neither functioning nor proud.

Zonal Marking, a blight on the Blues?

This might seem something of an over reaction to recent results, but the wheels are dangerously loose if not quite coming off for Marco Silva’s Everton. The reason I propose is the adoption of a system that hitherto has been largely unsuccessful in the UK, namely Zonal Marking.

Before we get into this divisive and often ditched defensive formation, let’s first just throw some conjecture at why Marco Silva was pursued so strongly by Everton and in particular major shareholder Farhad Moshiri in the wake of the dismissal of Ronald Koeman.

Silva doesn’t have a trophy laden CV like a Mourinho, Guardiola or even a Benitez, nor did he have a proven record or reputation in a level of football as high as the English Premier League. So what was it that Moshiri found so attractive?

Well, Silva does like his teams to play attacking football, and there have been times this season when Everton have played really good looking football… just not for a solid ninety minutes, totally taking a game by the scruff of the neck and dominating it start to finish.

The 0-0 at Chelsea was good, the game at Anfield proved why we were right to be optimistic because we gave them a game, a real game, and held our own till… but that single moment has shattered the belief, the bubble, and we are watching the air escape right now. Silva tends to make the majority of his substitutions offensive only occasionally putting caution first to protect a lead or maintain equilibrium for a draw.

So, rightly or wrongly, this leads to the conclusion that Moshiri likes maybe prefers an attacking, offensive approach to football, and to some degree even a somewhat cavalier outlook. Silva certainly favours attack over defence and this is sadly borne out by the alarming rate at which Everton have been shipping goals in recent weeks, indeed all season.

Silva’s philosophy of attacking football is therefore the element Moshiri wanted to bring to Everton, and we should celebrate that. However, a team must be balanced to believe in itself, and its managers philosophy and without a solid defence (which we obviously do not have) the castle cannot stand.

In Jordan Pickford, we have Englands’ first choice goalkeeper, in Lucas Digne a massively impressive new left back, three centre backs in the improved Michael Keane, on loan Kurt Zouma and Columbian Yerry Mina, and the RoI international captain at right back.

Yet somehow these six or any combination of them seem unable to stem the flow of goals into our net. Why – Zonal Marking, the system Marco Silva advocates and that patently isn’t working.

And it’s not just against the teams in the Premier League, because only this weekend in the FA Cup, Lincoln City gave a clear indication and abject lesson that any opposing manager with half a brain cell can figure out how to play against and capitalise upon a system that breaks down far too often if not properly implemented. Let me stress at this point, I’m not suggesting Danny Cowley only has half a brain cell, just that he only needed half a brain cell to figure how to counter Everton’s zonal marking deficiencies.

Look at their goal… a free kick forty yards out, wide left. Where were the big Lincoln players? Not in the middle where you’d be forgiven for expecting it to be where the ball would be delivered. No, they had guys towards the near post, others on the back post and the rest loitering with deadly intent centrally, but three or four yards further behind waiting to pounce.

The free kick was sent towards the back post – beyond Zouma where Shackell easily got above Baines to power in the header. Pickford did well to beat it out, but with Zouma and Mina marking a mythical zone, Bostwick was able to steam in from that slightly deeper attacking position to pounce and score. Once again, and not for the first, second, third, fourth or even fifth time this season, Everton had conceded from a set piece, and the reaction of Pickford spoke volumes.

Later in the game with Lincoln defending well against an Everton attack that largely misfired after the opening quarter of an hour, and looking to push forward for an equaliser that might earn a replay, Cowley sent on 34-year old Matt Rhead. The former Mansfield striker looked like he was carrying a few extra pounds following the festive period, but he knows a thing or two about causing defenders problems.

So when Lincoln won a couple of late corners and free kicks, you’d fully expect the Everton defence to assign either Mina or Zouma to mark the veteran forward, but oh no, we again saw the set pieces swung over and Rhead being marked by either Baines or Kenny… Mina and Zouma were busy (?) elsewhere marking zones… tantamount to footballing suicide.

Okay, enough of analysing a few plays from just one game, we need to look at the root cause of our defensive frailties and it’s this crazy idea that marking zones will prevent the opposition scoring.
Zonal marking has many advocates however, it can only work and does only work, if all the players and the goalkeeper are:
a. perfectly drilled in how to perform the system
b. fully understanding of the job they’re supposed to be doing
c. fully confident of the system they’re playing, and
d. fully capable of adjusting to counter the way the opposition sets up to overcome zonal marking.

