Monday, 9 February 2015

The Strange Case of a Dull Derby

Everton 0-0 Liverpool

Seeing as neither Everton or Liverpool were very good at playing football on Saturday evening, the players turned to shouting at one another instead. 

Part One

(Written prior to the 224th Merseyside derby)

Due to various reasons I’ve not written about the Blues as much as I should have this season – in fact, the last occasion I sat down to type up my thoughts was at the very beginning of this perplexing campaign.

A considerable amount of time has elapsed since then. The season began with the draw at Leicester and a blistering first-half performance at Goodison against Arsenal followed. And then the Toffees stalled, unable to move up a gear or even maintain their current speed. Everton Football Club plunged into a turbulent river of uncertainty during the second period of that first home fixture and we are still waiting for them to fully emerge.

Naturally, the tale of this season has been the complete opposite of what fans everywhere were expecting: there were point at which the manager and his players looked completely broken and almost beyond repair. At such times the performances have been infuriating and even beyond comprehension. Many questions have been asked: What’s wrong with the team? Where has the desire gone? Why has Martinez been looking like he’s lost the plot? Should he still be in the job? Did Samuel Eto’o have a negative effect upon the club? Why didn’t the board make more signings during the January transfer window? Who is this new reserve goalkeeper and what has he done with the hopeless Joel Robles? Is this list of questions ever going to end?

Few of these musings have been answered, which has contributed to a dark cloud of mass confusion floating over Goodison Park and dividing fans. Over the course of the season thus far nobody has looked like being able to tell the difference between up and down and left from right.

Roberto Martinez has turned from Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde and back again in spells. His ability to inspire and motivate the same team he led to the Europa League last season has coughed and spluttered. The ocean of sophisticated metaphors that rolled off the tongue last season has run dry. Evertonians just want to see their team string together a few victories, get off the hard shoulder, move into the correct lane and run smoothly once again.

I won’t dwell much more on the low points, for the reader of these words will likely know of them all too well. Following the bizarre departure of the bizarre Samuel Eto’o, a short break from fixtures and the subsequent 0-1 victory over Crystal Palace, there has appeared a glimmer of hope on the horizon. With the fixture between Everton and Liverpool fast approaching, perhaps the Blues’ fortunes will continue to pick up. As I write these words, I’m certainly hoping for a satisfactory disruption to the inevitable Steven Gerrard media derby-party (and yes, I am referring to that advertisement).


Part Two

(Written after the mind-numbing 224th Merseyside derby)

I confess that I’m struggling to dissect the match from its current state in my mind as I begin this report: it was a frustrating, uninspiring and rather bleak ninety minutes of gritty tension that rarely threatened to progress from static into anything near the fast and thrilling fixtures we are used to. It hardly resembled a typical Goodison derby at all. The experience of watching Everton and Liverpool’s feeble contest was akin to sitting in a broken-down car and turning the keys over and over and over in the ignition while the hope of actually driving anywhere dies slowly and painfully.
Despite the affair being one of the lowest-quality derbies since, well, the dawn of time, there were a few positives to take for the Blues (although my level of positivity hardly comes close to that of Roberto Martinez). The match had two faces: one encouraging and the other rather dreary. And so I may be picking scraps of meat from a bone here, however several points are worth mentioning:

Muhamed Besic

Besic can have his own special heading, in bold and underlined. The midfielder is on the right track to make a real name for himself as a valued player of Everton Football Club. For a great period of the game he stood head and shoulders above the rest, which thankfully gave the Blues the leader they needed and irritated Liverpool fans to no end. Keeping his midfield well-organised and restraining the opposition the best he could, the Bosnian’s performance was at the opposing end of the scale to that of the fading Gareth Barry. In addition, the brilliant James McCarthy, upon his return, evidently benefitted from having Besic alongside him. The pair ran smoothly together like two oiled cogs.

There are a few further heartening aspects of the match worth considering, beginning with Joel Robles. Believe it or not, it has emerged that the Robles whose performances deserve to keep Tim Howard out of the team is actually the same Robles who appeared to be unable to catch a football this time a year ago (I know, amazing!). Overall he was secure and confident between the posts during the derby. With the recently-formed and fairly reliable pairing of John Stones and Phil Jagielka standing between him and oncoming attackers, the three consecutive clean sheets he has kept against West Brom, Palace and Liverpool are not coincidental.

Steven Naismith’s performance – especially in the first half – is also in need of praise. I find the Scot impossible to dislike and the sheer effort and commitment he displays is, in my opinion at least, worthy of comparisons to Tim Cahill and his love for playing in an Everton shirt. Before Naismith began to suffer from some form of discomfort he was like a pinball being pinged between Liverpool players in possession of the ball, pressurising the vulnerable Sakho and leading the Blues’ attack.

Romelu Lukaku had yet another game in which he seems capable of being able to destroy defences yet never actually does. When playing out wide he can terrorise the opposition with the ball at his feet (just think of his games against Arsenal at Goodison), however he hardly ever seems to be in a position to do so. This is one of Everton’s most annoying traits – when Lukaku has his back to goal he is not as effective as he can be, yet when he is deployed in a position in which he can play to his strengths, he is not utilised correctly. Admittedly, this is partly due to his Jelavic-esque nature of having a strong liking for offside positioning. Yet he should be charging from deep more frequently if he is to play to his strengths, rather than being constantly stood on the last defender.

Another pleasing element of the match was seeing Aaron Lennon in royal blue. While he is probably unlikely to set the world of football alight during his stay at Everton (however long that may be), he is a drastic improvement on McGeady. Lennon’s agility and quick passing could be integral to future success; he can become another well-oiled element that is needed to reprise the club’s stuttering engine. If he plays football like he poses unhappily in photographs, his presence within the squad will be more than welcome.

"No matter what happens out there, Aaron, just make sure that you're better than McGeady."

So while Everton didn’t allow Gerrard to have his dream final derby that a large portion of the media seemingly craved, they didn’t really do anything else. And while thousands of Evertonians are praying for their club to pick up where they left off at the end of the previous campaign, the Blues’ performance was not as inspiring as it should have been. Liverpool were poor and there for the taking once again. Everton did not grasp the opportunity.

However, to conclude, a draw is a fair result, and hopefully it contributes to dragging the Blues from the watery abyss they were drowning in and finally setting them on dry land. Toffees fans want to be thrilled and excited by majestic football again. With the Europa League knockout stages just around the corner, Martinez and his team can use the coming months to paper somewhat over the deep cracks that opened during the first half of the season. The desire and lust for winning has to be repaired.

Everton just have to get their engine up and running once more and refrain from being their own worst enemy.

Alex Leonard – @AlexLen95 

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