As a player, you have certain preconceptions about the way managers and teams get written up in the press. Everyone knows that a boss who has a bad four months can emerge from a season with great publicity and all the poor autumn results long forgotten, if he manages to pull a side out of the relegation fire. But the manager who starts well and fades by the springtime? He’s generally considered a failure. That assessment is often not, by any means, fair.
It is relevant to a discussion of Everton’s Roberto Martinez, for whom I have much professional respect and who I think is a good manager but who I have to say I consider to have been a fortunate manager. At Wigan, he had his famous great escapes but that was considered to be an achievement. It contributed to him being linked very closely to the top job at Liverpool before he was appointed at Everton. On the basis of what we saw in Everton’s opening game against Watford last weekend, there could be more of what we witnessed at Wigan if he does not solve the transparent weakness in the team – a problem which was there last season and does not seem to have been sorted over the summer. Desperate predictability.
Every team in the top flight now knows that Everton will want to take six or seven passes to get somewhere with the ball, when they ought to take three. In Romelu Lukaku, they have a club record signing whose strengths lie in his pace and ability to run on to the ball. I was watching him closely at Goodison last Saturday and saw the obvious frustration he seemed to be feeling at having no service, and being forced to drop deep to get possession. Only when Everton were under pressure themselves did they finally try to release it by playing more directly: stretching the Watford defence; playing to Lukaku’s strengths.
One of the centre-half’s mantras is that you always want to be able to see the number on the back of an opposition centre-forward like Lukaku. The last thing you want is to lose sight of it, by having Lukaku disappearing down the sides or between the two centre-halves. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had a dangerous player like that in front me in the Premier League, jagging this way and that, disappearing out of my eyeline. Who am I talking to on the pitch when that happens? My closest midfielder, that’s who. “Get over here and help me keep him quiet,” I’d be saying, to put it mildly.
But because Lukaku is not being used to stretch opponents in that way, the midfielders are not being asked to help the defenders ship water. That means there is more time for opposition midfields to put pressure on Everton in central areas. The statistics tell a story: Everton conceded 14 goals last season by losing the ball in their own half. Other teams make sure every Everton shirt is marked in midfield and leave only the centre-halves, John Stones and Phil Jagielka, time on the ball because they know they will probably not hurt them with possession. Everton then get frustrated, find there is no pass on, get out of position, and the opposition can strike on the counter. That’s exactly how Watford played it – patiently – in an impressive first game back up in the top flight last Saturday. When they did have a go at Everton, they used Troy Deeney exactly how Martinez should have used Lukaku.
If I was facing Everton, as Southampton are in Saturday’s lunchtime game at St Mary’s, I know exactly what I would be looking to do: be patient, let them have their pretty possession and then strike on the counter. It’s going to be a very long season at Goodison Park if something a bit less predictable does not come into the picture.
Pulis’s philosophy offers new teams best chance of survival
It was interesting to see how the newly promoted teams fared first up. They all offered something last weekend. For the teams who have come up I think we are looking for a psychological component: far more so than in the sides who are already getting established.
The players in the new teams will have arrived in the Premier League on the crest of a wave, accustomed to the fact that you generally win your matches. They will now be adjusting to losing more than they win. Survival will, to a substantial degree, be a reflection of whether individuals can cope mentally with sometimes being second best, man v man or team v team.
Tony Pulis at Stoke retained a mantra about having a specific identity which made you better than at least three other teams in the Premier League. There was never any pretence about trying to go toe-to-toe with the best in the league – a sure-fire recipe for going straight down. Clean sheets at home, a small pitch at home and good set pieces: that was us. Don’t change too much. Don’t change your beliefs. And don’t let the losses wear you down. It worked nicely.
Van Gaal needs to give a simple message to De Gea
Another weekend on the margins for David De Gea, whom Louis van Gaal did not consider psychologically capable of playing at Villa Park. For me, the conversation should go along these lines.
Van Gaal: “You’re not going anywhere this season and I would ask you to bear in mind that the European Championship is next June. You won’t be taking part if you’ve spent most of the season sitting in the Old Trafford stand.”
De Gea: “Yes, boss.”
Fair play to Doncaster for not taking advantage
It was a bizarre scene at Doncaster last weekend, when they scored by mistake when lofting a ball back into play against Bury, then stood aside to let Bury run through them to equalise in the kind of act of sportsmanship I’ve never seen before.
But good deeds are not totally alien to the game, despite the surface impressions. I remember when my Southampton side were playing at home to Ipswich in 2005-06, the year after we’d been relegated from the Premier League. We were getting dog’s abuse from our fans and were well on the way to a 2-0 defeat when I brought the ball out of defence and was looking for someone to pass to. Jim Magilton was standing in front of me. He said: “Just go past me, Danny. I’m not going to tackle you.” He must have seen the look on my face and thought enough was enough. Jim, I still owe you one!
Danny Higginbotham’s new TalkSport programme, The Players’ Lounge, is broadcast from 7-10pm tonight
- More about: