We go behind enemy lines for this Q&A ahead of Manchester United's clash with Everton on Sunday.
Another Q&A. This time with Royal Blue Mersey, SB Nation's Everton community. A special thanks to one of their writers -- Calvin -- for taking the time to answer questions from the TBB community. Here's the Q&A:
TBB: This initial and somewhat lengthy group of questions has to deal with Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines -- probably the two players most see as the most influential at Everton. Fellaini has turned into a dominant force and genuine match-winner (which we saw firsthand in August) while Baines seems to be the key creative force -- which player, in your opinion, is more important to your success? Do you feel you can hold onto one or both in the summer? After them, who do feel is your next most indispensable player? And finally, if Baines walks too close to Fellaini, does he get sucked into the gravitational pull of the afro? All kidding aside, if Fellaini's hair had a moon, what would it be called? :)
RBM: You've got it spot on that Fellaini and Baines are the most influential to this Everton side. Trying to decide between the two as to who is more important is like being caught between a rock and a hard place though. Baines is the ying to Fellaini's yang. If Fellaini is the hammer, then Baines is the sickle. David Moyes' trademark has been to build teams where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and I'd say that put in another team, neither would be as effective as when playing for the Blues.
Now if I did have to pick one over the other though, it would have to be Baines. Fellaini has been a solid player for a few years now, but it's only towards the end of last season that he really started coming on as a star, and Moyes changed his system to accommodate for his talents. Without him, Everton will simply revert to having a playmaker behind the striker again. For Baines, there is little to say about his attacking instinct, crossing abilities and dead ball delivery that hasn't already been said. He is a left back that could walk into the starting line up of just about any team in the world. Even in a 3-5-2 like Juventus play, imagine how dangerous he could be playing wingback, freed from more defensive responsibilities!
The next most important player in blue? Easy, it's your old boy, Darron Gibson. We'll talk a little more about him later.
Fellaini's 'fro has been responsible for Pluto's dismissal from the league of planets. That dark matter has a gravitational pull of it's own, responsible for attracting wayward balls that fly in his vicinity. In fact, some argue that it actually drew Ryan Shawcross' head towards it so violently it looked like a headbutt!
TBB: Okay, a bit more on Baines but more specifically, Everton's left-side. Baines and Steven Pienaar seem to have a wonderful understanding and their partnership has had all sorts of joy against United as of late -- can you talk a bit about them? How do things change when another attacker -- such as Kevin Mirallas, Leon Osman, or Steven Naismith -- partners Baines instead? The left-side definitely seems to be the main emphasis in attack -- how is this side supplemented by Osman's left-of-centre role from central-midfield and by Fellaini's and Victor Anichebe's tendency to drift left? Do you feel this side is vulnerable against quick counterattacks when possession is lost?
RBM: Bainaar, what a fantastic pair! The level of communication between the two is so subliminal that a commentator once quipped "These two could find each other in the dark" during a game. They really do think alike, and always seem to be able to perceive an opening where one runs into and the other sends a perfectly weighted ball there. Only Mirallas has come closest to being able to replicate that kind of incisiveness on the left wing, when occasionally Pienaar ventures into the middle and Mirallas switches over to the left for short periods.
Osman plays very well in that left-of-centre position, but it's both Fellaini and Anichebe who have benefited the most in that position. They both are big, rugged players who can hold the ball up and slip short diagonals for Baines to run onto and cross, or else send back to the middle to recycle the ball for delivery into the box. However, with Mirallas' and Seamus Coleman's injury woes, the right wing has been criminally under-utilized. Often teams will overload their right sides to counter the Bainaar threat, and Everton simply do not have the resources to take advantage of their opponents' unbalanced left wing.
Sylvain Distin is an excellent left-sided defender, and does a good job sweeping up when opponents launch quick counters with Baines and Pienaar out of position. However, where Everton have been really susceptible is when opposing teams have big, fast strikers (think Christian Benteke or Carlton Cole) who can run onto long balls played behind the defence. What has not helped is Moyes insisting on using Johnny 'The Turnstile' Heitinga as centerback and pushing Phil Jagielka out to rightback dues to the injury issues.
TBB: More on Osman and the central-midfield now. How has the Englishman progressed as a player? Obviously, his England call-ups as of late hints that he's doing quite well. What does the versatile player bring to central-midfield? How does his partnership work with a Darron Gibson or a Phil Neville? Speaking of Gibson, how is the old United lad doing these days? What kind of midfielder has he progressed into? His ability to spray the ball to the flanks or up front for Fellaini and the other attackers seems like a good fit. Always had an eye for a goal, but has his all-round play come on?
