Everton reverses trend with superb start to Premier League season
Only Manchesters United and City have bagged more points than Everton in 2012
Manager David Moyes said, "I would definitely pay to come and watch us now"
Everton hosts Southampton next, where a win would give it 13 points in six games
Everton goes into this weekend in third place in the Premier League (ahead of West Bromwich Albion on goal difference!) and playing some of the nicest soccer around. Does David Moyes not know it is still only September?
It's been five years since his side had 10 points from the opening five games, with Everton renowned for split seasons that start badly and end well since at least 2005-06, when the Toffees lost the first three European fixtures and the domestic ties that followed them. It took an injury-time winner from Tim Cahill against Sunderland (and against the run of play) on New Year's Eve to turn a tide that threatened to carry the club to the second tier.
That season, just like this, began with a home match against Manchester United. "Away points won't come much easier this season", said The Observer, reporting United's 2-0 win. Moyes watched as Joseph Yobo's suicidal square pass gifted Wayne Rooney United's second goal; it would be almost three months before Everton won a league game at Goodison Park. The pattern has pretty much stuck: Everton earned 22 points from the first half of the 2009-10 season, 39 from the second. Two seasons ago, fans waited until October to celebrate their first victory as Everton drew 10 of its first 20 matches before a pulsating match against Tottenham Hotspur started a run of wins. Last year, Everton lost 10 of its first 20 games but only two of the remaining 18.
If at times the summer arrival of new players might have been used to explain the way that Everton tends to grow in to a season, Moyes is feeling the benefit of spending in January, when Darron Gibson, Nikica Jelavic and Steven Pienaar arrived (Pienaar returned on loan before making the move permanent). All three made an almost instant impact, but the momentum gathered toward the season's end looks to have barreled on through the summer break. Only Manchester United and Manchester City have won more points than Everton in 2012. In 14 matches for Everton, Gibson has experienced defeat just once -- against West Brom at the start of September, when his injury-forced substitution after 20 minutes made life a lot easier for the Baggies. Jelavic has 12 goals in 17 starts. Pienaar's relationship with the Everton left back, Leighton Baines, is exceptional.
"One of the games which drove me to retirement was against Baines and Pienaar," former Manchester United right back Gary Neville said recently. "They have a brilliant understanding, they know exactly what the other is going to do." Often operating in the inside channel, with Baines charging down the left flank alongside or ahead of him, Pienaar opened the scoring as Everton defeated Aston Villa on the second weekend of this season and has laid on three more. Like a number of sides in the Premier League, Everton is playing with added attacking impetus, yet that hasn't come at the cost of coherence -- quite the opposite. Moyes' side is slick.
After beating Swansea 3-0 last weekend (when Everton's forwards noticeably pulled towards the left, Victor Anichebe and Kevin Mirallas combining with Pienaar and Baines to give the Swansea right back Angel Rangel his own career worries), Baines called this the best Everton team he has played in. "There were times at this point last season when I wouldn't have paid to watch," Moyes explained to reporters. "I would definitely pay to come and watch us now."
No surprise, then, that around 5,000 Everton fans made the trip to Leeds for Tuesday night's League Cup match, making up almost one quarter of the total crowd at a sparsely populated Elland Road. "Typical," they might have muttered as the full-time scoreboard showed Leeds United 2-1, a score line that still managed to flatter Everton's performance. Moyes made six changes to his starting lineup but was irritated by the way Everton played. "These boys are in the squad and have to be able to show they can come in and play," he said. "If you don't use them, what's the point in having them?"
He had been impressed by the 20-year-old central midfielder Francisco Junior in the preseason, but the challenges of Morecambe FC are somewhat different to Neil Warnock's Leeds team, and he was substituted at halftime. Left back Bryan Oviedo -- what a job he has on his hands getting in to the team after signing from Copenhagen -- fared better after a tentative start, but he noted how "hard" a game it was, in all senses of the word. Managing a squad most commonly associated with adjectives such as "threadbare," Moyes will want to be able to make the most of his plentiful youth ranks if Everton is to maintain its early-season form.
Still, he will have greater-than-usual strength in depth if the likes of Anichebe and Mirallas continue to play as they have been. Not so long ago Moyes was so short of faith in his options that Everton would play without any recognized strikers rather than Anichebe. Perhaps most important (certainly most talked about) will be Marouane Fellaini, who has been tormenting opponents for a couple of seasons but is now making back pages week in, week out, by consistently playing further forward. That in itself presents Everton with challenges.
"You look at Baines, Pienaar, Fellaini, Mirallas -- these are the ones who are getting the headlines and I think with the performances, the headlines and the glory comes a bit of added attention from defenders," said captain Phil Neville, speaking to the Liverpool Echo. "That's what we'd do if we were playing against these types of players -- we'd do our homework."
For that reason, Neville said, Everton would have to constantly innovate, to find different ways of playing that will surprise opposing teams. One would hope that it rarely has to involve too much change from the free-flowing Everton on show so far this season. Spotting the threat posed by someone such as Fellaini, and finding a way to contain it, are two rather different matters.
"We have finished strongly in a lot of seasons, but I think the one year we got off to a good start, we ended up finishing in the Champions League," said Moyes, pointing to the 2004-05 season. "We have to try to do that if we can."
Southampton arrives at Goodison Park this weekend buoyed by that rampant second-half performance against Aston Villa but with the worst defensive record in the Premier League. A win for Everton, which is averaging almost two goals a game, would put it on 13 points, as at this stage of the 04-05 campaign.
"We sense that maybe this season something special will come," Pienaar said. He was talking about team spirit, but the same sentiment has no doubt crossed the lips of many on the blue half of Merseyside. The end has a start.