Sunday 15th May 2005, Everton have just lost 3-2 away to Bolton Wanderers after being 1 up at half-time. Referee Neale Barry blows the final whistle to signal the end of the 04/05 campaign. Rapturous cheers fill the stadium (following a bit of handbags between Jaaskelainen and some Everton players), but the cheers are not those of the Bolton fans. Today the cheers are those of the Toffees. Today Everton have finished 4th in the table, sandwiched between Arsenal and Liverpool. Today Everton have qualified for the Champions League.
Sunday 25th October 2009. Everton have just lost 3-2 away to Bolton and currently sit 14th in the table.
There can be no denying that the blue half of Merseyside are struggling this year. All signs pointed to a decline when on the opening day of the season they lost 6-1 to Arsenal, with a team still boasting Lescott at the heart of their defence. Opening day fixtures can often be discounted as flukes, or slight blips in the graph, yet this was something greater and much more ominous.
Last season, Everton finished in 5th as they had done in 07/08. They had the 5th best defensive record in the country, and were runners up in the FA Cup. Overall they won 45% of all their matches with an excellent away record. Cahill, Fellaini and Saha all netting 7+ goals and Lescott contributing 5 from defence. It truly had been an excellent season, more so when one considered the late surge from Tottenham, the consistency of Fulham and the millions of Manchester City.
This season though it's all falling apart. Only last week an Everton side shorn of 10 starting players were torn apart by a magnificent Benfica. They conceded 5 goals, and have since conceded another 5 in games against Bolton and Spurs. In the league alone they have lost 3 quarters of their away games.
The first port of call in these situations is often the same; injuries. At the time of writing, the Toffee's injury list reads like Steve Bruce's shortlist. No less than 10 players are injured, 8 of whom are arguable starters for the club. Players such as Jagielka, Pienaar, Neville, Osman, Yobo and worst of all Arteta. Those players alone account for 27 of Everton's goals last season.
Which brings us to the question of depth.
Everton are not a rich club, they do not have the deep pockets of their red neighbours, nor the sound financial nous of their direct rivals; Tottenham. They have had to work hard to get where they are, and are lucky in that Moyes famously shares an excellent relationship with their owner, Bill Kenwright. This summer they spent quite big by their own standards and brought in Heitinga, Distin and Bilyaletdinov at a combined cost of £20 million. Compare that to the money spent by Manchester City on Adebayor alone.
Heitinga was a rush buy to compensate for the loss of Joleon Lescott, a player who won't be having a testimonial for former employers Atletico Madrid. The loss of Lescott cannot be underestimated. Moyes did everything in his power to keep him, turning away bid after bid from potential suitors, and even publicly turning down a transfer request from the player himself. Eventually the £24 million offered by City was too good to turn down, and once again in late August Everton found themselves missing a vital piece of the jigsaw.
"There is not a chance we will sell this close to the end of the window, the offers were not big enough. We think the world of him, as a centre-half and a left-back. He gives us two players in one."
They have lost a rock at the heart of their team, in both the dressing room and on the field he was a leader, a goal scorer and seemingly irreplaceable. The numbers don't lie, they have conceded 15 goals this year compared the 37 they conceded all of last season.
The contribution from the forwards is also telling; they failed to bring in a striker and so are making do with the services of Saha, Yakubu and Jo. On his day Saha is up there with the best, however his day seems to come around as often as wins for Ipswich. Yakubu is permanently crocked and Jo although having decent technique just doesn't cut the mustard. They rely far too heavily on their midfielders, and with the absence of Pienaar, Osman and Arteta, have left Cahill carrying too heavy a burden. Bilyaletdinov has contributed with one goal, yet he has come half-way through the Russian season and cannot be relied upon to pick up the slack. Fellaini has made a decent contribution, although in my opinion has struggled to live up the record-price-tag paid for him.
In the end the buck has to stop with the people who run this club. In my opinion Moyes did not do enough to strengthen his squad, especially with the likes of Man City, Tottenham, Fulham and Villa swarming all around. In his defence, the sale of Lescott ended up forcing his hand, and he played it poorly -- Heitinga may well be the answer, but it's too soon to tell. Lucas Neill's recent arrival could also provide the solidity and leadership so desperately lacking.
Hopefully by the time the winter transfer window opens, Neill, Heitinga, Distin and Bilyaletdinov will have settled and a few first teamers will have returned. Either way, it may be too late to relive that feeling of Sunday 15th May 2005.