RBM: Osman has really come along in the decade that Moyes has been at Everton. He possesses an excellent ability to hold up the ball and while he doesn't have the fantastic vision that Mikel Arteta is blessed with, he does and adequate job distributing the ball around. Everton play a 4-4-1-1 system, with the two in the middle distributed as a right-sided defensive midfielder (Gibson) and a left-sided attacking midfielder (Osman). Phil Neville, bless his heart and his effort, just does not cut it at the European football level that the Toffees aspire to play nowadays. For the long periods he had to fill in Gibson's boots, he was barely adequate and did little to actually push Everton forward. Fizzer is club captain though, and does a really good job motivating the lads, so much so that Everton are only second to United in points gained from losing positions this season.
Gibson now, I can wax lyrical about him all day long. Solid of build and temperament, dogged in defence and accurate in attack, I still cannot believe Everton's good fortune that he fell into Moyes lap for a mere ₤500,000. When under siege, he plays an excellent outlet ball to release pressure. When sustaining pressure upfield, he does a fantastic job keeping the opponents on their toes with his distribution. Like I had mentioned previously, he is a key member of this side and Everton's top four challenge rests as much on his rugged shoulders as it does on Baines' left boot and Fellaini' expansive chest.
TBB: Moving on to the attack -- Anichebe seems to be getting the nod over Nikica Jelavic the last couple of games. Is the latter down on confidence? He's been tremendous against United in the past year. If Fellaini is out due to injury this weekend, will Moyes play them both together? What are the strengths of each? Any predictions for a starting XI?
RBM: Jelavic needs to recalibrate his 'goal GPS'. It's like he has just lost his bearings where the goal is. He is constantly drifting offside, scuffing shots, overcommitting himself, and the harder he tries, the worse it gets. Moyes has attempted to play him through his slump but that hasn't worked, and he eventually had to drop him two weeks ago. Jelavic did score for Croatia in a midweek international, so here's hoping he monkey's off his back till the end of the season. At his best though, Jelavic is a nightmare to defend because most of his goals are of the one-touch nature, so you literally have to prevent him from touching the ball to keep him off the scoresheet. Anichebe on the other hand is more in the Fellaini mould, a big burly striker who can hold off strong defenders and can find some difficult angles to score.
If Fellaini cannot play on Sunday, I doubt Moyes will line up two strikers. The Scotsman is born conservative, and will not start both Jelavic and Anichebe. This game will be won in the middle of the park, and Moyes will ensure he gets traction in the centre by playing five midfielders, possibly Mirallas in advanced midfield, and Naismith out on the right.
TBB: How do you feel about your chances for a top 4 finish? From our perspective, Everton's best XI is generally on par with the likes Arsenal, Spurs, and perhaps even Chelsea. However, depth seems to be an issue. How important do you feel a top 4 finish is? I ask because this seems to be a factor into the futures of Fellaini and David Moyes -- and perhaps to lesser extent, Baines (he seems so reluctant to leave).
RBM: It was very disappointing that Moyes wasn't able to bring in any reinforcements during the transfer window, so Everton's chances of a top four finish now are entirely dependent on remaining injury-free until May, which is a tall ask. Depth is a big problem for a club with Everton's financial situation, and even though they have a fantastic youth setup they simply do not have any players ready to bridge that gap right now.
There is a niggling feeling that without European football next season, the core of this side could be dismantled for financial posterity. It's a disturbing thought, but very real at the same time. Moyes had delayed any talk of extending his contract until after the transfer period ended, and you can bet he's frustrated by how that went. Fellaini could be sold for a bucketload of money which could yield two-three key members of the side for a few years to come. But the big question is, will Moyes stay?
TBB: Can you talk a bit about Tim Howard? How is his form this season and how do the supporters feel about him in general? His talent was evident at Old Trafford but during his time at the club, he was prone to making a mistake or two too many for our liking. Has this continued at all at Goodison? For the United States, he seems to be a tremendous 'keeper. He'll soon be 34-years-old -- which, of course, isn't that old for a 'keeper -- what's his future like at Everton?
RBM: Howard is a fan favourite at Goodison, just like he has been everywhere he has played. He has been prone to making a mistake or two, and that has increased quite a bit this year. He seems to have lost a second in his initial step out, and has been beaten often by snapshots. There is a feeling that without solid competition (his backup is Jan Mucha, and he's not much good I'll tell you) Howard has let complacency into his game. He has been outstanding for the US national team, and it's been disappointing he hasn't replicated that form for the Toffees. I see another year for him at most at Goodison.