David Moyes’ eleventh calendar year as Everton manager was arguably his finest. In 2012, his side lost only eight matches and remained unbeaten at Goodison Park from March 21 until December 30. Last season’s seventh-place finish was beyond the wildest dreams of many Toffees fans following their side’s start to the campaign and their form this season has seen them become a fixture in the top six. If there were a 2012 league table, Everton would have finished equal third with Chelsea, behind only Manchester United and Manchester City.
While not always playing the most attractive football, there has always been much to admire about Everton’s style of play: they are compact and hard to break down, and attack with an unhesitating sense of purpose. With or without the ball, there is not a player on the field who does not know what he is supposed to be doing at any given moment. Furthermore, most of the current squad has been signed for a relatively low fee: only Marouane Fellaini has cost more than £10m and Everton look set to see a healthy profit returned on the Belgian in the summer.
Tactically, Moyes has proven himself as one of the best in the Premier League. The basic 4-4-1-1 system Everton have used since his appointment has again and again been subtly configured to get the best out of a specific player. Over the years, we have seen Tim Cahill, Mikel Arteta, Leon Osman, Joleon Lescott, Steven Pienaar, Leighton Baines, Nikica Jelavić and Marouane Fellaini go on unbelievable runs of form, and this is due to Moyes’ ability to make tweaks that accentuate an individual’s performance while maintaining the strength of the collective.
In short: all of the credit for Everton’s success must go to David Moyes. The forty-nine year-old Scot can achieve anything he wants in management, and it is for this reason that he will probably bid farewell to Everton at the end of the season.
The Manchester United job has always been seen as the logical endgame for Moyes. However, reservations remain: while he is probably talented enough to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson, his record suggests that his skill needs to be refined before taking on such a task. Despite Everton’s league performances proving that he has mastered the art of not losing, their cup record suggests that he has yet to learn how to win.
Indeed, due to Moyes’ reactive mentality, Everton are typically at their best as underdogs while struggling against inferior opponents. In 2011-12 they beat Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham while losing at home to QPR, Stoke and Bolton. In 2012-13 they have beaten Manchester United and Tottenham whilst holding Manchester City and Arsenal to draws, and yet have failed to beat Wigan and QPR. They are one of only two Premier League sides to have lost to Reading this season.
These failures fall under the radar somewhat, with Everton lacking the gravitas to make improbable defeat a story, but as Roy Hodgson, André Villas-Boas and Arsène Wenger have found to their cost, it is different at clubs used to steamrollering through matches and entire seasons. Wenger, in particular, has suffered almost unthinkable criticism from his own club’s fans for upsets less surprising than those over which Moyes has presided.
Perhaps a more obvious hindrance than Moyes’ tactical preference is his lack of experience in Europe. On the one occasion that Everton qualified for the Champions League they were spectacularly unlucky in the playoff round, drawing a Villarreal side that would go all the way to the semi-finals of that season’s competition.
While it is asking rather too much of Moyes to make Everton perennial Champions League participants, it should be noted that in the Europa League he has never progressed beyond the last sixteen. Such a record must be improved upon if he is to use his remaining time in management to maximise the most of his undoubted ability.
In addition to their manager’s personal now-or-never moment, Everton are fast approaching their own crossroads. Their financial plight is well-known, and while they are not in the same kind of danger as the likes of Portsmouth and Real Oviedo, the reality is that each season they must sell in order to finance the next. In recent years Manchester City have been kind enough to hand over £40m for Joleon Lescott and Jack Rodwell, but such acts of charity will almost certainly not be forthcoming this season.
If, as expected, Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines leave Goodison Park at the end of the season, their departures will likely be arduous and protracted due to Everton’s position of financial weakness. The positive is that fees incoming will certainly be significant, but this is offset somewhat by the fact that replacements of a suitable calibre will once again be hard to find and to integrate.
Moyes has repeatedly found solutions to losing key players, but losing Fellaini and Baines at the same time may prove too big a blow from which to recover - if not in terms of football, then in terms of pride. Given that he has spoken of this squad as his best ever, seeing its stars leave so soon, and likely taking Everton’s immediate aspirations with them, it would not be a surprise if their sales combined with Moyes’ ambitions to be his final cue to exit.
With Sir Alex Ferguson now rumoured to be leaving Manchester United, there is now no time for Moyes to take an intermediary job that would allow him European experience and greater resources in the transfer market while, perhaps most importantly, forcing him to assume a proactive mentality. That Moyes has refused to enter into talks regarding a potential renewal of his Goodison Park deal suggests that he will make the leap in the unknown.