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Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Good Times At Goodison?

Mikel Arteta – Spanish or English? Well let’s be honest, he’s about as English as Manuel Almunia; who is as English as Antonio Banderas playing a Spanish waiter in a Spanish re-make of Fawlty Towers.

England captain Steven Gerrard said recently of the Everton midfielder, “I'd certainly love nothing better than to see Mikel Arteta available for England. You want to play with the best players, and if it makes the England squad better, of course I'd like to see it”. As an Englishman, extremely disappointed in my national team, I would find it hard to argue against his inclusion in the next squad; something we have already fore-fronted on the blog. And you have only to ask any Everton fan what the guile of their number 8 means to them. Now fully fit, he could make the difference to Everton’s season.

Last season, with Arteta on the pitch, Everton averaged 2.07 points. Without him they only averaged 1.28. I have heard many speculate, myself included, how Liverpool would have fared with 38 games of Fernando Torres. Well, how would Everton have done with Mikel Arteta in the 25 games he missed? All hypothetical indeed, but something to make Everton fans look forward to the new campaign with the surprised excitement of a man who has just found that tenner he knew he’d put somewhere but couldn’t for the life of him remember where.

Everton are often understated as a Premier League force and with the rise of Spurs and City’s millions, the blue side of Merseyside seems to be a bit further down the pecking order these days. On the balance of things though, they can’t be written off pushing for a top four finish. Last season’s stats would go a long way to back this up.

After the unlucky derby defeat on 29th November 2009, the league table did not make pretty reading for Everton fans. Four wins, three draws and seven defeats left them languishing on 15 points after 14 games – form which, over the course of the season, would have garnered a meagre 41 points. Taking their form post-Christmas instead – 12 wins, six draws and two defeats – and spreading it across the whole season would mean it was Everton being pummelled by young boys from the continent rather than Spurs, as they would have finished with 80 points.

The reasons for Everton’s excellent second half of the season are fairly obvious if you look at the talent Moyes has at his disposal. What went wrong before the post-Christmas revival was almost certainly a result of the talent Moyes didn’t have at his disposal. It may well be attributed to Arteta returning to the fray to pull the strings, but he wasn’t the only player missed before the turn of the year. Only Tim Howard (38 league appearances), Leighton Baines (37) and Tim Cahill (33) could claim they put a full season of football in for the Toffees last season. Louis Saha, surprisingly given his injury record, racked up 33 appearances (albeit 7 from the bench). Although his fitness was a question throughout, he did notch up 13 goals. Not prolific, but worthy of a mention in a team that have a strong scoring contingent from midfield.

Moyes bemoaned his luck with injuries at many a point last season and Everton were hit harder than most. Osman (missed 12 games), Yakubu (missed 13), Fellaini (15), Neville (15), and Jagielka (26) were all absent for large parts of the season. The sale of Lescott and injury to Jagielka left them thin on the ground in the centre of defence – a lack of solidity which proved to be telling in the season’s earlier stages. The fitness of Heitinga and Jagielka could be vital to Everton’s hopes this time round. A positive to come from last season was the emergence of Jack Rodwell, who may not have got as many minutes on the pitch if Osman, Arteta and Fellaini had been fully fit. Nevertheless, his future is very bright according to many, including a very watchful Sir Alex.

These days, with all the doctors, physiotherapists, dieticians, hypnotherapists and witch-doctors that seem part and parcel of a Premier League set-up, training techniques are often questioned if a club is suffering injury problems. Then again, maybe Moyes is right and a team can just be unlucky.

It will be interesting to see how Everton fare with a fully-fit squad this season. An opening day defeat away at Blackburn and draw at home to Wolves may not be the perfect start, but news that Arteta has taken heed of a fellow Spaniard across the park and committed himself to Merseyside will fill the Goodison faithful with joy – all they need now is Pienaar to reaffirm his loyalties. Add in some more of that post-Christmas form that saw them beat Man United, Man City and Chelsea, and who knows where the Blues will go. Alex Bingle

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