In the summer Everton F.C. lost longtime manager David Moyes to Manchester United, where he went to fill the shoes of the peerless Sir Alex Ferguson. On the final day of the summer transfer window the Toffees also sold their best player — Marouane Fellaini — to United for over $35 million.
Somehow Everton hasn’t missed a beat. In fact the Toffees, through nine games in the Premier League this term, actually look a much better side and one that could mount a legitimate argument for claiming one of England’s four Champions League berths.
If only there was some sort of “theory” we could apply to label this situation. Someone on the Internet has obviously made the correlation about a team losing it’s best player and doing better in his absence, right? Alas, in the spirit of Everton under manager Roberto Martinez we press onward and upwards. It’s unfair to play the hindsight game with Moyes, who kept Everton competitive for a decade and almost got them into the Champions League proper in 2005 if not for being paired against a great Villareal team in the qualifying round. Taking shots at Moyes’ conservative tendencies after the fact seems more than a little unfair.
Let’s start with Martinez, who managed to fail up the Premier League ladder. That’s not entirely accurate. The Spanish manager was well-regarded during his tenure with Wigan, despite the Latics being relegated at the end of the 2012-13 season — the same year the club claimed a famous upset win over Manchester City in the FA Cup Final. Wigan are a small club with a limited budget. Martinez kept it up in the Premier League for three years until injuries in defense, namely Antolín Alcaraz, became too much to overcome last year.
Tactically, Martinez shifted Everton to a 4-2-3-1 team, whereas Moyes settled for a 4-4-1-1 with Fellaini playing off the striker. It’s a big reason the Beligan international led Everton with 11 goals a year ago. As good as Fellaini is, it’s usually not a good sign when your club’s leading scorer is a midfielder by trade. Everton’s top striker, for goals in the Premier League a year ago, was Nikica Jelavic with seven, which isn’t good enough to get the job done over a 38-game campaign.
Everton still finished sixth last season, thanks to a strong close to the season. The Toffees won six of their 16 matches after March 1. Under Moyes the team started strong with four wins in six, but then had just one victory during a 10 match span from October through December.
Really, though, the biggest change for Everton in 2013-14 feels like it is attacking much more. Last year the club finished with 55 in 38 league games. This year that total is already at 14. The increase is slight — 1.44 gpg vs. 1.55 gpg — but it feels different because of the presence of one man: Romelu Lakuku. Everton made the signing of the summer when they took the 20-year-old Chelsea striker on loan. He’s paid off with five goals and is a true week-in, week-out threat atop the attack.
When you add Lukaku to a strong core that include Leighton Baines, whom the club wisely fended off overtures from United, the ever-improving Ross Barkley along with the consistently underrated contributions from Leon Osman and Sylvan Distin and it’s a very nice team.
Lukaku wasn’t the only smart move the club made. Everton likes to cry poverty — and that’s probably true due to the limited revenue stream Goodison Park produces, despite all the advertising signage for Crabbies Ginger Beer ringing the stadium. Still, the club spent some money to bring in Arouna Kona and James McCarthy from Wigan and wisely took on Gareth Barry on-loan from Manchester City while landing Barcelona youngster Gerard Deulofeu for the year as well.
Something strange with Everton is this dichotomy: the club’s let in 10 goals, which isn’t a sterling record for nine games — yet American keeper Tim Howard isn’t seeing all that many shots.
Everton probably doesn’t possess enough depth to keep the pace all season long, but the club is firmly in the mix for one of the Champions League spots — likely battling Tottenham, Merseyside rival Liverpool and Moyes’ Manchester United team. Again, you just wish there was some sort of neat-and-tidy “theory” we could apply to the club in the wake of losing two of its most important assets in the summer, yet is doing better without them.
Games of the Week:
Arsenal vs. Liverpool — (Saturday, 1:30 p.m., NBC) First vs. third, nothing much more needs to be said about this one, which is a must-watch. This will be the Gunners toughest test of the year thus far. Of the club’s nine games only two opponents — Tottenham and Swansea City — currently sit in the top half of the table. Arsenal’s defense has yet to be challenge by anything close to what Liverpool throws out there with Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. On the other side we’re not exactly sold on Liverpool’s three-man at the back system. The incisive runs of Olivier Giroud in the box could prove troublesome, if Mesut Özil finds space to exploit. … Arsenal 1, Liverpool 1
Everton vs. Tottenham — (Sunday, 8:30 a.m., CNBC) If Arsenal/Liverpool is a clash for first, then this game is a early boost for both Spurs and the Tofs Champions League hopes. Tottenham has four 1-0 wins already — three via Roberto Soldado penalties. Again soccer is weird, Spurs didn’t win a single penalty in 2012-13 and now have the most in the league. Points are points and with a team with so many new faces, those 1-0 wins from the spot will feel like convincing 3-0 victories. Chances are Spurs will need more than a spot kick to beat Everton at Goodison Park. … Everton 2, Spurs 1
Cardiff City vs. Swansea City — (Sunday, 11 a.m., NBCSN) This might not be a marquee matchup, but it’s the first time the South Wales Derby will be conducted in the Premier League. These two teams hate each other, at least the fans do anyway. There was a feature on this derby a few years ago in FourFourTwo magazine. It was the first time I’d ever seen an inner-lip tattoo. Should be fun. … Cardiff City 2, Swansea City 1.
One Other Note: Manchester City have reportedly dropped Joe Hart for this weekend’s match with Norwich City. Everyone clamoring for the Costel Pantilimon era, you might have gotten your wish.