BY ALEX LEONARD
And there we have it. The first weekend of Premier League football for 2013/2014 has passed, and I am thoroughly in love with it once again: immersed in every kick of a re-designed Nike ball, dissecting every column of sports newspapers, listening avidly to phone-ins on the radio, and welcoming Alan Shearer’s terrible punditry back to my Saturday evenings. Premier League football is unique in its own indescribable, passion-filled manner, and it had faded too much in my mind for me to be able to recall the ecstasy of it, until Saturday.
It had felt like years since a ball was last kicked. In reality, only 91 days filled the void since a brave new world (I refuse to use the word ‘era’ once more) consumed Everton Football Club. A new (outrageous) badge, a small collection of new players, and, as we all know and do not need telling again, a new manager.
Roberto Martinez, sporting a considerably more royal shade of blue tie than ever before, stepped foot in the away team dugout at Carrow Road on Saturday to applaud his Evertonian following. He then proceeded to do what he does best: coach. For that is what the Spaniard does, and who he is. Martinez does not have the presence of a manager, he seems too gentle, more likely to encourage rather than intimidate, not as fierce. However, I am using this description as a compliment; we live in an age of coaches, not managers.
Sir Alex Ferguson became red faced, and his carbon copy, the Chosen One, casts the icy glare that makes everyone but Wayne Rooney shiver, which fulfils the apparent status of what it is to be a ‘manager’. They are the scream-and-swear-to-win-matches type, the intimidating, hands-in-pockets, solitary figure who is easily irritated by TalkSport’s made up rumours and tabloid newspaper journalists’ stupid questions at press conferences.
Roberto Martinez does not fit into the ‘manager’ descriptions above—he winks at journalists. Naturally, I am sure he has a rant at his team every now and again, that is expected; however, his persona seems a focussed one, a friendly one, always seemingly relaxed (there is no chance of him strangling Andy van der Meyde). Admit it, both you and I would watch Wigan and sub-consciously admire him, especially when his little team overturned Manchester City in May.
This is what makes Martinez a person who is welcome around a club, a positive figure and someone who I am glad to have at Everton; you could pass him on the street and you would not think anything much of him, yet he stands head and shoulders above anyone for intelligence and innovation (some of his innovative tactics with Wigan last season were outstanding). Whereas Moyes walked with a swagger before his tenure at Everton came to a close, Martinez tiptoes around this new kingdom of his, making sure to smile twice at everybody in case of a disruption to his plans. Although, he is most certainly the focal point of the club—everything is firmly in his grasp.
My admiration for Martinez and his sophistication is one thing. Whether the Spaniard can channel his relaxed nature into satisfactory results and a Europa League spot, is something completely different. What Saturday brought, by the time the new Everton boss disappeared back down the tunnel at Carrow Road, was an indication for the season ahead. Quite the pretty statement.
I was pleased with the 2-2 score-line, ultimately, for a number of reasons. Martinez had warned prior to the opening game that a shift in style takes time and cannot realistically occur instantly; the pre-season match against Real Betis confirmed that there are still aspects to work on, as some of the passing around the back four made Evertonians shift uncomfortably in their seats. Although, Saturday’s performance was much better in comparison, and the statistics create optimism. Everton completed 88% of their attempted 564 passes, claiming 65.7% of possession. Despite the expansive, ‘pass-pass-pass’ approach, 26 crosses were attempted and Everton were rather neat in the final third, completing 152 passes which translated into 20 attempts on goal, seven being on target. The only real criticisms are that lazy defending cost the Blues all three points, and more attempts need to be transformed into numbers on the score-board if Martinez is to take an ‘outscoring’ approach.
Both goals were well worked, and the young star Ross Barkley left me amazed; I am not alone in saying I have watched that goal again and again. And again. The 19 year-old from Wavertree was outstanding, having a significant impact upon the match, completing four out of five take ons, and making 23 out of 24 passes in the attacking third: no wonder Martinez is looking to play him much more than his predecessor.
Speaking of the man Martinez followed on from, and as much as I do not wish to mention him, this topic is unavoidable. I awoke on Monday morning to discover that a “derisory and insulting” double bid from Manchester United, as the club statement read, had been correctly and swiftly rejected seeing as the Everton boss believes the Manchester club’s pursuit of the players is “a waste of time”. The sum of £28m is a pittance in consideration of Leighton Baines’ and Marouane Fellaini’s real (combined) value, and the sheer fury vented on Twitter and on TalkSport by Evertonians at Manchester United was therefore just.
I have an admiration for Leighton Baines that many other blues will share; there is something special about having one of the world’s best players in his particular position in the team you support. Forget Patrice Evra, and disregard Ashley Cole; the former Wigan Athletic left-back is second only to an in-form Jordi Alba, especially seeing as he made 12 more goalscoring chances than any other player in England’s top flight last season (116 overall), and is the only player in Premier League history to have taken 10 (or more) penalties and maintained a 100% success rate. If the best that United can offer is £12m, then the integral Leighton Baines is moving absolutely nowhere apart from up and down the left flank of the Goodison Park pitch.
Marouane Fellaini? I care for him significantly less, it is fair to say; and despite his influence upon the matches he plays, he is replaceable, although he should come at a high price (£28-30m should do the trick). However, I would much prefer the club to keep him rather than cashing in. His physical presence and intimidation in the centre of midfield, or supporting the striker, is key to success for Everton on occasion, and he is often a class above many; he would stroll into the midfield of every Premier League club, with Manchester City and Chelsea the exceptions. Only Michu could better the midfielder’s five headed goals last season with six, which gives an indication to the Belgian’s physicality in the box and why desperate clubs, such as Manchester United, aim to submit a pathetic bid to anger the Everton community. If, in the United board’s valuation, Baines is worth £12m, then a £16m price-tag for Fellaini is simply ridiculous, given the initial £15m that Mr. Kenwright paid Standard Liege (probably in 10p coins and Everton Mints) in 2008.
It was sensible of Everton not to release any information on this matter until Monday to ensure the beginning of the season was not disrupted, as the bid was in fact made on Thursday. Whether Fellaini leaves or not, the Blues will take the bullet and stagger on; it is only if Baines departs that I believe the club will sink to its knees, and begin to slip several places down the league table at least. If Manchester United want a player, the likelihood is they will get him (unless he is Francesc Fabregas), unfortunately. David Moyes is not as attractive as Sir Alex Ferguson for a player, and Ed Woodward is no David Gill; although, it is no secret how desperate Everton are for money. Plus, we still cannot judge what lies ahead for the season even if Everton keep the current squad as it is.
Whatever the case, I look forward to returning to a full Goodison Park on Saturday for the fixture against West Brom, whose opening day defeat and lack of Romelu Lukaku may foreshadow an underwhelming season ahead for Steve Clarke’s side. Everton look fit and able, Roberto Martinez is beginning to win the fans over, and although the new style may take some convincing, the Blues look in a positive shape to take the season ahead by the scruff of the neck, proving ‘pundits’ and journalists alike to be incorrect in their predictions.
I have not felt so genuinely optimistic about Everton Football Club for a long time.
Up the Toffees.