In last month’s edition of Lowdown, I discussed the apparent ‘Toffee curse’ and whether Everton were finally showing signs of breaking the run of poor early season form which has plagued them in many recent seasons. Well, September was undoubtedly a fantastic month for the Blues, with David Moyes being rewarded for his work by winning the Premier League Manager of the Month. Following an impressive 3-0 victory over Swansea, Everton moved into the top four in the early season table. Signs were very much pointing towards an uncharacteristically strong start to Everton’s campaign.
However, as September drew to a close, Moyes took the decision to choose fitness over form in the club’s Capital One Cup tie with Leeds, to give some of the club’s mainstays a rest. After a muted display, the Blues succumbed to a 2-1 defeat, ending one of this year’s potential cup runs before it had even begun. Moyes received a fair amount of stick on some social media sites, with criticism towards his negative squad choice and apparent lack of ambition in the tournament. Yet the squad themselves should take a large portion of the responsibility for their shock exit. In my opinion, with all due respect to the Elland Road outfit, Everton’s starting eleven included enough talent, such as Coleman, Fellaini and Mirallas, to see off a Championship team.
Six minutes into Everton’s next Premier League fixture, it seemed that the ramifications of the cup defeat would spill over into their league form, after Gastón Ramírez fired newly promoted Southampton into the lead. These fears, however, were emphatically silenced when the Blues responded with one of their best performances of the campaign so far, with Osman and a Jelavić brace ensuring a 3-1 victory. Following the win, Moyes was quoted as saying he would be happy to pay to watch Everton in their current form. However, quite rightly so, he was also quick to warn that the squad should not get dizzy from their positive results, especially when considering their Capital One Cup loss.
A trip to Wigan’s DW Stadium followed, where Everton had the opportunity to top the table going into the international break. However, the sense of fluidity between the players and their build-up play, which had been key to their previous impressive performances against Swansea and Southampton, seemed absent, as strikes from Arouna Koné and Franco Di Santo twice forced Everton onto the ropes. Fellaini seemed less of a key man, and more of a potential accident in the making, as various petulant outbursts seemed to threaten his chances of lasting the whole game. The most controversial of these was an aerial battle with Maynor Figueroa just before half-time, in which Wigan fans complained that the midfielder had led with an elbow. Personally, I believe the Belgian’s challenge did not warrant a red card, but it was obvious his frustrations were limiting his performance. The once again exceptional Leighton Baines rescued a point for the Blues with a late penalty, after Nikica Jelavić had equalised in the first half. Incidentally, Baines’ successful conversion from the spot meant he has now scored all nine penalties he has taken in the Premier League.
After the international break, Everton’s next league fixture was away at QPR, a team who had yet to register a win so far in the league and were rooted to the foot of the table. A largely dismal affair started off terribly for the Toffee’s, when a mistake by Phil Neville allowed Junior Hoilett to burst forward and score. The goal was admittedly fortuitous, only beating Tim Howard thanks to a nasty deflection, yet considering the time Hoilett was gifted on the ball and the space he was allowed to run into, the chance was one which should have been snuffed out earlier. Pienaar’s dismissal was of course a major talking point of the game, with Everton’s Facebook page erupting with Toffee fans angry at the unjustified second yellow card. However, despite his second booking being very harsh, he had moments before been warned for a challenge on Hoilett, one which could have easily have been the second yellow which ruled him out of the game and out of the Merseyside derby.
The impressive form of Baines, culminating in his first-team call up to the England squad, was something for Blues fans to cheer about in the past month. Baines’ nod for the start at left-back, a position held with a vice-like grip by Ashley Cole, indicated his possible contention for the position in the near future. Yes it was against San Marino, a team ranked dead last in the FIFA rankings, and it was also in the aftermath of Cole’s bust up with the FA over his offensive tweet, but I personally believe that, regardless of opposition calibre and surrounding incidents, Baines’ inclusion as starting left-back in the England team was thoroughly deserved. Realistically, Baines’ selection does not indicate a full transition as new first-team full back for England, but more likely a chance for Roy Hodgson to experiment with alternatives. Yet Baines’ form this season has helped cement his status as heir to Cole’s seemingly ever-present role in the England team. His performances in the league have thus far been key for Everton’s positive run. According to the EA Sports Player Performance Index, the official rating system of the Premier League, Baines is judged as the third best performing player in the entire division.
Of course, Baines is not the only Toffee feeling confident about his possible international future. Since the retirement of England captain John Terry, an unexpected opportunity has arisen for a centre back to inherit his place. Phil Jagielka, currently with 16 caps, has himself admitted that there is strong competition for the available role, but he is very much putting his name in the hat. Hodgson’s decision to start him against Poland indicated that his chances look good for permanent selection. At thirty, Jagielka must take his opportunity now to stamp his international legacy, considering younger alternative compatriots Gary Cahill and Ryan Shawcross are also ready to pounce, yet a strong season both domestically and on the international stage (when he is offered the chance) could allow him to make the transition from heir presumptive to permanent centre-back.
By and large, Everton’s performances through October, and in their entire season thus far, can be judged with cautious optimism. The EA Sports PPI rated Everton as the best performing team in the entire division prior to the international break, based on the combined performances of their players. Furthermore, two of Everton’s squad featured in the top five performing Premier League players, the previously mentioned Baines (3rd) and Steven Pienaar (5th). The team’s form has ranged from impressive highs (the performance against Southampton) to disappointing lows (Pienaar’s dismissal and the team’s subsequent draw with QPR). However, Everton’s results, coupled with Moyes’ managerial award, means that the Toffee’s will go into November in a very strong league position and, hopefully for fellow Blues fans like myself, the ability to carry on their current success.