Read any of the stories on Everton’s positive start to the season and you are bound to come across the term ‘slow-starters’ and how the Toffees are maybe showing signs of deviating from this label they have acquired over David Moyes’ tenure. As an Everton supporter, I have had to get used to hearing this label in reference to my club, and this accusation has been somewhat justified in recent seasons. Whether the poor run of early form happens from game one (such as the 2010-2011 campaign in which Everton amassed just three points from their opening six games) or a few matches later, it has nevertheless become a common trend for the tag to resurface for the blue half of Merseyside.
So far, the Toffees have had their best start to a campaign for five years, improving upon the positive opening they made last season. However, what followed Everton’s solid start last year was a familiar dip in early season form which saw the accumulation of six losses in nine matches. So what is to say that the club will not follow their apparently pre-written script and have to play catch up later on in this season too?
An argument for Everton continuing their impressive start is the return of Steven Pienaar, following his signing of a permanent contract. Last season, on-loan Pienaar had arguably his most impressive campaign for the Toffees, amassing the highest amount of assists (6) from anyone in the squad. This was despite the January acquisition only playing for half of the season, and being cup-tied from the F.A. Cup due to his Tottenham appearances. Following the midfielder’s permanent re-signing this summer, I joined with many other Blues fans in a feeling of genuine excitement that Moyes had re-invested in a player who was and, for all intents and purposes would return to be, a key player in the Everton set-up. A player who had not figured in Tottenham’s first team plans during his short spell at White Hart Lane, due to a combination of injury and competition for places, immediately returned as a key player and an important creative piece in Everton’s squad. An example of a perfect club and player partnership it could be argued.
But of course Pienaar’s success at the tail-end of last season and into the current campaign has not been purely down to his individual talent. The South African has been able to reform the creative partnership he and Leighton Baines have previously thrived in. The duo have been responsible for Everton’s biggest creative threat so far during this campaign. Following Everton’s 2-2 draw with Newcastle, Baines topped the Premier League chart for chances created for teammates (19), a stat made all the more impressive when considering the left-back’s position. Newcastle’s defensive 4-5-1 formation in this game of course aided Baines’ freedom to advance forward, but take nothing away from his impressive build up play with Pienaar, which was directly responsible for the left-back scoring Everton’s first goal.
The emergence of Nikica Jelavic as Everton’s much needed clinical finisher as well as the quick-footed and promising new signing Kevin Miralles also adds to the optimism surrounding Goodison, with the squad showing enough genuine talent to provide a serious top-half push in this campaign, providing of course that their form stays consistent.
Optimism aside however, if I take my fans cap off for a moment, there are definitely potential hurdles in Everton’s continuing campaign. The talk of Marouane Fellaini’s itchy feet, regardless of its level of exaggeration, has led to a number of top clubs keeping a close eye on the Belgian international. Sir Alex Ferguson attended Everton’s draw with Newcastle, sparking rumours of a January interest. Considering United’s need for a long-term central midfield option, and after Fellaini’s star performance against the Red Devils in August, it is a rumour I’d easily, and begrudgingly, believe. Losing a player like Fellaini, who at age twenty-four represents a fantastic long-term prospect for the Toffees, would mean the loss of a strong central figure in the Everton midfield. With all of the excitement surrounding Everton’s attacking options, it is key to have a balance. A ball-winner. One who can snuff out attacks defensively and hold up play to release our own attacking threats. That is not to say that Fellaini is not lacking in the attacking department himself, considering he has already managed to equal his goal scoring tally from the entirety of last season. Keeping Fellaini is a key part of Everton’s potential for this campaign, and the growing uncertainty about external interest could work to unsettle the team and in turn their results.
Injuries could also play a major role in Everton’s ongoing run of form. Darron Gibson, who managed eleven league games for the Blues last season without a single defeat, was ruled out for over a month with a thigh injury following the West Brom game. Striking threat Jelavic was also sidelined for two weeks following a nasty collision with a goalpost against Newcastle in September. If long term injuries were to hit a number of key Everton players, would the remaining squad still manage to perform at the level they have been doing so far this season?
It seems a simple formula. Play well, avoid injuries and resist the interest in your key players. Even if all three of these occur, however, no-one can know for certain how the upcoming few games for Everton will finish. A contentious decision or a defensive mishap could decide a game, regardless of who has performed better on the day. Despite the uncertainty of the beautiful game, I believe that Everton fans can be optimistic about this year’s chances, and hope that they can finally defy the early season hoodoo which has damaged them in recent seasons.