A Missed Opportunity

By Carl Rutherford 24/04/2016  0 Comments  [Jump to last]

I remember exactly the last time I felt like this. Clichéd though it is supporting the Blues comes with its own roller-coaster of emotions. There have been lots of heartbreak – the 2009 FA Cup Final, the semi-final of 2012; anger at the Clattenburg derby. At times like this the joy we have experienced seems all too infrequent, but there have also been highs along the way to raise expectation and restore pride in the motto. We have all experienced a unique range of emotions, but today's is an altogether different mood. One which brings back memories of 2004, the one and only other time I have experienced this feeling.

Euro 2004 was a special tournament, I was in Bolivia for the most part of the tournament and the world would come to realize what we Blues had felt for some time – Wayne Rooney was the most incredible talent. England didn't win that tournament, but that didn't matter to me because something unique had happened. Rooney had bossed the tournament in a way that very few English players had ever done in a major international tournament and a way that no other player on Everton's books ever had. I was convinced, like so many others, that we could build a team around him that could return our club to its former glories.

Even after he had limped out of the tournament and transfer rumours began to gather steam it seemed implausible, no impossible, one of our own could turn his back on our club so soon after arriving on the world stage. Yes, we had had a tough season – there were rumours of a fall out with Moyes but surely he was destined to become an Everton legend.

But the day the transfer was announced that was a watershed moment for me, the last time I felt the way I am feeling right now. It wasn't so much that I idolised Wayne Rooney – to me he lacked maturity and was too cocky – it was what the transfer represented that gave me this hollow feeling. Those clubs that had power, success, the fashionable clubs could strip the prize assets of any other at will. We were no longer able to compete. I said to a friend at the time that football has changed, there will be an unbreakable stranglehold. The elite clubs have found a way to establish an exclusive grip on our beloved game. I was entirely empty – not out of love with the game – but without hope of ever seeing my beloved Blues reign again.

A little dramatic, but it is exactly the way I feel right now. You see, in the 12 years since, I have been more or less correct. Apart from the occasional intervention of a billionaire, success has almost exclusively been shared by football's elite. However, something changed this year. In January I very nearly submitted an article to this site entitled ‘Can Everton win the league again?'. I surmised it was possible, I researched the squads of the most recent title-winning teams and realized that they had some similarities. They all contained four or five key players in important positions and I drew parallels with our current squad. I highlighted this by looking at PFA teams of the year for the past 10 seasons. The gist of it was that, if these players developed correctly and if we added a strong goalkeeper to our squad, it was entirely possible to win the league.

At last I had come full circle and believed for the first time in 12 years – hope was restored. In the end I did not submit the article because around Christmas time we were in such an appalling run of form (when have we not been this year!) – I thought I would be laughed off the site if I suggested we could win the league. I would also like to point out that I am not (usually!) the type of fan who goes from one extreme to another in such a short space of time.

In the meantime, Leicester and Spurs have so demonstrably proven that such optimism is not misplaced, so why should I now feel such despair? Well, it is because I think that this is a small window of opportunity that we have now missed. My optimism was largely based on the potential of John Stones, Romelu Lukaku, Gerard Deulofeu and Ross Barkley. It now seems unfathomable that at least two of those players will feature in a meaningful Everton game again. (I of course don't count our four remaining league fixtures that have little interest or relevance.)

Lukaku will demand a transfer to one of the high-profile clubs he has publicly courted, the likelihood is one or more will come calling for him and if not he will find a Champions League suitor somewhere. And he should be allowed to go; we have spectacularly failed him this year. We have been woeful in so many senses this year, both tactically and individually. In my opinion he has become a real force in spite of us rather than because of us. He was a good young player when we signed him but we have rarely played to his strengths and gave him very little ammunition to showcase his natural game of getting in behind defenders early. He has managed to develop his game through his own determination to succeed and adapt it accordingly. I wonder how many other talented young players have lost their way over the years when they have, at times, been hung out to dry being deployed in roles that did not suit them?

Lukaku has been criticized by the fanbase at times for appearing disinterested or for an unwillingness to put in a shift for the cause. However, I also believe this is entirely the fault of the manager. There are managers out there who instruct forward players not to chase back or harry to preserve their energy for in and around the box the phrase ‘he has the make up of a sprinter' and so deploys his energy in high intensity bursts rather than wasting it tracking back. It is quite common place in the game and I am not going to debate its effectiveness except to say in its most high profile example I can think of it certainly added a couple of years to Alan Shearer's career.

Of course there is no way of saying for sure if Romelu has been given any such instructions. However, if you were a strong manager and did wish for your forward to make more effort defensively but he was not, why would you not substitute him? Those managers that demand a high-intensity game would not stand for or put faith in a player who was putting in the required effort.

I think the same case can also be made of Ross Barkley. Here is a midfielder who seems to have a perfect physique for football yet he meanders around the pitch when we do not have the ball. Compare this to Dele Alli at Spurs – can this really all be down to attitude?

In my opinion, the defensive side of the game for these two players has been severely overlooked and they are behind their peers in that respect. I would accept, however, this is merely an idealistic difference and that their attacking play is more potent as a result.

However, the biggest oversight and most unforgiveable mistake the management have made is the treatment of John Stones. How could a player of such talent be allowed to have not made one bit of progress since he came into the first team? Surely if you make the argument that attacking players should concentrate their efforts on the opposition box, you must prioritise defending your own box for defenders? He has been completely hung out to dry this year and unfortunately I think we will pay the price and see one of the most naturally gifted English defenders leave our club as a result.

You see what stood out for me today was their first goal. Anybody who has ever played the game before will know how dangerous it is for an attacker to make the run across the six-yard box today that to the front post. Stones was on his heels and did not get close enough to intercept of block. All defenders can have a momentary lapse of concentration but this is to me is symptomatic of how John Stones has defended this year, a Jagielka and Distin pairing would never be so naïve as to allow such an easy finish.

We know Fellaini well and he does not possess such great explosive pace or such an instinctive positional awareness as to put defenders in such trouble. This is a goal borne out of a defenders inability to do the basics. For me there are two possible explanations for this. One the defender in question lacks the intelligence grasp the fundamentals of where the dangerous zones are on a football pitch and how to position himself to minimise these threats. This to me seems highly unlikely, given how intelligently John Stones conducts himself in interviews and off the pitch. The most likely scenario seemingly is a fundamentally flawed coaching system. An inability to pick up on and develop this art of defending.

For me, my only advice to John Stones would be to get away from this cowboy establishment and seek out someone who can restore your ability to defend competently so you can realise your potential. That to me is the real source of sadness, because the John Stones of 2014-15 was a source of personal pride. The way he conducted himself on and off the pitch, his work with EitC transcended the normal footballer admiration. He had the making of an Everton legend. The potential that was apparent 12 years earlier, sadly history seems set to repeat itself and that is something that I feel sure will cast a shadow over me and this great club for some time and will in my opinion be the ultimate failure of Martinez's reign.

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