This is only Steven Naismith’s third season in an Everton shirt and yet he seems to have experienced the rollercoaster ride of love/hate emotions from the fans usually associated with one-season wonders or long-term servants of the periphery of the first team. In truth, he might still be the former. There was no doubt that during his first season he became a boo-boy for the fans, an easy target to pin failure to qualify for Europe upon. That tag remained until halfway through Martinez’s first season and since then he has become a folk hero, leading the attack with hard work, determination and passion rather than skill. There are more than a few similarities between him and Everton fan’s other favourite, Ross Barkley. Amongst these features are the quality link-up they both provide to the forward line, tendency to prefer playing in the same position and an ability to find space in pockets where others see none. The main difference between the two is talent. Barkley has the world at his feet and could possibly, with hard work and luck with injuries, become one of the all time great players. Naismith, quite frankly, will never reach those levels. Yet, that being said, the way the Scot is playing is making it almost impossible to drop him. That, in essence, is the Naismith dilemma.
Even through arriving at Everton, Naismith wasn’t out of the spotlight. He was one of the players who left Rangers without a transfer fee following the clubs descent into liquidation. There is now a lot of bitterness towards him from supporters of the Glasgow giants, something that Naismith regrets. Despite having experience of playing in the Champions League, the difference between playing for Rangers and playing for Everton is vast and a settling in period is natural for most players. Naismith wasn’t helped by the fact all we heard about before the season started was how good his link up with Jelavic had been at Rangers. Then came the bizarre comparison with Robin van Persie from David Moyes, meaning there was too much pressure on Naismith before he had even kicked a ball south of the border.
Naismith didn’t do anything particularly wrong in his first season, he just wasn’t up to the standard we expected. My overriding memories are a frustrating player, playing on the right wing but lacking the ability to take players on, find a pass or move well. There was one time when Naismith came alive, and that was when the ball was bouncing around inside the box. He only scored 4 goals, but it was evident from all of them that he possessed the ability to find the net. Again, it wasn’t an outstanding season, but nor was it a dreadful one. He made his debut in a fantastic 1-0 victory over United, his first goal was in the Merseyside derby, scoring the second as we came back from 2-0 down in front of the Gwladys Street and he was the only bright spark in a lacklustre 2-1 loss on the final day away to Chelsea but none of that mattered. Everton fans wanted a scapegoat. The season had ultimately been one to forget, we had gone from being in a good place to challenge for the Champions League and in the quarter finals of the FA Cup with an easy route to the final to not reaching even the Europa League and losing at home to Wigan. On top of that we had lost our manager, our captain and hence the quiet, unassuming Naismith became an easy target.
Many of us, myself included, expected Naismith to leave when Martinez took over. There didn’t seem to be a place for him in the style of football Martinez was famous for, he hadn’t adjusted to English football and the man who signed him had now gone. It transpired later that Martinez was a huge admirer of Naismith. He had tried to sign him for Wigan, personally phoning the Scot and, according to Naismith, blowing him away. Martinez told him that if he were his manager, he would lessen the defensive aspects of his game and allow him to keep more of his energy for attacking. Upon getting the Everton job, Martinez again phoned Naismith and said, “If the mountain won’t come to Muhammed then Muhammed must go to the mountain”. Martinez has put everything he said he would do for Naismith into practice, turning him into one of Everton’s best attacking players in the space of a season and a quarter. A perfect example of Martinez’s man-management skills, Naismith has become a well loved and important member of the squad while being more vocal off the pitch and starting to form a strong relationship with every aspect of Everton football club, especially the fans.
Everton fans are slightly contradictory by nature. In fact, we can probably widen that analogy to include all football fans (you should hear Josh’s views on Forest fans undying devotion to Pearce). Everton contradictions stem from the fact that the cult heroes are players who gave absolutely everything for the club, threw themselves into every tackle or ran themselves into the ground to win the ball back yet the desired style of football is attractive, precise passing with an end product to match. The School of Science, if you will. While these are not polar opposites, it is unlikely to come across a team that can implement both nowadays. Or so I thought until the Martinez-Naismith partnership came along.
