David Moyes Makes the Most of His Threadbare Everton Squad in European Pursuit

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David Moyes Makes the Most of His Threadbare Everton Squad in European Pursuit
Michael Steele/Getty Images

For much of his tenure, Everton manager David Moyes has been heavily criticized for employing what many consider to be negative tactics.

During the recent FA Cup match against Bolton Wanderers, he was booed by supporters when he substituted misfiring striker Nikica Jelavic in the 80th minute, and instead of replacing him with another attacker brought on defender John Heitinga. Instead of folding, however, the side readjusted their shape and the Dutchman went on to score a late game-winner for Everton.

Despite the victory, Moyes still remains a polemical figure for many supporters who feel that he has sabotaged genuine attempts to progress the club with his guarded approach. This case was highlighted when the Toffees lost toothlessly to derby rivals Liverpool in last season's FA Cup semifinal.

But, although he cannot be compared to progressive tacticians such as Marcelo Bielsa and Sir Alex Ferguson, the long-serving Scottish manager should not receive such a heavy brunt of the blame for Everton’s less-than-thrilling attack during his tenure.

In fact, considering the players he has at his disposal, Moyes has arguably tried his best to play positive, attacking football in recent seasons. Especially, since the start of the most recent campaign.

For most matches, Everton line up in a flexible 4-5-1 formation, which often resembles a 4-3-3, with the wide  midfielders moving high up the pitch and the most advanced central midfielder positioned as a forward when in possession and holding when the side are defending.

The use of Marouane Fellaini in this position (formerly known as the “Tim Cahill role”), has maintained the aerial threat and bullying strength of the Australian against opposing defenses, but also brought the composure and silky passing that epitomizes the Belgian when he is utilized more defensively.

Against Bolton, Kevin Mirallas played on the right-flank before coming off injured. Unlike Steven Naismith, who has been used there during Mirallas’ spell on the sidelines with a hamstring problem, the 25-year-old is purely an attacking player. Considering that right-back Seamus Coleman made his name as a wide midfielder in the prior two seasons for the Toffees, this means that at their best Everton have a very positive, speedy, and skillful pair on the right side of the pitch.

Of course, the situation changes with injuries and loss of form. Tony Hibbert and Phil Neville have also played at right-back this season, and neither are as tricky or fast as Coleman. This slows down play, but also provides better cover against sides with deeper squads that are able to rotate world-class players, such as the two Manchester clubs.

However, Everton are still blessed with likely the best left-sided pairing in the top flight.

Since his return from a short spell at Tottenham Hotspur last January, Steven Pienaar has picked up where he left off and added eight goals and 11 assists in his 12 months back at the club.

Behind him, there is surely the most attacking full-back in England, Leighton Baines. Although he only boasts three goals and two assists this campaign, Baines has created more chances than any other player in the league and been the subject of countless links to Man United as Patrice Evra's successor over the past year.

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In central midfield, Leon Osman and Darron Gibson have performed excellently together on the few occasions that the Irishman has been fit. However, especially limited options in this area have seen the bold, but less able Neville pushed into midfield, along with free-signing Thomas Hitzlsperger for a number of matches. Understandably, this has limited Everton's creativity over long periods.

In the striker's position, the uncontested starting place has always fallen to Jelavic. Although he has only managed five league goals this season, the Croatian is far ahead in terms of ability and experience than the only other two natural forwards (not including Mirallas) in the side, Victor Anichebe and Apostolos Vellios.

The Nigerian has certainly shown his penchant for scoring goals off the bench this season, including a winner at Newcastle United. But he still is inconsistent and struggles with injuries.

Vellios, on the other hand, would probably benefit from a loan spell, yet is needed on the bench because of the dearth of attacking options in the team.

Therefore, considering the threadbare nature of Everton's squad, it is hard to complain that Moyes turns to a more cautionary approach when first-choice players are available. Against United in the opening match of the season, as well as in the earlier away drubbings of Aston Villa and Swansea City, Moyes' men played absolutely beautiful and piercing football.

In fact, until mid-November, the Toffees were the most attacking side among Europe's top five leagues, boasting more shots on goal than Real Madrid or Barcelona, and hitting the woodwork on more occasions than any other Premier League side.

The situation has changed since that point. But, Everton still sit in fifth place in the table. They are also seventh in terms of goals scored and in the top three for fewest goals allowed in the division. That may ultimately prove not good enough for the Champions League. However, it deserves applause for a side with such limited squad options and the clear inability to purchase top talent as a result of financial constraints.

There are some Evertonians out there who may not like Moyes and will be glad to see him move on if he does not renew his expiring contract in May. Yet, considering the lack of funds available to any incoming manager and the reality that the side have a decent chance of returning to European competition in the summer, it might be best to just stick with the Scotsman.

His tactics may be precautionary at times. But, whenever the situation permits, Everton are capable of playing some of the loveliest football in England under Moyes.

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