Everton under Howard Kendall, in the 1980’s glory period, employed a form of zonal marking with Stevens, Mountfield, Ratcliffe, Watson and van den Hauwe. All of these were confident, strong characters both mentally and physically and had the added insurance of Neville Southall as the last line, completely and ruthlessly controlling the six yard area.

Conversely, Rafa Benitez tried – spectacularly unsuccessfully – to get our neighbours to play zonal marking and they too shipped goals with almost gay abandon before the Spaniard saw the light and changed to a system that actually suited the players at his disposal.

For reference, here is a simple, definitive explanation of the theory…

Zonal Marking
In this type of defending (see image below), each player is given an area or zone to mark relative to their team mates.
It is advised by the manager or the coach that whenever the ball enters their zone, you attack it and try to win the ball.
Zonal defending doesn’t require fast players or great stamina like man-to-man defences do, and it’s usually employed by top flight managers where they ask the midfielders and attackers to defend when the opposing team counters and tries to break them down.
With zonal marking, whenever the team defends from set pieces, the six yard box will be divided into two or three zones for players to attack. If one player sees the ball entering this zone, he gets rid of it.

zm

So there’s the theory explained in a nutshell but right now, it doesn’t appear that Everton are ticking any of those boxes. We’re conceding from almost every free kick we concede in our third of the pitch, opposition corners are ringing alarm bells all around the ground, but apparently not in the dugout with the manager or coaching staff.

Consequently, we have a first choice England goalie beginning to look like a sieve, three centre backs verging on not knowing whether they’re coming or going and fullbacks who must dread the sight of opposition centre forwards or centre halves appearing on their flank or worse their blind side at every set piece.

As a result, our defence looks disorganised, the players, all of them, appear uncomfortable and unsure about playing zonal marking, it simply doesn’t come naturally to some footballers to mark space rather than a player.

Now, the big questions that need to be asked are…

Does the adoption of zonal marking have the blessing of the Director of Football?
Are we going to persist with a system that better managers than Marco Silva have tried and ditched?
And if the answers to both these questions are in the affirmative, then when the heck are the players and coaching staff going to get it sorted?

Marcel Brands and Marco Silva probably need to re-evaluate the adoption and implementation of zonal marking as any continuation of the goal leaking will bring Evertonian scrutiny rearing its ugly head again as it tends to have done all too easily in recent seasons.

Silva, particularly, has to demonstrate a capacity to dig himself and his squad from a deepening hole. He enjoyed similar initial bursts of ‘success’ at both Hull and Watford and it’s probably too early to judge in part because he’s never stayed long enough for others to properly judge. So the jury on Marco Silva has to sit out, as we simply can’t keep changing managers every few months but…

That’s it for this missive, the next one might, sadly, be a rather brutal assessment of some players and a genuine need for on-field leadership.

Right Back, an issue on the horizon?

Seamus 2.jpg

In January 2009, Everton paid a paltry £60,000 to Sligo Rovers for an unknown right back called Seamus Coleman – has there ever been a bigger or better bargain in the Premiership era of modern football, I doubt it.

As determined, passionate and tough as they come, Coleman quickly became a cult figure amongst Evertonians who gleefully hailed him and still do with the sixty grand song that reverberates around the Grand Old Lady and any other ground whenever he launches into one of his rampaging right wing forays in support of the attack – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67GLLvskPmw

Sadly though and as with too many footballers, injuries have played a part in his career, none moreso than the horrific, and sickening to watch, broken right leg sustained on international duty against Wales in March 2017.

That injury could have ended his career, but in January 2018, he returned to first team action in 2-1 victory over Leicester at Goodison. His mere naming on the team sheet was sufficient to boost an Everton crowd struggling with a disastrous season, his full-blooded commitment massively influential in a much needed victory at the time.

Possibly though his return to the first team, whilst gratefully received and appreciated by every Evertonian, came too early, but this question can only be posed with the benefit of hindsight looking back over 2018.

