Credit where it is due. In high summer, with football in recess but a number of key managerial posts available, I questioned in my Independent column why David Moyes was not in the running for any of them. Andre Villas Boas appeared destined for Tottenham, Paul Lambert for Aston Villa and the Liverpool job came down to a toss-up between Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez.
The majority of the citizens of Goodison Park took offence at the idea that Moyes could ever have crossed Stanley Park and ridiculed the idea that Villa were a ‘bigger’ club than Everton, and therefore he would not want to go. Who has the prettiest wife at home did not to me seem the point. What interested me was the lack of feet beating a path to Moyes’ door.
I argued that the problem for Moyes was the lack of an identity associated with the way his team played. He was applauded for his brilliant husbandry on limited resources and his ability to spot a player, but not for an identifiable style of play. Predecessor Joe Royle left him with the ‘dogs of war’ tag, which he seemed happy to embrace.
Moyes is an engaging character but not effusive. Some might describe his public persona as worthy at best, dour at worst. I referenced a couple of showpiece occasions that I covered, which I thought were instructive. The 2009 FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United and final against Chelsea. Everton laboured against an unfamiliar United line-up, playing to a route one template that was negative. It was the same story against Chelsea even after scoring in the first minute through Louis Saha.
Most among the Everton priesthood were outraged at what they perceived to be a cheap shot at Moyes. They said I obviously hadn’t been watching in the past 18 months. Well I am paying attention now. In my defence Moyes said himself that he wouldn’t have paid to see many of his team’s matches last season. He would now, though. He is enjoying the spectacle. And so am I.
Moyes has ditched the long-ball strategy absolutely. It was always a negative ploy borne of the idea that his players were not equipped to play productively in a more technical style. I always felt this a flawed argument. Any player who makes it into the Premier League has acquired all the technique he will ever need. The rest is about tactics, attitude, industry and belief.
I have yet to see Xavi dribble down the wing, cut inside and smash one in from 30 yards. Not all great players have to play like Leo Messi. Moyes has Everton organised in a completely different way that puts a premium on possession and invites the players to take responsibility for the ball and when not in possession to work like Trojans to retrieve it. This is essentially the Barcelona model in which Xavi et al thrive.
Marouane Fellaini looks a world beater in this system, when he is asked to play the ball on the deck not bring it out of the sky. At the back Phil Jagielka looks twice as good in blue as he does in an England shirt. Across the park Everton are playing intelligent expansive football and reaping the rewards. The players haven’t necessarily improved. The system has. Next time a plum job becomes available, Moyes might have to lock himself in to keep the suitor at bay.
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