Two of our stalwarts in the back. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
As part of our month long review of Everton's season, we are going to be breaking down each section of the squad by position and having a look at their performance. First up we are going to start at the back of the team and have a look at Everton's defense, where there was very little turnover during the season. While most fans have concentrated on our lack of a quality striker, it is the defense where we have been found lacking during most of the season.Before we take out the shovels to throw dirt on the defense though, let's look at some of the positives. For one Leighton Baines has certainly come into his own this season, and is certainly one of the two best left-backs in the EPL, and most people felt he was the best this season, beating out England international Ashley Cole for the honor. Baines was a critical part of our attack this season, and his forward runs and magnificent crosses helped keep the Toffees alive in the early part of the season. Tim Cahill was certainly a big fan of the defender, and the two of them teamed up for some truly magnificent goals. Of course Baines himself was able to score a few fantastic goals without any help, and two that spring to mind came off of set pieces against Chelsea and Spurs respectively. The Chelsea goal was particularly amazing as it tied the game in the dying breaths of extra time. Baines also showed a willingness to hustle back after a forward run,although the space left behind him would cause some problems that the Toffees did not do a great job of accounting for, but thoughts about that will come later.
In the center of the defense Sylvian Distin provided an anchor that few thought the 32 year old would be able to muster up. Distin played almost every minute of Everton's seasons. Though he is not as fast as he once was, his long legs and uncanny ability to tackle proved invaluable to Everton, and Distin also did a fantastic job of shifting to the left side to cover for Leighton Baines as he scampered forward. Of course Distin did get caught out at times, and his ability to close down defenders outside the 18 led to a few goals, but overall he was extremely solid for Everton.
Distin's partner in the back for most of the season was Phil Jagielka, and Jags showed why he is considered the future at center back for Englang. Jags displayed an amazing ability to get a touch on the ball when all seemed lost. In particular Jagielka had some fine displays against Chelsea when he was asked to close down Drogba. Jagielka also exhibited the same weakness as Distin, and it is possible the two were not able to work out a perfect system to close down defenders, but for the most part everything worked fairly well.
Over on the right side, the captain Phil Neville spent most of the season on the right flank, but was forced to move into the midfield in the new year as injuries to the midfield piled up. While in the back, Neville did a fantastic job of shutting down some of the better left wings in the game. His performance against an in form Gareth Bale forced Spurs to move away from feeding the ball to the speedy Welshman.
Neville's replacement on the right side ended up being fan favorite Tony Hibbert. Hibbert, who has yet to score for Everton, did a serviceable job as a right back, but it is obvious that he is now a squad player, and when everyone is healthy he deserves a spot on the bench. Multiple times Hibbert was caught out of position, or lacked the necessary tools to adequately defend the flanks.
Johnny Heitinga was the last membe rof the squad who regularly contributed to the backline, and from his spell in January it is obvious why he was the third choice behind Distin and Jagielka. Despite Heitinga's excellent form at the World Cup, he never seemed at ease in the Everton defense, and at the turn of the new year he was responsible for several mistakes. Part of this seems to be that he does not live up to his reputation of being a strong tackler. Instead Heitinga would be more aptly described as a late and ineffective tackler, and there are some times when it is obvious he is not going all out to win the ball. In fact his move to a defensive midfield role as the season closed out showed that he may be more effective there where he can take chances, and if he loses the ball it is not the absolute end of the world for Everton.
The final, and some would say most important piece of the defense is US international Tim Howard, who has continued to be a stone wall in goal for Everton. This was not Howard's best season though, his blunder to open the season against Blackburn is one example of several where Howard made uncharacteristic mistakes. Most likely these mistakes are the result of having no reall offseason since 2008, and even the the US has the Gold Cup this summer, Howard should be back in full form come August.
In the end, the defense is judged by goals allowed, and while the team allowed 45 goals this season, down from the 49 of last season, it is a far cry from the 37 and 33 goals allowed the two seasons when Everton finished 5th in the table. While the top 4 sides are able to score a lot of goals, it is far easier to try and keep goals out then have to score 2 goals for every 1 your opponent scores if you want to take all 3 points. If Moyes can turn his focus to solidifying the defense, rather than shelling out for a 20 goal a season striker, it really won't matter as much that we have Victor Anichebe starting at striker some games. As always leave your thoughts below, and until next time COYB!