Thursday, April 03, 2014

Learning our lessons

Two consecutive comprehensive defeats to sides who, in theory, are roughly our equals. Rather than just sweeping everything under the carpet and moving on, what can we learn from Everton and Southampton?

1. Find a formation that works. Everton's 4-2-3-1 and Southampton's 4-3-3 were devastatingly effective against us, as they have been for much of the season, and suit the personnel available to their respective managers. Our usual 4-4-2 looks rigid and stale by comparison.

2. Develop young players and introduce them to the team at the right time, when they're ready. Roberto Martinez and Mauricio Pochettino may be lucky to have inherited talents like Ross Barkley, Seamus Coleman, Adam Lallana, James Ward-Prowse and Luke Shaw, but are doing a superlative job of using them wisely. Pressing youth prospects into action too early or too frequently, whether out of apparent necessity or not, runs the risk of destroying their confidence. One wonders, for instance, how Paul Dummett will react to being dropped following a wretched couple of games, especially bearing in mind that he was clearly in the side due to Davide Santon's injury rather than on personal merit alone.

3. Don't underestimate the value of signing players who've made their name in the lower leagues. Leighton Baines cost Everton £6m from Wigan but went on to become England's left-back; Rickie Lambert has made his way up the divisions, finally pitching up in the Premier League and performing as though it's always been his natural stage; Jay Rodriguez was bought for a relatively handsome £7m fee from Burnley but now finds himself as the second highest English goalscorer in the division and a likely recipient of a plane ticket for Brazil from Roy Hodgson; and John Stones, a teenager bought from Barnsley, is earning rave reviews standing in for Phil Jagielka in the heart of the defence.

4. Use the loan market wisely. In Everton's case, they've brought in two players with sufficient Premier League experience to make a significant impact in key areas of the pitch (Romelu Lukaku up front and Gareth Barry in defensive midfield), as well as the exciting and occasionally exhilarating spark of life that is Barcelona's Gerard Deulofeu. By contrast, while Loic Remy has proven to be a huge hit on Tyneside, injury problems aside, our other loanee Luuk de Jong has shown precious little to suggest it was worth pursuing a deal we first contemplated two years ago - he's far from the player he was at FC Twente.

5. Don't sell your best player or players during the course of the season. There must have been interest in numerous players in both squads in January, but no one was allowed to leave. If you really must sell a star man, squeeze as much as possible out of the bidders and make sure you have a cheaper but capable replacement lined up (see Everton and Marouane Fellaini/James McCarthy, and compare to our bungled dealings over Dreamboat).

6. Show some ambition. This is achieved partly by taking note of point #5 above, but also by regarding progress in all cup competitions and the prospect of European qualification with anticipation and excitement rather than with pessimism and dread. Southampton seem determined to push for a Europa League spot, something for which we appear to have little appetite, while Everton's dogged persistence in the apparently vain pursuit of Champions' League qualification may yet bear fruit if Arsenal continue to falter.

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