Monday, February 22, 2010

LD's Everton Adventure

Landon Donovan showed up at Everton FC in Liverpool the first week of January facing a veritable trial by fire. Everton, laid low for most of the fall with injuries and poor results, was embarking on a two month span during which the team would face fixtures with Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham (i.e., all 6 of the top 6 teams), as well as a tie with Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League and an FA Cup match. Donovan was about to be thrown into the deep end of the pool in the best league in Europe.
The incredibly crafty manager of Everton, David Moyes, inked a loan deal with the LA Galaxy and MLS to bring the USA international to the Toffees for 10 weeks prior to the start of the MLS season in March. The rationale was clear: Moyes needed a midfielder with Donovan's pace and goal-scoring potential to fill in for some injured stars, and Landon needed to keep himself match-fit and tested prior to the FIFA World Cup this summer.
It was a bit of a risky move for both player and manager. Donovan has been a star in the MLS and in international football, but a bit of a dud in Europe after two stints with big-name German clubs. Another bad experience in Europe would likely have tainted LD forever, and seriously hurt his confidence level going into the World Cup this summer. And a bad run of form from Everton in January and February could have sent the Toffees into a potential relegation battle at the end of the season.
Instead, Landon has been one of the great signings of the last transfer window. With Donovan starting (generally on the right wing), Everton drew Arsenal away, beat City, beat Sunderland, beat Wigan away, and lost a heart-breaking derby with Liverpool 1-0. Last week, the Toffees came from behind to beat league-leaders Chelsea 2-1 at Goodison Park, and this week thoroughly defeated last year's champion Manchester United 3-1. In between those league matches, they lost a close FA Cup game with surprising Birmingham, but beat Sporting Lisbon 2-1 in the first leg of their Europa league tie.
As of today, Everton are 8th in the table with their sights on a top-6 finish and potentially a spot in Europe. The Everton fans voted Donovan "Player of the Month" for January. The English press, never too keen on USA football imports, have been gushing praise and arguing for a long-term transfer.
Moyes has assembled a really talented squad of smart, skillful footballers at Everton: South African international Steven Piennar, Australian Tim Cahill, former Man. U. striker Louis Saha, wild-haired Belgian Marouani Fellaini, Phil Neville, and others. Donovan fits right in with that crowd, and his pace and cleverness have tormented some of the best defenders in the Premiership. While he hasn't scored a lot of goals (just one), he's forced defenders to deal with his threatening runs, and by doing so he has opened up the middle of the field for Saha, Cahill and Fellaini.
Everton played five midfielders against United and attacked throughout the match. Their overlapping runs, quick passing, and flowing football kept United on their heels for much of the match. There was a great sequence around the 35th minute when the Toffee midfielders passed, moved, changed positions, and made runs in a way that looked more like Spain than a middle-table English side. Everton's winner came off another flowing sequence. Piennar exchanged passes with Donovan down the left side, picked up the ball near the touch line and sent a sharp, low cross to a perfectly-positioned Dan Gosling at the far post, who tapped in for 2-1. To Moyes' credit, he had substituted Gosling for Bilyaletdinov (who scored the equalizer in the first half) just five minutes earlier, and his next sub, 18 year old Jack Roswell, scored Everton's third.
If you count the Europa and FA Cup matches as league matches, Everton have won 19 of a possible 27 points with Landon on the field, and 16 of 21 possible points in the league. I think the Everton faithful would have been expecting 7 or 8 points in those league matches. It has been a great run of form for a team that has been spotty all season. Whether they can do better than 7th or 8th in the table is more a matter of the teams above them, but another Europa League place next season is not out of reach.
What of Donovan's future? He's scheduled to return to LA Galaxy in mid-March for the start of the MLS season. During the balance of his loan, he'll see action against Tottenham, Hull and perhaps Birmingham in the Premiership, the second leg of the Europa League tie in Lisbon, and perhaps another juicy Europa League match in March (against either Athletico in Madrid or Galatasaray in Istanbul) if Everton get through to the round of 16. Given that he'll only be playing in MLS for less than 2 months before he breaks for the World Cup camp, I can't see why, short of an injury fear, he doesn't petition for extension of the loan at Everton.
An outright transfer is going to be dicey. The MLS, which owns his contract, is going to want more than the $10MM they got from Hull for Altidore considering that Donovan is their best marketing asset now that Beckham is semi-retired; and Everton has not generally been a big, splashy player in the transfer market. In addition, Everton are stacked at midfield, assuming everyone was healthy. Oh, and Landon is 28 years old, not a spring chicken by footballing standards.
I think it's more likely that after his great run in the Premiership, and assuming he has a good-to-very good World Cup, he gets interest from the likes of Manchester City, for whom a $15MM transfer would be peanuts, and who desperately need a clever wing player with pace like LD. That would be a shame. I think the combination of great club, great fans, and great manager at Everton would be ideal for him. But it just doesn't seem to be in the cards.
So, tune in this Sunday morning to the Fox Soccer Channel and watch Landon and the Toffees vs. Spurs. Should be a fantastic match. And, unfortunately, it might be one of your last chances to see Donovan in Everton blue.


OldBlue said...

Spot on analysis, thanks! I was pleasantly surprised Saturday morning to see Landon playing at Everton. A full 90 minutes and contributing the whole time. I hadn't followed the off season move, but it sure seems to have been for the best. Landon really won me over (I used to be a hater) during the Confederations Cup when he was relentless with his full game running. He left it all on the field, contributing in the defensive third and on the attack. Fun to watch them take it to the Red Devils last Saturday.

roy meredith said...

Great analysis, and would add that LD's dead ball delivery (particularly corners) has added further options to Everton's play. Whilst LD has made an impact, it's also fair to point out that Everton had chronic injury problems in their squad for the first few months of the season - those returning players have also helped make the difference.
LD has been a revelation in the Premier League with many media prepared to dismiss the signing, particularly with regards, as you point out, to his time in the Bundesliga.
I'd venture that LD has been one of the top few signings of the season (alongside Vermaelen, Dunne and Tevez) and has certainly surprised me. Hope Everton manage to sort out a longer loan or permanent deal (& I don't even support them)
Genuinely more fearful about England meeting the US in South Africa in June, now, given Landon's form.
Great article

Tolga said...

Great Post. Being an EA employee, and a Galatasaray fan, you are a definitely interesting read..

bizpunk said...


You are so right -- in particular about the return of injured players like Arteta. I don't think that Everton has suddenly gotten good because Donovan is there, but I think his arrival coincided with some other good things for them and he has given them a little extra spark.

roy meredith said...

bizpunk -
Saw interesting stat about Arteta - when he plays EFC win 50% of their games, w/out him they only win 38%.
LD definitely adds a lot to Everton's midfield as you say.
If (big 'if') they could sign him, their midfield options would be very impresive (LD, Arteta, Cahill, Bilyaletnidov, Rodwell etc).
Would love to see LD in the PL for a few years, think he'd be a star over here & leave a lasting impression

Edgar Newt said...

Generally not a fan of LD, but his contributions to Everton cannot be denied. Definitely a solid pick up. I have yet to add him to my fantasy league team however.

wolfteam hacks said...

I guess they weren't completely without quality outside Europe after all, huh?

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