Everton manager David Moyes unexpectedly tried to dip his toes into the January transfer market with two late moves for FC Twente midfielder Leroy Fer and Sevilla striker Alvaro Negredo, with both deals ultimately unsuccessful, but above all else, is the side crying out for a new centre-back? And should this be right at the top of the club’s list of priorities when the summer rolls around?
The Merseyside-based club are currently just adrift of Tottenham in fourth place having lost just three league games all season, a total less than Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and local rivals Liverpool. So they can’t be doing that badly, right? The move for Negredo in particular caught the eye as it was a tacit acknowledgement that the club required more firepower to try and secure a top four place this season, with Nikica Jelavic continuing to struggle to build upon his promise last term with a series of profligate displays. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t forget that Everton have kept just four clean sheets all season from 26 games and this little and often approach has held them back just as much, seeing them draw 12 games, equal only to that of Stoke.
The main culprit of this slump is undoubtedly Netherlands international John Heitinga, who looks every inch a jack of all trades trying to master one at the heart of a ropey back four. Of course, the steady presence of Tony Hibbert has been missed at right-back through injury, while Leighton Baines adventure and success down the left can often leave gaps for the opposition to expose, but it’s right through the middle where the team is having its biggest problems, with Phil Jagielka in desperate need of a new long-term partner. If Shane Duffy was ever going to break through, it would have been this season and he simply can’t be counted on to make the step up now.
Following the 3-3 home draw against Aston Villa, during which Heitinga was booed by his own fans for a truly torrid performance in getting the complete runaround from Christian Benteke, he took to Twitter to state: “Played worst game ever in the shirt of Everton. Let teammates and fans down but they never let me down. Will work hard to come back strong.” Now this isn’t a matter of hard work, it’s a matter of quality, or rather lack thereof. It’s truly astonishing that a centre-back like Heitinga, devoid of pace, positional discipline and height has played in a World Cup final. He gives hopes to middling defenders the world over.
Of course, this is not the first time this campaign that Heitinga has struggled with a physical centre-forward and he was just as abject against Carlton Cole during the 2-1 win back at Upton Park in late December, with Jagielka pushed out to right-back to counter Matt Jarvis’ pace and cover for the injured Seamus Coleman. Prior to recent back-to-back clean sheets against Southampton and Swansea, with Sylvain Distin returning to partner Jagielka in Heitinga’s place, they had failed to keep a single clean sheet in their previous 18 games across all competitions, letting in 24 goals in the process, during which they drew eight games.
Across the same sequence of fixtures from back in late September and the excellent 3-0 away win against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium, they scored 32 goals, scoring at least once in every game. Indeed, they’ve only drawn a blank in three games so far this season in the league, a record that only league leaders Manchester United can better. The misconception that a lack of goals is holding them back is a false one and the stats make a compelling case that they’re simply too easy to get through at the back, unable to build up any sort of prolonged form. Their tally of 40 goals this campaign is comparable to Tottenham’s 42 and they look well on course to concede more than last season’s record of 40.
The ageing presence of 35-year-old Distin means he can no longer be a guaranteed first-choice, even if he is a very handy reserve option and they’ve been forced to play the hapless Heitinga more often than is wise. Moyes only has a small squad at his disposal to start with and limited resources, so while adding another strike to their ranks may be a popular move on the terraces, it simply doesn’t address the real problem and would have been harsh on the improving Victor Anichebe, enjoying his finest spell of form in a blue shirt at the moment.
Of course, it is a team game and the collective must remain responsible just as much as one single player, no matter how poor they may be and the lack of a defensive shield is also leaving the back four exposed, while Tim Howard’s deeply average record at keeping out shots from distance is a well known and targeted area of weakness.
With Phil Neville and Leon Osman in the middle of the park, having to make-do through the injury troubles of Darron Gibson, while the side may be more fluid in possession, they have less pressure on the ball and this more expansive approach can best be attributed to pushing Marouane Fellaini further forward and selling back-up option Jack Rodwell to Manchester City in the summer. The deal for Fer would have helped this issue, but right through the spine the club could do with a few fresh faces, which is easier said than done. This is why Moyes will have to priorities but the fact that he didn’t even move for a centre-back in January is worrying, instead choosing only to bring in 18-year-old full-back John Stones from Barnsley.
The signings of both Kevin Mirallas and Steven Naismith have provided Moyes with more attacking options, but the fine defence the club has been built on in recent years has been forgotten, left unattended by a lack of investment and upkeep. Should they miss out on Champions League football this season and lose Fellaini in the summer to a bigger, altogether rich fish, then the principles on which Moyes has been so successful must be re-established, starting with a new centre-back as the biggest, most pressing priority.
Written by James McManus