Everton fans must have watched the recent victory over Tottenham Hotspur with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was a gritty performance and a great result – but, on the other, it raised tough questions about why the Toffees have struggled to produce that quality through much of this season.
Manager David Moyes can point to continued bad luck with injuries, but there is no doubt that while Manchester City, Bolton and Sunderland have seen their status improve within the Premier League, Everton have been one of the casualties. And it has put Moyes’ position, which has always seemed so secure, under increased scrutiny.
Moyes has had some glorious moments during his eight-year tenure – including reaching the Champions League qualifying round against all odds and the FA Cup final – however, Everton no longer look like a top six team. Their spirit and work-rate have never dipped, but the results have suffered, in part due to a lack of quality in the final third.
Pushing the panic button may seem a bit extreme considering that Everton finished sixth in 2007 and fifth in 2008 and 2009. The Toffees are currently in the bottom half though – behind Stoke, Newcastle and Blackburn – and ended last season in eighth. The progress Moyes had hoped for has failed to materialise.
The former Preston boss has rightly taken a lot of plaudits for his achievements at the club, overcoming setbacks and balancing the books. But the question lingering on Merseyside is: have things gone stale at Goodison Park?
The club’s supporters appear to be divided on the answer. Some continue to back Moyes whole-heartedly, others are critical but see no better option and a further portion are calling for a change.
It is hard to pinpoint what has gone wrong, but critics have drawn attention to Moyes’ tactics, including the use of midfielders Tim Cahill and Marouane Felliani in attack. Everton have struggled to find a consistent strikeforce and Moyes has been unable to attract a proven, healthy finisher to the club, instead swooping for Leeds’ relatively unproven front man Jermaine Beckford in the summer.
This limited action in the transfer market has been all the more damaging due to the injury jinx that has swept through the team. Moyes has lost Louis Saha on countless occasions, Yakubu, Phil Jagielka and Mikel Arteta among others, disrupting the side’s rhythm and forcing players to play out of position.
While some supporters have pointed the finger at Moyes, it is hard to ignore the fact that he has worked with a tiny transfer kitty over the past few years, relying on loans or bargain buys. When he has opened the chequebook, the results have been encouraging – Tim Howard, Phil Neville and Cahill have all been huge successes and Russian Diniyar Bilyaletdinov looks promising – but he has simply been priced out of the bidding in recent seasons.
Fans rightly understand that the chances of replacing Moyes with a more celebrated manager would be slim considering that there would not be the type of funds available that attracted Roberto Mancini to Manchester City or Harry Redknapp to Tottenham. Any suggestions that Guus Hiddink or Sven-Goran Eriksson might be tempted to Goodison Park seem rather fanciful.
In all likelihood, there will be no decision on Moyes’ future until the summer. His relationship with the Board is believed to be excellent and so long as Everton stay well clear of the drop zone, supporters expect that Moyes will not face too many probing questions.
Of course, the other consideration in this discussion is that Moyes may also feel that he has gone as far as he possibly can at Everton and that a change of scenery is required. There has been talk along those lines, but Moyes himself has so far given no public indication that his future lies elsewhere.
Despite appearing on the cusp of threatening the top four two or three years ago – or at least being a regular top six side – Everton must face the reality that they are stranded between the elite and the basement dwellers. Few would consider the Toffees as relegation candidates, however a top half finish is no longer a foregone conclusion and qualifying for Europe looks out of reach. Moyes has four months to steady the ship, but it is increasingly noticeable that some of the Everton faithful are becoming uneasy.