The finish line is in site. The 2010-11 EPL season is about to kick off. For the blue side of Merseyside I enlisted (read: forced) my buddy Jared (who holds dual citizenship between the U.S. and Canada, mind you) for Everton. Through endless hours of playing "FIFA 10" over XBox Live I have determined the Toffees are his his favorite squad. And that was before the Landon Donovan loan. Enjoy it, Jared brings the "spice."
By Jared Keene
Steve Pienaar sucks.
The above is the subject and text of a recent email I got from Cardillo, and to be honest, I didn’t know whether it was transfer news, him trying to mess with me, or just a blatant sharing of an opinion.
Anyway, turns out he was just messing with me, go figure, but clearly Pienaar doesn’t suck, as evidenced by his performance this past season. Even though it was his lowest statistical point total (7) in his three seasons with my beloved Toffees, it was his highest goal-scoring total (4- had 2 in each of the previous two years) and more importantly, he showed his versatility.
A natural winger, the South African playmaker proved that he can also play tucked in behind a lone striker, which manager David Moyes loves to do, or play in the center of midfield, as evidenced by his phenomenal performance in our 2-0 win(*) over the new Real Madrid of the EPL, Manchester City, last season. While there’s still talk of Pienaar leaving the club, I believe Moyes sees too much value in him, and he’ll ultimately stay (man, I hope I’m right).
(*) He scored a brilliant free kick in this one, check it out if you haven’t seen it.
Another player with Pienaar’s kind of versatility is that crazy flag-punching Australian, Tim Cahill.
I’m a big fan of this guy for so many reasons. Not only does he give 120 percent every time he’s on the pitch, but he can play anywhere in the midfield and can also play up front or in the center forward role. He’s also one of the best headers of the ball in the world, not to mention the league, and his physicality cannot be overlooked. Yeah, he’ll rack up some yellow cards, but he’s a leader and a fan-favorite. Oh yea, he also scored a brilliant bicycle kick against Chelsea(*) in 2007 to salvage a 1-1 draw.
(*) I despise Chelsea…along with Manchester United and of course, my hated Merseyside rival, Liverpool.
All this being said, now I’m going to jump into breaking this season’s squad down by position. Honestly, I wanted to single out Pienaar and Cahill because of their versatility and I didn’t know whether to put them under “midfielders” or “forwards.” I know they’re both technically midfielders, but because of injuries, players don’t always end up playing their preferred positions.
Goalies -- There’s really only one name here that’s really noteworthy -- USMNT goalie Tim Howard. Now entering his fifth season with the team, Howard has only missed four league games in the last four seasons. Widely considered one of the best goalies in the Prem, he’s the heart-and-soul of this team and it all starts with him at the back(*). Of course, there’s always going to be goals that are just truly unstoppable, but at age 31, I’m looking for Howard to have one of his finest seasons ever in the EPL, whether it be with Everton or Manchester United, who he played with before making the move to Merseyside. Backing up Howard will be Slovakian keeper Jan Mucha, who came over in a free transfer from Polish side Legia Warsaw. Mucha is certainly a capable backup and I’ll be interested to see what he can bring, if needed. There’s also third-stringer Iain Turner, but he won’t play unless Howard and Mucha suffer ridiculous injuries, which certainly can happen as evidenced by Man. City’s fiasco toward the end of last season.
(*) Don’t believe me? Check out his distribution on the build-up that led to Landon Donovan’s game-winner against Algeria. Boom, suck it Algeria!
Defenders -- For me, the back line all starts with two players -- central defender Phil Jagielka, who couldn’t stay healthy last season, and left back Leighton Baines. Jagielka, who’s been the subject of some transfer rumors this summer, is in the prime of his career at age 27. I know he only played in 12 games last year, but he’s been the club’s most consistent defender over the last three seasons. An intelligent player, Jagielka is also a threat from set-pieces and an excellent passer of the ball out of the back. Baines, meanwhile, just keeps getting better and better. The Englishman, who came to Everton from Wigan for the 20007-08 season, loves to get forward and his ball control/skill set allows him to do so. He also had eight assists last season -- that’s pretty awesome for a defender. A left-footer extraordinaire, Baines can curl in some spicy free kicks, whether it be a delivery into the box or a strike on goal. Two other defenders that I’m rather high on are young outside back Seamus Coleman, who was just superb in limited action last season, and versatile Dutch defender Johnny Heitinga, who can play center back, outside back, or even in the holding midfield role. Of course, there’s also Sylvin Distin, Phil Neville, and Joseph Yobo, among others. It’s all going to come down to consistency with these guys.
