What can we do to improve our defence in the remaining games of this season? This is my take on why we can’t seem to get it right and what needs to change to get to grips with the problem.
There are lots of weaknesses but for me these are the main ones:
A lack of intensity in pressing the ball: Far too often we offer time and space to opponents on the ball in dangerous areas; we fail to win crucial blocks and headers, as witnessed by the third Chelsea goal recently. In other words we don’t work hard enough as a team to close down the opposition because our focus is on what we will do with the ball when someone else wins it back. This is a team failing not just the back four and it starts with the manager’s demands of the team.
We have players in McCarthy and Besic, plus Cleverley to a lesser extent, who are capable of playing a high energy, pressing game, in our own half when the danger is at its greatest. Rotate these three alongside Barry or play two of them instead, but make it clear that their job is to smother the opposition when we don’t have the ball. We saw with Lennon last season that this extra energy forces other players to follow suit and it means we play with more passion, an attribute sorely lacking for too long.
We allow too many crosses: Again this is about a lack of intensity and there needs to be hard work done on the training pitch to get tighter in wide areas and to improve one-on-one defending. Tony Hibbert was great at this and let’s face it he’s not going to play many more minutes in the first team so he’d be an ideal candidate to work with the full-backs. John Stones will never be a right back, so don’t play him there.
The goalkeeper: Oh boy, enough has been said about this to rival War and Peace. I would just add two bits of context. It’s widely accepted that a quality goalkeeper can add six to 12 points to a team over a season. Now Robles is no Petr Cech but even a six-point margin could mean three places in the league table, or £3.7m in merit payments based on the figures for last season. Secondly, Tim Howard will leave at the end of the season; before then we need to know for sure if Robles is ready to start as number one and the only way to do this is to give him a run of 15 games. “It is the right decision for the long-term development of Everton Football Club.” That’s the only explanation the manager needs to give.
Who plays left midfield?: This is relevant because we have been left exposed through players being used out of position and not understanding the need to track runners, specifically Kone; while Steven Pienaar is coming to the end of his Everton career and Tom Cleverley is wasted wide. I’m going to contradict myself here and say that the best short-term solution is to play Baines left midfield until we sign a naturally left-sided midfielder. He is naturally left-footed, strong going forward and playing him there will give Galloway more time to develop in the team with the support of a second player willing to defend when we lose the ball.
Tactics: Managers and opposing teams spend a lot of time devising ways to drag central defenders into wide areas where they are not comfortable. At the moment we are doing this job for them by giving our centre halves the ball when they are split and our full-backs are on the half-way line. That means 50% of our back four is out of the game if we lose the ball in these areas. Coleman and Baines or Galloway can still support the attack, but not at the same time and in any case we have enough attacking flair in Barkley, Mirallas, Deulofeu, Lennon and Lukaku, without over-committing from full-back. The back four needs to get back to its principal job, which is to stop chances and goals.
There is nothing in any of these suggestions that requires us to move away from a possession-based philosophy, but a strong defence becomes more important every time you step up a level in football. If our goals are trophies, European football and Champions League qualification – the stated objectives of the manager – then these issues need to be addressed urgently. Whether Roberto Martinez has the willingness, the ability and the winning mentality needed to re-balance our tactical approach is very much open to debate. My heart says yes, my head says no. What do you think?