Tim Cahill is one of Everton’s biggest assets; an early harvest of David Moyes’ cherry picking of lower league talent with a point to prove, in the same vein as the acquisitions of Joleon Lescott, Phil Jagielka and Jermaine Beckford.
He is as despised by opposition supporters as he is lauded by the royal blue hoards as the slight but robust number 17 has come to epitomise Moyes’ Everton: a swashbuckling footballer with a fearsome will to win, he was and still is a key member of Moyes’ motley crew and his keen eye for goal has helped the team plunder more than their fair share of spoils around the country.
Note the use of the word “footballer”, however. If it were any other player being described then they would inevitably be categorised by their position on the field. Cahill cannot and that is why he poses more of a problem this coming season than he provides a solution.
Cahill initially signed on in 2004 and immediately made an impression playing in a withdrawn role behind the hard-working Marcus Bent. He contributed crucial goals in a plethora of 1-0 victories that propelled the Blues to the top of the table and, ultimately, 4th place and Champions League football.
Initially, Moyes had used an orthodox 4-4-2 system in steering the team away from relegation but changed to, effectively, a 5 man midfield. It was not adventurous but it was effective. In essence, it was founded on principles similar to those of Walter Smith, who employed 4 centre halves in his back four in an effort to bring defensive solidity. Moyes’ method relied on more on individual discipline and tactical savvy.
However, as effective as that prosaic approach was in keeping goals out for Smith, it was equally ineffective in scoring them. An appalling run of turgid 0-0 draws at home were only punctuated by a 4-1 mauling at the hands of the red half of Manchester. The Moyes version did not suffer the same fate, thanks mainly to Cahill himself. The mischievous Aussie was able to bridge the chasm between a deep lying midfield and the workaholic Bent in attack. The ball was moved from front to back quickly, taking advantage of Cahill’s ability in the air and, should the ball not find its’ intended target, both Cahill and Bent would work effortlessly to get it back. If a goal was required then Cahill could, and usually did, provide it.
Unfortunately, perhaps, for Cahill, Everton have evolved. The roles of Naysmith, Carsley and Bent were gradually replaced with artisans of the calibre of Baines, Arteta and Fellaini. This, coupled with the emergence of local lads Osman and Rodwell, changed the team’s style of play over the years. The build-up became far shorter and more stylish. It is not to say that Cahill had no role at all, but it was reduced. Cahill’s skills are not as suited to such an approach.
No one can accuse him of lacking passion or a will to win and his aerial prowess is second to none. It is in the more technical areas of the game that he suffers. His first touch can be suspect and his passing erratic. Cahill has built his career and his reputation on having a ghost-like quality; he plays no part in the game for long periods and then strikes, rapier-like, when least expected. He is not and never has been a Scholes-esque influencer of play, although this should not be construed as a criticism.
Everton, as they have done before in Moyes’ reign, are changing. Cahill missed more games than ever last season and, as a consequence, all manner of different styles and approaches were tried. The only constants last year were the terrible start and post-Christmas resurgence.
Leon Osman was drafted into the Cahill role, influencing games and allowing a more considered build-up from front to back, especially in tandem with genuine wide players. This worked best in the away trip to Molyneux. A front two of Saha and Beckford was utilised and flourished against Chelsea in the FA Cup and seemed to provide the team with more of a threat going forward than the 5 man midfield.
Both of these systems worked in the absence of Cahill and may not have worked had he been included. He lacks the ability to retain possession and influence a game as a central midfielder in a 4-4-2 system and does not have the range of passing that Osman possesses.
The main reason for the chopping and changing was the lack of goal threat that Everton carried for large parts of last season. The finger of blame can be pointed at Moyes in part, as he acquired a striker who thrives on through balls from a second striker that he wouldn’t employ, namely Jermaine Beckford, and sought to rely on the injury-prone Saha and the oft-maligned Victor Anichebe. Saha almost inevitably broke down but Beckford showed enough glimpses of his natural ability to suggest better things this season. Young Vellios acquitted himself well in the fleeting appearances we saw and Magaye Gueye showed pace and power sadly lacking from others.
All 3 flourished without Cahill.
Even so, Everton must acquire more firepower or they face falling further down the Premier League pecking order. They can ill-afford, though, to obtain another forward who does not fit into their style of play and start the season slowly. Moyes’ decision as to how the team will play next season is as important as the acquisition of new blood. The role of Cahill is absolutely crucial to this as his inclusion will have a huge bearing on the system and the striker.
All things being equal, Everton may well have outgrown Cahill and this year could be the first year that he plays a much reduced role. Would this be a bad move? Maybe. Maybe not. It would certainly be the end of an era. This largely depends on whether Moyes continues the progression to a more possession based game or he reverts to his original approach from way back when.
However, my mind is drawn back to the City game at home in May. For 45 minutes Everton were bossed and dominated by a much better side without a whimper in reply. At half time Cahill was introduced and he dragged Everton kicking and screaming back into the fray. It was he who led the counter-surge from midfield and caused enough of a rumpus that Everton stole the 3 points.
One thing is for certain, when Everton can afford to do without Cahill they will know that they have evolved into a much better side. Whether that time is now is another question entirely.