The pragmatic Naismith is being complemented, respected and used correctly by the idealistic Martinez. Naismith (and the McCarthy-Barry partnership) brings a sense of reality, hard work and grafting to an Everton side otherwise based upon acts of skill, pace and precision. That isn’t to say Naismith is lacking in skill, one look at the way he assisted Lukaku vs Burnley recently will show how far from the truth that statement would be. But that goal also underlines my point about his graft. There is no scenario plausible in which he would have been involved like that in his first season. He took all the criticism on the chin and came back a better player, helped by a new manager but initiated by a personal desire to improve.
His stats so far this season read 4 goals from 12 shots, 11 chances created with no assists and a 76% passing accuracy. These aren’t great stats by any means, and there is almost no doubt that had Barkley played a full season his would be more impressive, but sometimes you have to look beyond the stats. Three of his four goals were Everton’s second in the match and the other was an equaliser against United. They are important goals, although admittedly none were scored in wins. The dilemma facing Martinez is that since Barkley returned Everton haven’t lost yet Naismith wasn’t the reason for Everton’s bad form, in fact he was the only bright spark.
Can you fit both into the same side? Martinez tried, and it was ultimately unsuccessful, in the 0-0 draw with Swansea. So, he dropped Naismith for the next match and Everton lacked a X-factor up front, indeed we didn’t score until he came off the bench. One possible way to fit both in would be to place Barkley on the left wing, allow him to cut in and have Baines operating almost as a lone left sided player at times. The positive of that is that the left wing has been our problem area for a while. Mirallas, Pienaar and McGeady are all mainly right-footed and Atsu hasn’t looked good enough yet. The downside is that Barkley’s natural brilliance isn’t as prominent while he is stuck out on the wing. Naismith has been tried on the wings by Martinez, and was consigned to a season of it by Moyes, all without any level of success so that idea can be thrown out before it’s considered.
Another possibility is allowing Naismith to be a lone striker with Barkley behind him, but then that leaves out Lukaku and Eto’o. One final idea is looking at a 4-3-3 with Barkley furthest forward of a midfield trio and Lukaku/Eto’o and Mirallas/McGeady/Pienaar flanking Naismith up-front. That formation worked wonders against Arsenal at Goodison last season. It’s a major problem for Martinez to deal with, but one I’m sure he has no qualms about diffusing. So far, Martinez is keeping Naismith fit for European matches, and with his experience that is a sensible move, but we desperately need his presence in the Premier League.
The transformation from a waste of space to the Messi of the North (seen on a facebook comment) via “Dare to Naismith” (twitter’s mock of Ibrahimovic’s Nike adverts) is now complete. The next chapter of the Steven Naismith story, a fascinating one in it’s own right, will depend on how Martinez resolves the Steven Naismith dilemma. One thing is for certain, the nature of Naismith is not to complain nor burn bridges and do everything with a smile and good manners. Whatever happens Naismith will leave Everton with the respect of the management teams, players and fans – a sentence I never thought I would write following his first season.
There were many reasons for Naismith’s slow start at Everton. Moyes was playing him out of position, he had to deal with leaving Scotland and Rangers under murky circumstances, he had just come back from a major injury and has admitted since that he was “a wee bit in awe of the players”. Equally, there are many reasons for his resurgence. A manager who gave him fresh ideas about himself, a belief he belonged there and a growing comfort with the squad are probably the main factors at play. Having watched Everton a lot over the past couple of seasons, I genuinely believe we play better with him in the side. As is so often the case, the star of a good team is not the superstar but the underrated cog in the machine. Naismith is our attacking glue, the player who makes the talent around him tick. For that reason, I think the Naismith dilemma isn’t whether you should play him or not, it’s how you fit him in.