The Toffees are known to burn slowly, gradually rolling to a full boil as the season unfolds. They typically make a poor start to the season, lingering just above the relegation zone, and don’t figure things out until little lights start dangling over shopping streets all around Liverpool. After New Year’s Day, Everton makes its move and charges up the standings as its peers tire, usually eking out a European place.
This year, however, Liverpool’s “other” team did nothing of the sort. It burst out of the gate and put together a 4-1-1 start that rocketed Everton to second place through six rounds, rarified space it should never be able to occupy with its relatively puny means.
The club’s stalwart American goalkeeper Tim Howard has an explanation. “A lot of the start had to do with over the last twelve months or so, the manager [David Moyes] has brought in a lot of players who like to take care of the ball,” Howard told FOX Soccer.
Howard added: “Mirallas, Jelavic, Gibson, Naismith. These are guys who allow you to build a footballing rhythm. When you’re coming out of preseason it’s hard to do that.
“But when you have players who fit that style – and Osman and Fellaini fit it too – you’re able right from the jump to have a team that can possess that ball and play with rhythm.”
“Teams that possess the ball a lot over the course of games seem to be able to get into their flow better,” added Howard. “We used to seem to find our rhythm around Christmas. But with a better flow it’s come a lot quicker this year.”
Moyes believes this to be his strongest-ever team in 11-and-a-half seasons in charge, even thinking it capable of replicating the coveted fourth place finish – which comes with a spot in the Champions League – he posted in 2004-05.
Yet while Everton has been un-Evertonian mostly in a positive sense, the 33-year-old Howard has been accused of being un-Howardian in a negative one. Usually a beacon of consistency and commander of his back line, Howard’s form has not been beyond reproach, according to the English papers. Indeed, shots that he stonewalled in years past have been trickling in of late. At home against Norwich on Nov. 25, he failed to come off his line and snatch a long, looping 90th minute free kick from the air, allowing Sebastien Bassong – whom Johnny Heitinga failed to mark properly – to head in the equalizer.
Following the game, Moyes lamented his side’s lack of depth, and added what was widely interpreted as a warning to Howard. “We need competition in all areas and that extends to Tim Howard in goal, absolutely,” he told The Guardian. “Everybody has got to make sure they are at the top of their game. We have got to make sure we are not continually giving away things, making mistakes that are leading to goals that cost us.”
Moyes added that January’s transfer window will offer an opportunity to bring in more players to compete for starting jobs.
Howard isn’t troubled. “It was brought to my attention and it was quickly dismissed, as you can imagine, by myself,” he says of Moyes’ comments. “There’s competition everywhere. In my career, I’ve put more goalkeepers in my wake than I can count and a few have come in and put me in their wake. We’re always bringing in competition across the board. I’ve been around too long to get worried about all that stuff.”
Much of Everton’s success can be traced to its offseason. Whereas the club usually bleeds talent over the summer months and spends the first half of the season plugging gaping holes in its lineup, perpetually rebuilding, Everton actually got better in the last transfer window. It lost promising young midfielder Jack Rodwell to Manchester City but made nice pickups in Kevin Mirallas and Steven Naismith. Steven Pienaar returned permanently, ending his ill-fated spell with Tottenham Hotspur. And, crucially, driving forces like Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines were never poached by richer clubs.
“We’ve added and we didn’t lose a ton,” says Howard. “Although Jack Rodwell is supremely talented, we didn’t lose a bunch of players en masse. A lot of times we’re losing players and quality and having to replace all that quality and not really getting better and this year we seemed to get better. Talent-wise, position for position, it’s certainly the strongest we’ve ever had in my time.”
Still, adding to the unorthodoxy of its season, Everton has endured through something of a swoon since its hot start, drawing seven games in nine – while winning one and losing one. Howard remains unconcerned. “We started the season out like world-beaters but it’s a long season,” he said. “If the critics are right, at the moment we’re not playing so well but I think everything is okay, the performances have been good and at a very high level.
“I believe if you perform well, more often than not, the rest will take care of itself and you’re going to find a way to win. It’s when you’re not performing well that you can only grind out so many victories.”
“I think my performances have been relatively good,” said Howard. “I’m not really someone who analyzes or overanalyzes my performances. There’s very few jobs like mine. Every time the ball goes in I should have saved it. You can say I should have been a step here or a step there – but that’s simple. At this level, you play so many games and you’re going to make mistakes because the players are so good. You can be made to look like a fool any day because balls go in. I don’t overanalyze; I don’t have time for it.”
Given Howard’s track record of bouncing back from short dips in performance with long spells of mastery in his position, it’s hard to blame his lack of concern.