Midfielders -- Ok, I’m really excited for this section because to me, besides Howard, this is the most important position for us. Spanish playmaker Mikel Arteta is just a brilliant player and even though he can never seem to stay healthy, his impact when healthy is just enormous. He’s a great passer, a free-kick specialist(*1), and has tons of creativity on the ball, among all the other qualities of a true center midfielder. He, along with Cahill and holding midfielder Jack Rodwell, one of the brightest and most composed young players in the league, also signed extensions with the club this summer, which I was quite relieved to see. However, I’ll be even more relieved if my boy Pienaar decides to man up and sign a new contract.
(*1) Check out highlights of our 5-1 win over Hull City last season. Straight up filthy.
Then, of course, there’s another major fan-favorite: Marouane “Fear the Fro” Fellaini. The Belgian struggled initially following his 2008 move from Standard Liege, but quickly found his game in the role of a more attacking player. He tallied eight goals in his first season with the club before Moyes moved him back to a holding role, where’s he’s since thrived. Like Cahill, he lacks a bit of discipline, usually racking up the yellow cards, but his physical style and stifling challenges allow him to be a controlling force in midfield. In that aforementioned 2-0 win over Man. City, Fellaini teamed with Pienaar in central midfield and put on an absolute clinic with his mix of challenges and passing. At 6-foot-4, he’s also fantastic in the air, often the target of many in-swingers from Baines.
I’ve already talked plenty about Cahill and Pienaar, but there’s plenty more quality in midfield besides them, Arteta, Rodwell, and Fellaini. Having Landon Donovan back would’ve been phenomenal, as he made a major impact during his brief loan spell with us last season, but Leon Osman and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov will play major roles for the club this season, both in their own separate way. Osman, who lacks some height but makes up for it with speed and ball-control, can play on the wing or in the middle and like Arteta, is extremely creative on the ball. Bilyaletdinov, who came over from Russian outfit Lokomotiv Moscow before the start of last season, plays primarily on the wing and has a bomb of a left foot(*). I’m expecting big things from the midfield this season.
(2) Just ask Man. U and Portsmouth. Absolute crackers.
Forwards -- I’ve gotta admit, I’m quite excited to see Jermaine Beckford in an Everton kit this season. Beckford, who came over on a free transfer from then-League One side Leeds United, tallied 25 league goals last season (31 total), 26 the year before (33 total), and 20 in 2007-08. Last season in the FA Cup, the speedy striker tallied the lone goal in his team’s 1-0 win over the Red Devils and then scored both goals in Leeds’ 2-2 fourth-round tie with my dad’s favorite team, Tottenham. He’s never played in the Prem, though, so it may take him awhile to adjust, but he’s been hot in the preseason and in limited time of watching him, I’ve liked what I’ve seen.
Then there’s veterans Louis Saha and Aiyegbeni Yakubu. Frenchman Saha was in fantastic form last season, netting a club-high 13 goals, but he needs to keep that up this season. He does well in holding the ball up and combines that with being a threat both in the air and with his feet. Yakubu, meanwhile, struggled with injuries and form last season, even though he did play in 25 games and totaled five goals and four assists. It seems like after the 07-08 season, in which he tallied 15 league goals in his first season at Goodison, he’s gone a bit downhill, but he’s a strong player, who like Saha, is good in the air and with his feet. I expect Yakubu to be highly motivated this season, despite the fact that he’ll most likely be sharing some time with Saha and Beckford.
Youngsters Victor Anichebe and James Vaughan may also see a bit of time, along with 20-year old Joao Silva, who came over this summer on a free transfer from Portuguese outfit Desportivo Das Aves.
Formation -- Moyes loves that 4-4-1-1 with Cahill often the one playing just behind the lone striker. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, to see him play a more modified 4-5-1 or even the more standard 4-4-2 at times, depending on the opponent or the situation.
Prediction -- On paper, it’s tough to see them cracking the top-four, but a fifth-place finish doesn’t seem so crazy. I mean, after all, we did finish eighth last season after just an absolutely brutal start, so who knows what we could’ve done with a better beginning to the season. Officially, I’ll say sixth, but I hope it’s fifth or better.
T.O.P. EPL Fantasy
Sign up here.
Standard League code: 409759-102569
Head-to-Head (limit to first 30): 409759-184681
(Same team can play in both leagues)
In case you missed it:
* Manchester United
* Newcastle United
* Aston Villa
* Birmingham City
* West Ham United
* Stoke City
* Blackburn Rovers
* Wigan Athletic
* West Brom