STRIKE A LIGHT
Mickey Blue Eyes
As we glumly contemplate the season thus far the main feature - statement of the obvious - has been a dearth of goals from (what are euphemistically called) our strikers. That is, Yakubu Ayegbeni, Louis Saha, Victor Anichebe and, to less extent, tyro Jermaine Beckford. Apart from that the standard of positive team play and passing has been first rate - Newcastle at home excepted - but when we get to the edge of the penalty area.......nothing. At that point everyone gives it to everyone else for an attempt on goal, which means no bastard actually has a go. In the league, The Yak has scored one league goal and so has Becks and that's it. In several of these matches we have threatened to overrun the opposition only to drop points when they appeared to be there for the taking. It has been wildly irritating. There isn't one of Us who doesn't feel like running onto the field, rushing into the penalty area and shouting, "Just get the fuckn ball on me head or at me feet and I'll do the rest!" However heart-felt, we all know this is a pleasant determinist fantasy, as are many other fans "solutions." Meanwhile, putting inevitable foolishness and hysteria to one side, what to do about our current frustration?
Let's consider our four strikers individually, then their affect on team shape and balance of play. Let's be clear about the reality, not the absurdity of jaundiced fans seeking fairy-tale powers. As this account will show, we are dealing with all-too-mortal flesh, blood and bone here, not robots or phantasmic graduates of Hogwarts School. The same applies to the man with ultimate responsibility, David Moyes; once again he finds himself in a lonely place, which is the permanent condition of anyone who would command others. There are parallels with the old matelot saw, "There are no back doors in the Navy." Once again Moyesy finds himself with his back against the wall, this time after much pre-season expectation. Hell hath no fury like an uncomprehending football fan scorned by fate. But sometimes you have to cut a swathe through ignorance. At difficult times like this reality can disappear from a certain mentality, the sort that complains of lack of player loyalty and then pillories the same for an inevitable loss of form, the sort that needs a scapegoat to answer for a bad turn of luck, the sort who would last thirty seconds in the maelstrom of actual footy decision-making. It is too the kind of everyone-and-everything-is-dispensable sickness that chooses to, for instance, ignore the playing tragedy of James Vaughan, which I describe below.
First, The Yak, age 28, but not the same player since he ruptured an Achilles tendon in November 2008. By then he had been with the club for just over a year, scored on his debut and finished his first season with a total of 21 goals. He didn't return from injury until September 2009, even then only as a substitute initially, and with a gradual increase in playing time; a full ninety minutes was a rarity until October 2009. But that was short lived and he soon had to revert to a sporadic subs role to help his recovery. It wasn't until March 2010 that his match fitness improved, and it wasn't until September 2010 he managed to have a short run of starts. Anybody who knows anything about Achilles ruptures will tell you this is par for the course. Recovery basically entails learning how to walk again. A professional athlete has to do exactly as doctors tell him or he risks his playing future. In fact, in previous years a snapped Achilles was the end of a sports career. Nobody was more surprised than I that he actually managed to play again. When he played so well in the derby match - who can forget the square-on shoulder charge that left a hapless pinky prostrate - it raised brief hopes he was back to his best. Alas. As of this writing, we are left wondering if we will ever see his prime form again, or whether he will be able to last for a full match. Add to that his own observation that he had almost transferred out immediately before his injury, and some transfer nonsense typically from the two spivs who own West Ham, and you have, to put it mildly, an uncertain picture.
Louis Saha, now age 32, joined Us in Summer 2008. He was and is considered an injury-prone veteran, but still scored some remarkable goals and was capable of intense brilliance in short flashes. In his first season he scored 6 goals in 10 league starts and 14 substitutions. In his second season he scored 13 goals in 26 league starts and 7 substitutions. In his third season (this one) no goals, 4 league starts and 5 substitutions. Perhaps his best display was in February this year when he scored two in a scintillating display during a 2-1 win over Chelsea. There aren't many who doubt his brilliant close control and short layoff passing ability. The problem is in keeping him off the treatment table, which of course gets more difficult with each passing week. This may be the season in which age and physical condition finally catches up with him, a fact faced sooner or later by all professional footballers.
Victor Anichebe, age 22, made his debut in 2006 at age 18. He was very raw, but did reasonably well and scored regularly in Europe until a terrible injury inflicted by the thug Nolan of Newcastle in February 2009. It was so severe he didn't return to fitful action until January 2010. Then he suffered another knee injury by Summer, from which he has only just recovered. Only time will tell if it is a complete recovery. He has always been a strong and willing player, but his first touch is usually iffy and he isn't very good at combination play or quick, short passing. So far, in all competitions he has made 34 starts, 66 substitutions and scored 12 goals.
