David Moyes paused, then broke into a half-smile when asked yesterday about his team’s missing creative spark. “If you lose Mikel Arteta and Steven Pienaar, that would answer your question,” came the reply.
The sight of Arteta lining up against Everton for Arsenal today will be a rueful reminder of happier days when the Spanish midfielder was part of a team playing European football and knocking on top four’s door. It was only 16 months ago, Moyes recalled yesterday, that he persuaded Arteta to sign a new contract, despite interest from Manchester City, in the conviction Everton could push for the Champions League.
The lack of a top-class striker was a pivotal factor in that ambition unravelling and the problem has only grown, as evidenced by Sunday’s 1-0 defeat by a Stoke side who had Kenwyne Jones and Ricardo Fuller on their bench, while Everton toiled vainly with 19-year-old Apostolos Vellios up front.
It certainly does not help Everton’s manager that he is also without the goals of his longstanding talisman, and Arteta’s close friend, Tim Cahill. The Australian has not scored in 24 Everton outings in 2011 – some reversal of fortune for a player with a strike rate of a goal every 3.3 league outings before this year.
Cahill’s last strike came in a win at Manchester City on 20 December last year, his subsequent drought starting on his return from the Asian Cup. “He had scored nine goals for us up until Christmas last year and I do think when he went to the tournament it might have been one too much for him at that time,” said Moyes.
Cahill came home with a foot problem and has struggled for fitness since; it is to his credit that he has played on to help out a small, stretched Everton squad, though to his detriment too, as he admitted yesterday: “I suppose [after] the Asian Cup in January I think I shouldn’t have even come back to play football, I should have just left it. But when you get looked after by a manager and chairman so much, you feel the obligation to make sure you’re always available.”
The combative Cahill turned 32 on Tuesday and if Moyes described his eight years’ Goodison service as “a long, hard stint”, the Scot remains hopeful of a resurgence. “He will come back. Each season he scored between eight and ten goals, I still expect him to end up with that.”
Cahill’s fortunes contrast drastically with Robin van Persie’s scoring feats in 2011 but whatever unfolds at the Emirates today, the Australian will at least catch up with Arteta at whose wedding he was best man. Everton may have suffered for Arteta’s absence but the ‘bromance’ between the two pin-up boys of the Moyes generation has evidently not, judging by a recent photo on Cahill’s Twitter account of the pair enjoying a barbecue together.
Moyes himself parted on good terms with the playmaker, whose transfer yielded £10m. “It was the right time for Mikel. Everybody knows we needed the money. I got a call from the chairman at three o’clock on deadline day and at one minute past there Mikel was knocking on my door.”
And the Scot is not surprised to see Arteta wielding an influence on Arsenal’s midfield. Recalling how he learned to marry “Spanish technique” with a “British mentality” at Goodison, he added: “There was a period just before he got his injury where I thought he was as good as any player in the country. We paid £2.5m for Mikel, a brilliant deal for us. He became a big part of the core here that we had.”
Moyes was speaking against a sponsors’ backcloth that included Best Buy – fitting when discussing Cahill and Arteta yet, as he admitted, such deals are harder than ever given Everton’s financial constraints. “We have had a pretty good record of getting them but it is tough just now, you have to go to the Championship now with maybe six or seven million for one of their players.” Perhaps it was for this reason he used the word “heyday” when recalling the Arteta era. Still, there was at least one piece of good news, with Moyes confirming that Ross Barkley, who turned 18 on Monday, will sign a new contract next week.
Cahill: last five years
2007 – 22 games, 9 goals
2008 – 29 games, 5 goals
2009 – 48 games, 8 goals
2010 – 36 games, 16 goals
2011 – 24 games, 0 goals