Before the season started, this question would have been almost unthinkable. Flashback to the end of last season; Everton had just lost their manager of eleven years, David Moyes. Moyes had taken them from a beatable, lower mid-table to relegation team, and made them competitive. He instilled his philosophy of hard work and stubborn resolve. Goodison Park became a ground that teams feared to visit, because even if they didn’t win, Everton rarely lost on their home soil. With a shoestring budget, the squad was enriched. Savvy business like £2.5mil for Mikel Arteta and £1.5mil for Tim Cahill allowed Everton to continually push higher up the table.
This push peaked in the 04/05 season when Everton finished fourth. They finished the season on 61 points, three higher than Merseyside rivals Liverpool and sixteen points less than Manchester United in third place. It wasn’t until the 07/08 season that Everton bettered their 61 points, finishing on 65 in fifth place. For the next few seasons, Everton averaged in the low-to-mid sixties, never finishing higher than fifth place. It seemed that Moyes and Everton had reached their ceiling. Over the course of these seasons, a core group was kept together with the occasional sale of higher tier players.
During Everton’s highest points total season (65), they averaged 1.7 points per game. Now, under new manager Roberto Martinez and 24 games into the season the average is 1.8. What’s encouraging about these statistics isn’t just the higher number, but the fact that Everton have played all the teams above them already. Beating Manchester United away, Chelsea at home and taking draws against Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool is an extremely impressive feat for Roberto Martinez in his maiden season at Everton. Few people (myself included), expected such an exceptional season.
Martinez has managed to completely revamp Everton’s style of play while largely maintaining the strong defensive foundations established by his predecessor. While their defensive record and reputation was undoubtedly tarnished by their deconstruction at Anfield, I believe that result was anomalous. The derby was a brutal lesson, well learned; Martinez’s gamble of unfit players and a makeshift defence didn’t come off.
Another key element to the unexpectedly successful current season is more good work in the transfer market, both in terms of sales and additions. While the late nature of the transfer was a concern, the excellent business the club did with the sale of Marouane Fellaini, and the arrival of his replacement James McCarthy, has been key to the club’s success this season. This, combined with a certain degree of guile in the loan market, has allowed Everton to build a very strong squad without needing too much investment.
While the long term ramifications of a team full of players that aren’t owned by the club is troubling, Martinez has taken a gamble in order to assemble his strongest possible squad. The idea here being that if these loan players can allow Everton to finish in the Champions League positions, some might stay but more importantly; money and the attraction of European football will bring more high calibre players to the club on a permanent basis.
With a rising injury list, January was a testing month for Everton, taking just five points from a possible 12. However, beginning February with a strong comeback against Aston Villa, following the derby humiliation, as well as the return from injury of several key players, Everton are looking strong again.
They face a tough test against Spurs on Sunday at White Hart Lane, but should they again take points from a rival for fourth place, Everton will continue to compete for fourth. Make no mistake, despite only being three points off fourth, Everton are certainly outsiders. They can, however, take some comfort from a relative lack of activity in the transfer market from other rivals. Had Spurs and Liverpool strengthened, Everton’s shot would have been even longer. The arrival of Juan Mata at Manchester United is a worrying prospect for the top four hopefuls, but another loss, this time against Stoke City, continues their baffling season.
So, as an Everton fan, do I believe Everton will finish fourth? To rehearse an old cliché, my heart is saying yes, and my head is saying no. Ultimately, as with every football season, there are defining moments. We never know what these moments are until the dust has settled; for Manchester United a couple of years ago, it was the 4-4 draw. For Everton this season? Who knows, maybe the 4-0 loss to Liverpool is our defining moment, or maybe the win at Old Trafford (a symbolic transference from Moyes to Martinez mentality). With fourteen games to go, perhaps our defining moment is yet to arrive.
February could be a crucial month for Everton, they play in-form Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and Spurs at White Hart Lane. With four points from those games, Everton are in with shout.
See you in May.