Jermaine Beckford, age 27 next month, joined Us in Summer 2010 from League One football. It was probably asking too much of him but he tried valiantly to breach the gap. In the circumstances Moyesy didn't have much choice but to blood him early. Louis wasn't performing, The Yak wasn't fully match fit and Vic Anichebe was still injured. At the time of writing there are doubts as to whether he can make the final step, though his effort and determination are second to none. What is in question at the moment is his close control and the timing of his runs, both of which leave a bit to be desired.
Then there is James Vaughan, age 22, who made debut at 16 in 2005, scoring, and is the youngest Everton and Premiership player ever. But sadly his very promising career has been ruined by injuries. The first arrived quickly, in early 2005/06, and didn't clear until 2006/07. Then he dislocated a shoulder in a friendly in July 2007, only returning in November 2007. His return lasted until yet another knee injury in March 2008. He was back at the start of the next season, but only until, yes, yet another injury in November of that year. He returned in April 2009, had a difficult time, and was then loaned to Derby in September 2009, where, incredibly, he suffered another knee injury. Back at Everton, he was then loaned to Leicester City in March 2010, returning that Summer. By now his career was on the brink. He was loaned to Crystal Palace in September and is due back January 2011. So far, in all competitions, he has made 11 starts, 48 substitutions and scored 9 goals.
Striker performance are heavily dependent on midfield support and supply lines. If midfield players too are injured then the knock-on effect is obvious. And that is what happened to Us, just as it looked as though the squad was poised to make a breakthrough. Marouane Fellaini, age 23, was seriously injured January 2010, and came back in August. Jack Rodwell, rising star age 19, debut at 16 in 2007, had a bad ankle injury in August 2010 and returned late November 2010. Mikel Arteta, age 28, was injured in February 2009, and out for almost a year with cruciate ligaments. Steven Pienaar, age 28, joined in 2007 and his contract expires Summer 2011; he compensated bravely during Mikel's injury......but then himself got injured and missed 11 games last season - there is an acceptance he will leave the club next January. Leon Osman, age 29, was injured last October and is not due back until December. Seamus Coleman, age 22, made a dramatic home substitution debut in December 2009 and was then loaned to Blackpool in March 2010 and returned this season to make encouraging progress, though he is still learning and is vulnerable to quick counter attacks.
You put all this information together in a timeline and you immediately see a crucial overlap of bad injuries lasting over a year right up to the present. The disruption has been horrendous. But never once has David Moyes complained publicly, unlike most other managers. In fact he drew attention to it on a single occasion only, and even then almost as an absent after thought. He has never attempted to make injuries an excuse for the form of his team. However, they are a fact of life and their affect is undeniable to anybody with eyes to see and a brain to use. Which made all the more remarkable the great run of results at the end of season 2009-2010 when everybody in the team stepped forward to compensate for the problems. But it couldn't be kept up forever if returning players had difficulty getting their form back. And that is what happened both up front and in midfield. Possession play was usually fine, but the incisive edge was gone. It had and has nothing to do with formations and substitutions, whatever scapegoating malcontents would like to pretend. At this level you only need to lose a half metre of pace and you are goosed. In other words, the injury chickens have come home to roost. It was too much to hope they wouldn't. We had too many to crucial players at the wrong time, and all concentrated into an intense period as detailed above. It even extended to the defence where, for instance, Phil Jagielka has still not fully recovered his form.
So, the reality is the problems David Moyes is faced with, not wishful thinking or the kind of sick hatred of some sick or stupid fans which is beginning to re-emerge as he tries to turn the season around yet again. My own feeling is that once we have a settled and re-established centre midfield trio of Fellaini-Arteta-Rodwell there will be a big improvement in decisiveness in and around the opponents' penalty area. This will help the strikers whoever they are. But the fact remains that Louis looks like he's finished, The Yak is not yet fully fit, Vic Anichebe has only just come back and may not have the necessary oomph anyway, and Becks simply may not be up to the task. And all of this takes time, a commodity now in relatively short supply with the season over one third completed.
All of which means I think we can forget about European qualification. Seventh or eighth is probably as much as we can hope for at the moment, barring another excellent run of results. Of course our only trophy hope is the FA Cup, and anything can happen in that competition.
It would help, though, if some fans would learn to grow up beyond the age of fifteen and face reality instead of sounding like a bunch of Scotty Road shawlies quaffing bottles of Guinness in a smoke-filled tatty ale-house while reading the Sun newspaper.