Moyes has some concerns ahead of the quarterfinal clash with Wigan
As we move into spring, the “business end” of the football season is fast approaching. The big games are coming thick and fast and the pressure is heaped upon players and managers to make brash, brave, significant calls. Decisions that could ultimately determine whether a team will have anything to show for a whole nine months of hard graft.
With Everton on the cusp of an FA Cup quarterfinal tie against Wigan, Toffees manager David Moyes is one of those men who has some of those crucial calls to make.
Moyes’ contract situation has been well documented in recent weeks, with many citing the ongoing negotiations (or lack of negotiations as we’re led to believe) as a distracting factor for his Everton side. It must be said, the media focus on the issue has definitely coincided with Everton’s drop in form following the turn of the year.
But despite all of that, and with Wembley on the horizon, you can bet nobody at Goodison Park will be thinking about anything other than reaching the last-four of the FA Cup come full-time on Saturday.
And back-to-back 3-1 wins against Oldham and Reading will have injected some confidence into the side following a tricky run of games.
The Toffees have a formidable home record and with Wigan manager Roberto Martinez hinting this week that he will most likely rotate the squad, the onus will be on Everton too be positive, be aggressive and to go out and win the tie
A trip to the capital would certainly give the fans some memories from what has been a season not shorn of promise and progression.
But before all of that, the Everton manager has some key tactical choices to get Everton through what promises to be an intriguing quarterfinal.
Everton have struggled from set-plays this season
From a defensive point of view, set pieces have definitely been Everton’s achilles heel in recent weeks. Prior to the game against Reading, The Toffees had conceded three times in their previous games from corners.
This will definitely be cause for concern for Moyes. In seasons past, Everton have had a reputation for being resolute and organized in this area of the game. So their recent defensive mishaps are somewhat out of character if we look at the Scotsman's reign as a whole.
The Toffees are certainly missing Tim Cahill in this area, as he was given a free rein to go and attack the ball when Everton were defending set-pieces. Without the Aussie in there, aerial assurance is in short supply.
Marouane Fellaini for example, for all the excellent work he has done this campaign, is somewhat of a liability when tasked with a man-marking job from corners and set pieces.
With the commanding Phil Jagielka almost certain to miss out, Moyes will be relieved that Everton are facing a team like Wigan who like to get the ball down and play, as opposed to a team like Stoke or West Ham, who really test you out physically and aerially from set-pieces.
But when Wigan do get the chance to get the ball into the box, players like Sylvain Distin, Fellaini and John Heitinga need to be much more authoritative than we have seen in recent weeks. Especially with Paul Scharner lining up for the opposition. The Austrian has quite the habit of netting against The Toffees.
The threat posed by Baines and Mirallas will be key to Everton's chances
For much of the campaign Everton have been roundly praised for the creativity of their left-hand side. Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines ripped opposition right-backs to pieces at times earlier in the season, but their effect has been minimised since the turn of the year.
Teams became wise to the fact that if you shut down the Baines-Pienaar axis, then you go a long way to shutting down Everton. Cue oppositions loading their own right flank to tackle this, even at the expense of leaving gaps elsewhere. Gaps which at the time, Everton failed to take advantage of.
But with Seamus Coleman and Kevin Mirallas back in the side, what was a one-dimensional attacking line-up now has threats all over the park. In the game against Reading, Mirallas actually moved over to the left hand side, with Pienaar switching to the right.
This paid off, as both players scored goals cutting in from their respective wide positions. It also gave space for the Everton full-backs to bomb forward, as both Pienaar and Mirallas are comfortable coming off the line, drifting inside and taking opposition runners with them.
It will be interesting to see which flanks Mirallas and Pienaar both start on. But the way in which Moyes uses these players will be crucial to Everton’s attacking hope. Especially against a narrow Wigan back-three who could be exposed in the wider areas.
Will Moyes go for Anichebe or Jelavic?
Deciding on his main striker presents the biggest tactical conundrum for the Everton manager.
Against Reading, Victor Anichebe thrust himself back into the action with an impressive cameo from the substitutes bench. He will surely be chomping at the bit and raring to get back into the first XI following a short spell out of the side.
And it must be said, Nikica Jelavic hasn’t exactly made the centre forward berth his own in Anichebe’s absence.
In fact, Anichebe has outshone his fellow striker in almost every department this campaign, as Matt Cheetham points out here in his excellent piece.
Jelavic has been in undeniably poor form as of late, the reasons for which I outline in a previous article here. But there is always that gut instinct that the Croatian hit-man could sniff out a goal in game in which the team are struggling. He demonstrated glimpses of his old self against Oldham and Reading, giving me the impression a goal isn’t far off.
With Saturday’s quarterfinal likely to be a tight and nervy contest, Jelavic may well be given the opportunity to be Everton’s hero. Imagine the boost he would get if he scores the goal that sends Everton to Wembley?
If he obliges, then expect the goals to flow again. An in-form Jelavic would be a massive shot in the arm for Everton ahead of what promises to be an exciting run-in.
With this in mind and with Anichebe just coming back from injury, expect Jelavic to start against Wigan. Anichebe will be waiting in the wings as a potential impact substitute.
Moyes might bring Neville back into the side following Jagielka's injury predicament
The freak injury to Phil Jagielka has numerous implications for the Everton side. First and foremost, the defense will be weaker, with the ever inconsistent John Heitinga likely to step in.
But what has been overlooked is the hole this leaves in the side in terms of leadership. At the moment, club captain Phil Neville doesn’t make it into Everton’s best XI (or best starting XI for the Wigan game) and Jagielka, who is the vice-captain will also miss out. Leon Osman would be the man to wear the armband in their absences.
Osman is a good player and a Toffees veteran. But looking at the projected Everton line-up for Saturday’s clash there are no real leaders in the side.
In high-stakes games, you need your talkers and your organizers more than ever. Without Neville and Jagielka in the side, it is hard to pick out a player who is vocal and commanding as part of their on pitch persona.
When Neville doesn’t feature, he is often seen barking out instructions from the side-line whilst warming up as a substitute. Moyes clearly holds his leadership skills in high regard.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the Everton manager might well find a place for Neville in Saturday’s starting XI. If he features, Neville’s experience and big-game nous will be vital to the Everton cause.
What are your thoughts ahead of the game? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter @MattJFootball