This upcoming period of fixtures are crucial for Remi Garde and his Villa side. The performance against Manchester City was much improved, but that means little if Villa don't take advantage and start picking up points. That being said, I think it's important that Villa go about this recovery process one game at a time. And right now, that next game Saturday's match against Everton. For a preview of Villa's opposition, we sat down with Royal Blue Mersey's Ryan Blank over the international break to chat about the Toffees and our old friend Tom Cleverley.
What's your verdict on Everton's season so far, and how does it match up to your expectations before the season began? Are the Toffees right about where you thought they would be?
Ryan: At this point in the season Everton is sitting mid-table with a 4-5-3 record. Could things be better? Sure but injuries and performance considered the Toffees have done as expected. There are several matches where Everton left points on the pitch; the matches against Watford, Spurs and West Ham come to mind. In other instances they have taken care of business and performed well.
One thing that has been concerning is the club's inability to beat any of the "money clubs" that they have faced so far. If the Toffees want to break through and compete for a spot in Europe next year, they must start taking points from the larger clubs.
After years of consistently being among the top keepers in the Premier League, Tim Howard has struggled in recent times between the sticks. Martinez has continued to back the American keeper, noting that all goalkeepers go through rough patches. Is Martinez right, and Howard is simply in a bit of a slump? Or are his best days behind him, with Joel Robles making a claim to be the number one?
Ryan: It's hard to argue that Tim Howard's performance has not dropped off since last summer's stellar performance at the World Cup. Moments where the keeper would shine were few and far between last year. Howard also picked up an injury on Boxing Day and his backup, Joel Robles had to step in for several matches. Joel was shaky at first, making simple positional mistakes and generally looking like a deer in headlights. After a few matches he settled in and when Howard was healthy, there was a contingent of supporters who were upset that he was able to just walk back in to the starting role instead of competing with Joel.
It needs to be noted that Tim Howard is 36 and likely nearing the end of his career. Also his contract with Everton runs through 2018 though it's unlikely that he will still be starting by then. Pickings for keepers in the winter transfer window tend to be slim so it's unlikely that Everton will find Howard's replacement this season. With the club still in contention for a Europa seat next year, Roberto Martinez probably wants to stick with the man that he's been with. Even if he makes mistakes and cannot physically perform as he has in the past, his leadership and voice on the pitch are still valuable assets.
Gerard Deulofeu. Moments of magic interrupted by moments of madness. He's so much fun to watch, but his inconsistency also makes him extremely frustrating at times as well. Does the good outweigh the bad?
Ryan: Without a doubt the good outweighs the bad for Gerry. I would say that expectations for the player may be too high at this stage in his career and most forget that he is only 21. Similar to Romelu Lukaku, we think that these players are older than they actually are because they have been around for several years. Yes he is a phenom at the lower levels of competition (see his performances for Spain's U21s last week) but the Premier League is a whole different animal. Just like Lukaku and countless other players it will take time for him to adjust to the competition - which won't just let him run wild up and down the pitch regularly - but in order for that to happen he needs to stay healthy and earn as much playing time as possible.
John Stones has put in some great performances this season, overcoming the whole Chelsea transfer saga. However I have no doubt that come January, Stones will be in high demand once again. How much longer are we likely to see him at Everton? What's the plan at center back if he does decided to move on?
Ryan: I think the whole Everton fan base is bracing for another Stones onslaught in January. Hopefully the player has learned a lot from the last window and can focus on football and leave the business part up management (we all know that's not how it works but I feel compelled to write that). The club repeatedly stated over the summer that the days of being sellers were over and that Stones is part of Everton's long-term plans. Publicly they said and did everything right. But the question remains, does Stones want to stay in Merseyside for the many years that he has left in his career? Top players want to play at top clubs and win silverware. Everton has a talented, young core but they need to start capitalizing on it if they want to keep those players together.
On that note, while it's a tad early to be thinking about transfers, is there any area you think Everton need to address during the winter window?
Ryan: I'd love for them to test the waters on a keeper but as I mentioned above, there is a strong possibility that it will not happen. Now for positions that could be addressed, I would want them to look into adding defensive depth. Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka are seasoned internationals but are aging and have struggled with injuries recently. There are several talented young players in the organization but not much experience. I'd like to see a veteran or two brought in to serve as depth and to assist with developing the new generation of the Toffee backline.
Villa fans were a bit surprised this summer when Tom Cleverley decided to leave the club and join Martinez and the Toffees, as he had really began to rejuvenate his career under Tim Sherwood. That being said, I think most Villa fans still wish him well. He's been struggling with injuries this season, but how has he looked under his old boss?
Ryan: Injuries have been a problem for Cleverley since arriving at the club. He started off shaky in his first performances as a Blue during the summer but then seemed to settle in until he injured his ankle against Spurs in August. He is targeting a return this weekend, aptly against Villa. From all accounts Roberto Martinez has been happy with Cleverley but you also have to note that the manager is rarely critical of his players in the press. As long as he stays healthy, we'll have to see how much he plays to try to determine how Martinez truly feels about him.
There are a handful of players who have really stood out for the Toffees this year, but who would have your vote for the player of the season?
Ryan: For me, player of the season, most improved player and most surprising player: Arouna Kone. He's been a huge surprise and one that I don't think many fans even counted on seeing much playing time at the start of the season. He has had some quiet performances as well as some brilliant ones. To date he has played in 14 matches and tallied five goals.
If you could have one player from this current Villa squad, who would it be?
Ryan: Going off of sentiment, Joleon Lescott. He's nearing the end of his career so it would not be a long-term move but he would provide that much needed defensive depth and experience that Everton needs.
Our thanks again to Ryan and everyone over at Royal Blue Mersey. Check out their site for more pre-match reading, including my answers as Ryan takes his turn asking the questions.