This season, Seamus has appeared more cautious with his right wing rushes, almost reticent at times to overly stretch his legs and pressure the opposition left side. Where three or four years ago he would have taken them on, this season he’s tending to check and look inside for support from Michael Keane, Gana Gueye or Andre Gomes.

Maybe the understanding he’d been developing last season with Theo Walcott hasn’t progressed enough to attain the heights that Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar reached a few years back. Maybe this seemingly indestructible Irishman even now has sub-conscious doubts over just how far he can push his right leg. Whatever the issue is, the Seamus Coleman we’ve grown to love over his almost ten years with the club isn’t quite the Seamus Coleman we grew to love.

Maybe therefore the time is coming where Everton need to consider who will take over the right back role and, possibly more importantly for the future continuity and success of the team, when?

Everton have already blooded U23 captain Jonjoe Kenny and last season brought in Cuco Martina. With no disrespect intended to Cuco, he never had a chance as he was used more on the left than his natural right, and Kenny whilst fully committed proved – to date – to be slightly short of the level required.

One name that has risen up the target list of many Everton fans is the Crystal Palace right back Aaron Wan-Bissaka. At just 21 years of age, the same as Kenny, the Croydon-born right back has given a series of accomplished and polished displays. His showing in the October 21st game at Goodison massively raised his profile amongst the home support.

None of us know if Marcel Brands and Marco Silva are even considering a change at right back in the short term, but they will surely not be unaware of concerns that Seamus isn’t delivering offensively anything like as much as he used to.

Seamus has given us many memorable moments over the past ten years, goals away at Swansea and a late game-winner at Selhurst Park amongst them, ball juggling and slippery dribbling skills against Arsenal that left Santi Cazorla bemused – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K__NIAXvWWI – and who will ever forget him fronting up to John Terry at Stamford Bridge and the Chelsea hard man wanting none of it. Seamus at his very best was and still could be quite a handful in so many ways.

Coleman came through a tortuous debut in Lisbons’ Stadium of Light in October 2009 as Benfica put a weakened Everton side to the sword in a 5-0 demolition but just three days later, he appeared as a first half substitute for the injured Joseph Yobo against Tottenham, played a part in both Everton goals in a 2-2 draw and was unequivocally acclaimed as Man of the Match.

Even then he accepted David Moyes sending him to Blackpool on loan for the rest of his debut season, but the canny Scot wasn’t wrong to do so and Seamus returned an even more confident and progressive player.

Another area where Seamus Coleman has excelled is in off the field activities. He’s thrown himself into countless EitC events and initiatives and his down to earth, one of the lads approach is so refreshing in an age when too many footballers appear aloof and stand-offish.

To say that Seamus ‘gets Everton’ is a monumental understatement, his commitment to the club and its causes is absolutely unquestioned and his elevation to the captaincy in the absence of Phil Jagielka was unanimously popular throughout the fan base.

Seamus 1

Despite the fame and fortune of being a Premiership footballer and Republic of Ireland international, Seamus has never forgotten his roots in Killybegs, Co.Donegal where he started out as a Gaelic footballer and still supports his first team Na Cealla Beaga, and the fishing village welcomes him home wholeheartedly on his regular visits.

If this is reading as something of an early obituary on his Everton career, that is in no way the intention – it’s a recognition of a tremendous person and a player who many of the supporters relate to as living their dream, and it’s a recognition of the size of the job facing Marcel Brands in finding his replacement… whenever that time comes.

The Schneiderlin Conundrum…

Morgan-Schneiderlin-Everton-577878

We’re just a few short weeks and a Yuletide period from the opening of the January transfer window and for many Evertonians, one question that probably needs an answer is… what’s the future for Morgan Schneiderlin?

Signed by Ronald Koeman from Manchester United in the corresponding transfer window of 2017 for in excess of £20 million, after a decent start to his Everton career the French international has failed to maintain the early levels he displayed.

Losses of form, injuries and doubts over his attitude and commitment to the cause have been major factors in his slide from grace, particularly with large sections of the crowd, while a conservative, defensive midfield role that rarely sees him venture beyond the halfway line doesn’t appear to fit very well into the more attack minded game plans of Marco Silva.

Under both Koeman and his successor, Sam Allardyce, Schneiderlin was all too often played alongside Idrissa Gana Gueye and their similarity in being primarily defensive midfielders proved too stifling for a team and crowd crying out for ideas and invention of how to get forward quicker with attacking intent.

