This weekend sees Stoke take on Everton, a fixture that is likely viewed by Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard as the least pleasurable to watch in the Premiership. Following this season’s Goodison derby, the Reds elderly captain, clearly frustrated at his side only earning a point from the game, attempted to claim the footballing moral high-ground by dismissing the Toffees style of play as being Stoke-esque and thoroughly inadequate when compared to Liverpool’s own exquisite passing-game.
There is an attitude that permeates Liverpool since Brendan Rodgers took over the club that the only ‘true’ and ‘honourable’ way to play football is to pass the ball around the park for as much of the ninety minutes as possible, hoping at some point for it to reach the boots of Luis Suarez.
Whether this results in victory or defeat seems to be immaterial to both the manager and club. From Rodgers perspective, it would seem preferable to ‘play well’ and lose rather than play ugly and win. That’s probably the reason why Liverpool are currently positioned so low down in the league - one place behind those footballing troglodytes, Stoke.
Snobbery of this kind seems common in football today. You saw it from Roberto Mancini following last week’s Manchester derby when he claimed that City ‘played football but United won’. It’s all part of the trend that sees one type of football, tiki-taka, as being the template that every club should aspire to because all other ways of playing the game are somehow inferior.
There is a zealot-like adherence now amongst some players, managers and pundits to the ‘Barcelona-way’. And like all zealots, this makes them narrow-minded, plagued by a superiority-complex and utterly dismissive of questioning voices.
Also like all zealots, what they believe doesn’t make much sense either. For a start, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with playing a ‘direct’ style of football. Not every team is blessed with the likes of Xavi or Andres Iniesta. A good manager looks at what he’s got, looks at who the opposition is and then adapts his formation and tactics accordingly. If a team like Stoke went out on a Saturday afternoon and attempted to out-pass the likes of Manchester City or Chelsea, then they would likely be on a hiding to nothing. You play to your strengths and if that means knocking it long to a big-number-nine then so be it.
There is also nothing wrong with playing more than one style of football. As the Chelsea v Barcelona Champions League semi revealed last season, the absence of a ‘Plan B’ can be ruinous. Teams need to be flexible; they need other options when their default-style of play isn’t working.
Contrary to the claims of ‘Stevie G’, this has been one of Everton’s strengths this season. Although at times we are capable of knocking it long to Fellaini, the team is equally capable of out-passing the opposition and creating problems down the wings. It was this latter style of play that ultimately brought us two goals in the Goodison derby and not ‘long-balls’ pumped high towards the Divine Afro.
I’m not a Stoke fan, but I’d imagine that what matters most to them is Premiership survival, regardless of how this is achieved. That was certainly how I felt during the first half of last season when Everton, who were without an effective goalscorer, approached every game as a war of attrition. It wasn’t pretty but it got the club wins and edged us closer to the magical forty-point mark. And if I’m being honest, I took as much pleasure from grinding out victories against the likes of Spurs and City last season as I have from our silky dominance of teams like Aston Villa and Newcastle during this campaign.
I don’t know how this weekend’s fixture at the Britannia will pan-out but I’m pretty sure that both sides with be committed to the game. Tony Pulis and David Moyes are two managers that usually get the most out of their players and ensure that every fixture is keenly contested. It’s rare that either side are ever accused of not turning up to the game.
For Everton this will be an interesting fixture. Technically, we’ve just got over our hard run of games, having faced Arsenal, City and Spurs in recent weeks. However, Stoke at the Britannia remains a tough one. With City losing at home to United last week, this leaves the Potters as holders of the current Premiership record for the longest unbeaten run at home. It’s been fourteen matches and ten months since Pulis’ side suffered a home defeat and so coming away with all three points will be tricky.
Although last week’s win over Spurs was deserved, we also came very close to leaving without a point. The problem at the moment is that Everton are slightly underperforming. That early season form, when the team seemed capable of brushing aside all who opposed us has only featured sporadically of late. It’s like Everton aren’t operating at full capacity.
If Champions League qualification is a genuine target for the club this season, then Everton need to improve. The team needs to maximise its potential and squeeze every last drop of form and effort from each player. That’s the only way that clubs like Everton, those with small squads and small budgets, can ever compete against the likes of Chelsea, Spurs and (probably) Arsenal.
And unlike ‘Stevie G’ I don’t really care how we do it. If this weekend the team out-passes Stoke and comes away with three points then that’s great. Equally, if we physically dominate them and kick the opposition into submission, then that’s also fine as long as it means the team gets the win.
Rather than spending their time lecturing others on the importance of ‘total-football’, maybe Gerrard and Rodgers should make the effort to understand that it is the result and not necessarily the way you play that matters. Only through realising this will they ever have a chance of dragging themselves out of the bottom half of the table any time soon.