Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Premiership Preview--8. Everton

8. Everton is another team who overachieved last season, though to a lesser degree than Reading. With the improvements made by the other teams that finished in the ultra-tight 5th-11th place scramble last year, Everton will really have to fight for another UEFA Cup spot this season. Look, this club played with fire often in 2006-2007 and came out, for the most part, unscathed. There's no real headline player in a back four that only conceded 36 goals last season (5th best in the league), and the club's leading scorer only bagged 11 goals (Andy Johnson). The statistic that is most telling shows that Everton scored a whopping 12 of their 52 total goals in minutes 81-90 last season, 4 more than in any other 10-minute period (8 in minutes 41-50 was their second best total). These periods of time are by far the most important of the game as it's critical to end the first half, start the second half, and finish the game strong because that's when the opponent is often at its weakest. Everton took full advantage of that and finished 6th, which is higher than you'd think a team with the roster they have should finish.

Make what you will of the fact that Everton have basically the same team this season as they had last season. The addition of Leighton Baines from Wigan appears shaky right now but if it happens, he would be an upgrade over current left back Nuno Valente. Utilityman Phil Jagielka was signed from relegated Sheffield United, and he can play in the midfield and across the back line. He also is capable enough as a fill-in goalkeeper that when he played for Sheffield United, manager Neil Warnock often didn't name another goalkeeper to the substitutes bench for matches, preferring instead to bring another field player. Jagielka and 25-year old South African midfielder Steven Pienaar have been the only players brought in by manager David Moyes to this point. Pienaar is currently on a season-long loan from German club Borussia Dortmund, where he played 25 Bundesliga games last season. He'll join former teammate Andy van der Meyde (at Ajax) in a midfield that is solid, maybe even slightly underrated with the likes of Mikel Arteta, Tim Cahill, Leon Osman, and captain Phil Neville. Striker James Beattie, a former hot prospect at Southampton, looks likely to depart for Sheffield United, but that's no big loss at all as Beattie scored only 2 goals in 33 league games last season. Victor Anichebe certainly figures to play a larger role this season. At only 19 years of age, he's already been part of the senior Nigerian national team (though he hasn't yet played in any games) and prior to that played briefly for the England U-19's before withdrawing from that squad. Fellow youngster James Vaughan (also 19) will get a chance to play more this season after scoring 4 goals in 14 Premiership games last season.

After what should be an easy home game against Wigan to start the season, Everton embark on a prolonged rough patch of fixtures. Trips to Tottenham, Reading, Bolton, and Aston Villa all come during the first two months of the season, as do home games against Blackburn and Manchester United. The first fierce Merseyside derby takes place at Goodison Park on October 20th, with the return match at Anfield on March 29. December will prove to be the toughest month of the season as not only do they have to play 6 games (the last 3 of which in a span of 7 days), their opponents include two of the best teams in the Premiership. Portsmouth, West Ham, and Manchester United will play the role of not-so-merry hosts and Everton also plays Fulham, Bolton, and Arsenal at home. The schedule is considerably more forgiving (at least on paper) from the start of the new year until the end of the season, so look for Everton to make a big second half push.

Bottom Line: This team just doesn't seem like a squad that has any business finishing in a UEFA Cup spot; in fact, Blackburn in 10th place are the more talented team. However, manager David Moyes has always been a successful manager with the limited resources he's had behind him. He managed Preston North End to 113 wins and just 63 losses (with 58 draws) from 1998-2002, and has led Everton to 88 league wins since (with 85 losses and 55 draws). Leighton Baines would be a huge addition to this team, and if Moyes can go out and get some talent in the January transfer window, Everton will be in the running for a UEFA Cup spot, especially with the weaker second half schedule. Recapturing some of the late magic they had last year will be vital, as will another stellar season from goalkeeper Tim Howard, who had 14 clean sheets last season (second most in the league).

No comments: