Here in Bulgaria, all the signs are that spring is coming. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the snow is slowly melting. And, the most obvious tell-tale sign, Everton are starting to show a bit of form. With three wins in their last 4 matches, Everton, like Mother Nature herself, is showing its usual post-Christmas Lazarus-like recovery from the doldrums, and away from the relegation zone.
It’s nothing new for teams to have good and bad runs of form. But Everton are starting to make it routine, as this table shows:
|Season||Points – first 19 games||Points – second 19 games||Final position||Adjusted*|
*Adjusted league position calculated by multiplying second 19 points by two, to extrapolate a points total for the whole season. If applied to this season, they would currently be 8th, one point behind Liverpool.
Everton are by no means the first team to only play well at certain times of the season. Charlton, for most of their Premiership stay, took the standard managerial clichéd target of 40 points all too literally, usually reaching 40 points in early February and staying there. Opposing teams used to check the fixture list anxiously every August, to see if they had Charlton at Easter or later, and if they did, breathed a sigh of relief and mentally filed three points away. Aston Villa were the modern pioneers of this lemming-like form. In 1998/99 (coincidentally Charlton’s first season in the Premiership) Aston Villa raced into an early lead in the league. They were still top at Christmas, but fell away badly in the New Year and eventually finished a distant 6th. Since then they’ve done the occasional mini-reprisal, most notably in 2008/9, before last year showing their versatility by floundering like a beached whale in the relegation zone for half of the season, before a Darren Bent-inspired recovery towards the safety of mid-table.
Of course, football supporters being what they are, it is clear that what we are dealing with here is not the vagaries of form, but a frustrating inability on the part of players and teams to deliver what they are truly capable of over the course of an entire season. Unusually, the manager is rarely scapegoated for this, though it may be hinted, for example, that Martin O’Neill’s inability to sustain a bid for 4th spot past March shows that he’s taken Aston Villa as far as he can, and it needs someone new in charge to take them to the next level. Of course, as Charlton and Villa fans discovered to their cost, the ‘next level’ may in fact be the next one down.
Why is this so? Form fluctuates anyway, and results can depend on luck and the fixture list as well as the quality of performance. But this does not begin to explain the apparent, systemic trend shown by teams such as Everton. There are plenty of possible reasons. For form falling away, á la Charlton, it is easier to explain. The strains on a small squad of players become more pronounced towards the end of a long hard season. Also, the psychology of players who have already pretty much guaranteed themselves against relegation by March, or unexpectedly find themselves in a battle for trophies, can have an effect. For form picking up, in the absence of new signings or a change in manager, it’s not so clear. Some teams – Manchester United being the most famous, though not necessarily the best, example – are primed to peak in the latter stages of the season, and everything – fitness regimes, squad rotation, even pre-season tours – is designed with this in mind. Which would appear to suggest that such regular upticks in form are a sign of good management.
With Everton, there may be a more prosaic explanation. As one of the poorer clubs in the Premiership (and unlike some rivals, inclined to live within their means), Everton have, in the last three seasons, been badly hampered by the summer transfer window. For a club like Everton, with a small squad, the loss of key players, whether to rivals (as with Mikel Arteta’s move to Arsenal on the last day of the transfer window this year) or to injury hampers the team significantly more than it would at Manchester United. If Alex Ferguson has a couple of strikers injured, he can still rustle up enough international goalscorers to keep Dimitar Berbatov on the bench. David Moyes has no such luxury: he has to wait until the January transfer window, and hope to pick up someone on loan from someone’s reserves, or the French second division, or LA Galaxy. Thus, problems with the squad that may be apparent from September onwards, often have to wait until January to be fixed. To do so successfully, again and again, shows very shrewd judgment indeed.
Everton’s spring risings may of course be no more than coincidence. They may not win another game this season. On the other hand, the smart money must reckon that they will continue their good form and slowly climb up the table, illustrating, yet again, what an exceptional manager they have in David Moyes.