Now that Everton are a free-flowing attacking force, decimating all that comes before them, it’s easy to forget the strength that has underpinned the team during the relatively lean periods of the recent past. In the absence of a proven goalscorer, for some time Everton’s principle strength has been at the back. If, as a team, you’re unlikely to score more than one goal per game, then it’s probably best that you ensure that this one goal is going to be enough. And this is the approach that David Moyes was compelled to take during the period when our strike-force consisted of a slothful Frenchman, a South American mule and Victor Anichebe.
That he was able to do this so successfully is attributable to collectively one of the best back-fours in the country. It might not be populated by big names or have cost the earth to put together, but the Everton defensive unit has long been one of the meanest in the game. It’s the reason why the club was able to survive for so long with virtually no forward line and it’s also one of the reasons why, with the addition of some forward potency, Everton have started the season so brightly. Although all those who have featured deserve praise, two players stand out; Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka. I’ve written elsewhere about the seemingly endless qualities of the beautifully coiffured Baines and so let me dedicate a bit of time to ‘The Jag’.
It’s been five years now since Jagielka arrived at Everton from Sheffield United, for the bargain price of £4million. At the time, the player was still something of a work-in-progress. At United he had often shifted position game-to-game, moving from midfield to defence. He’d even played in goal once against Arsenal, standing in when United’s first choice keeper was stretchered off. So good was his performance that Neil Warnock was often able to do without a substitute goalkeeper on the bench in order to give him more tactical options. Under Moyes, this positional vacillating was put to an end. From the off, Jagielka has been deployed as a centre-half, a role that he ultimately seems born to do. Despite a hesitant first season, he has grown in footballing confidence and maturity since then and proven to be one of Moyes’ shrewdest buys.
With Terry retiring from international football to spend more time with his racism, the opportunity has a-risen for the creation of a new defensive partnership, an opportunity ripe for a player of Jagielka’s quality to grasp
Quick, strong and with a good understanding of the game, for Evertonians having someone like Jagielka on the pitch fills you with confidence. It meant that during the dark days of last season, when Everton seemed incapable of scoring a goal, you always felt that the team at least had the chance of earning a point when defenders of the quality of Jagielka and Baines were in the side. It’s perhaps unsurprising then, given Jagielka’s continued good form and England’s creaking back-four, that the national side have finally woken up to the possibility that Everton’s defensive stalwart could be the answer to their problems.
Jagielka has been on the periphery of the England set-up for a few years now. He was given his first cap back in 2008, coming on as a substitute against the mighty Trinidad and Tobago and then featured sporadically in squads until his first competitive start in 2010 against Bulgaria. It’s fair to say that, despite some good performances then and since, Jagielka has never made enough of an impression to seriously challenge the established England defensive partnership of Ferdinand and Terry. Nor did he play well enough to at least become regarded as a key member of the England squad. As recently as the European Championships, Jagielka only made the England stand-by list, his eventual inclusion in the squad coming at the expense of an injured Gareth Barry.
But with Ferdinand now slower moving than some glaciers and Terry retiring from international football to spend more time with his racism, the opportunity has a-risen for the creation of a new defensive partnership, an opportunity ripe for a player of Jagielka’s quality to grasp. Not that he has the field to himself. Both Gary Cahill and Joleon Lescott will be vying alongside Jagielka for these coveted positions, and all three will be looking over their shoulders at the younger generation of players, including the likes of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, who are coming up hard on their heels.
Unlike Cahill and Lescott, Jagielka has not been cushioned by surrounding players of undeniable quality
To date, it’s arguable that none of the three more senior players have done enough to cement themselves as the first-choice centre half. Making the leap successfully from the league game to the international game is not something every player can do; just look at the disappointing performances of the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ if you want proof of that. And so, although all three are great defenders, it’s still debatable which two will become the ‘Ferdinand & Terry’ of the future. As an Evertonian I couldn’t really give a shit about what happens to England. Club tends to come before country for most of us. In fact, country comes so far down the list it’s barely visible. From a purely selfish point of view, I’d be quite happy if Jagielka was never picked for the national side again. We need him more than England do and the more international games he plays, the greater the opportunities there are for him to get injured.
But if I had to climb above my own parochial perspective and imagine myself as an England fan (adorning my body with tatty merchandise, abandoning any realistic assessment of my team’s quality and believing I have a God-given right to success) then I would want Jagielka in the side every time. And this is because he is arguably the better player and the one more suited to England’s current predicament. Unlike Cahill and Lescott, Jagielka has not been cushioned by surrounding players of undeniable quality. Nor does he play in a side that can ever claim to have an easy game.
Instead, he’s thrived in challenging circumstances; circumstances not unlike those facing the England side today. England aren’t a great side, they aren’t the Chelsea or Man City of international football. They’re more like Everton; a good team but not a great one. And so, what could be more fitting for an international version of Everton than Everton’s current outstanding English centre-half?
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