Schneiderlin failed largely to re-produce the form he showed for Southampton, under Koeman, that saw him selected for France and was to lead to a big money, circa £27 million, move from the south coast to Manchester United. And he patently didn’t fit into the plans of Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford and so the chance to link up again with Koeman at Everton seemed an ideal opportunity to resurrect his career.

After a decent first season, the fortunes of Koeman nosedived after a disjointed 2017 summer transfer window in which money was splashed around like confetti with no apparent structure to said spending. Koeman was sacked in October 2017 as Everton slumped in the Premier League and crashed, in embarrassing fashion, out of the Europa League.

The boring, cautious and ultra-conservative Allardyce didn’t do much after his initial month that saw Everton solidify their Premier League status. A terrible style of play coupled with a complete and utter failure to grasp the nettle and push the club to seriously chase down Burnley for the chance to qualify for Europe again sealed his fate… as if there was ever really any long term aspect to it anyway?

Marcel and Marco

Enter the new Director of Football Marcel Brands and new manager Marco Silva and a new way of thinking for the Everton squad. Brands and Silva clearly had defined and strong ideas about how they wanted to progress the club and the initial need to massively trim the size of the squad they were dealing with, while looking to strengthen and improve key areas.

The preferred formation for Marco Silva is 4-3-3 and with Gana Gueye and Gylfi Sigurdsson seemingly shoe-ins for the midfield right from the start, the burgeoning question was who would be the link between the hard-working tackling of Gana Gueye and the silkier, more offensive prowess of the Icelander?

With Andre Gomes signed on loan from Barcelona, but recovering from injury, the remaining slot in the midfield was up for grabs between the enthusiastic and young, but still learning his trade Tom Davies and the more experienced, proven international, Morgan Schneiderlin.

With doubts over his future and unpopularity among sections of the fan base, Schneiderlin was boosted by Silva in June 2018 as the Portuguese outlined he still had a future with the club. The ball was proverbially in Schneiderlins’ court – it was down to him to prove he was the player to cement the Everton midfield and look to return to something like the form he showed for Southampton that saw him net 15 goals in 260 appearances… compared to just two goals in 102 appearances for United and Everton prior to this season commencing.

Disappointingly Schneiderlin, like Allardyce before him, failed to grasp the nettle and push himself to greater efforts. For whatever reason it is within him, he’s slipped so badly down the pecking order at Everton that he’s made just seven appearances this term. He’s completed only two games this season and now doesn’t even make the substitutes bench for Silva and his attack minded style.

Andre G

The forward motion, quick passing, more energetic, positive, attack minded and more pleasing to the eye play of Andre Gomes has been widely welcomed as not only a ray of sunshine, breath of fresh air to the team, but also a massive catalyst in bringing even more from Gana Gueye and allowing Sigurdsson to truly express himself as an attacking midfielder, linking smoothly and effectively with the front three of Bernard, Walcott and Richarlison, and scoring important goals.

With the likes of Tom Davies and Beni Baningime biding their time, waiting in the wings and newspaper speculation linking Everton to another exciting French talent in Tanguy Ndombele from Olympique Lyon, coupled with the fan base crying out for a permanent deal for Gomes to be completed as soon as possible, there appears to be only one course for Morgan Schneiderlin… a move away from Goodison in January.

Morgan Schneiderlin is not a bad player, but his natural conservative, safety-first, style of play and instincts don’t appear to sit well with the more expressive mantra of Marco Silva.

With the Everton team growing in confidence and the crowd appreciating the quite stunning turnaround in both form and style since the early September showings against Huddersfield and West Ham at Goodison, a move for Morgan Schneiderlin would likely suit both parties.

At 29 years old, he needs to be playing regularly and right now nobody, and I suspect privately he includes himself in this, can see him regaining a regular place in this current Everton set-up. With a fairly heavy investment made in acquiring his services, Everton would probably prefer a permanent deal to recoup as much as possible rather than agreeing to a loan deal.

With the ever-growing call for the loan of Andre Gomes to be made permanent and the rumoured interest in Ndombele, the answer to the Morgan Schneiderlin conundrum probably lies with the transfer market skills of Marcel Brands.