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Oct 22, 2009

Moyes' myriad of options poses problems

Fearsome Glaswegian managers can appear something of a throwback, but it is not just David Moyes' background and demeanour that provides reminders of the past. For Everton, 2009 has been a year of rationing, Goodison Park's own age of austerity, when Moyes has been limited in the number of players he has had available.

Everton finished fifth and reached the FA Cup final without Phil Jagielka, Mikel Arteta and Yakubu, perhaps their best players in defence, midfield and attack respectively, but few can prosper with such limitations forever.

His squad was decimated for Thursday's Europa League tie with Benfica but soon Moyes may have a new and unfamiliar problem: options. The days of untried unknowns making up the numbers on the bench may be nearing an end, the era when substitutions were predictable because the alternatives were so underwhelming is almost over. Everton still have three significant long-term absentees - Jagielka, Arteta and Phil Neville - but their squad is acquiring a depth.

Their belated business at the end of the transfer window, when three players arrived before deadline day and one shortly afterwards, has given Moyes the sort of selection dilemmas he has not enjoyed for at least a year. Away in Minsk earlier this month, hampered by the ineligibility of two of his signings in Europe, his six outfield substitutes against BATE Borisov comprised of six teenagers. Against Wolves on Saturday, he was able to introduce Jo, Yakubu and Marouane Fellaini from a cast of replacements that also included Lucas Neill and Dan Gosling.

Shoehorning the few fit players into a team revealed the resourcefulness of his side but pooling from a full squad may involve other skills. Everton have displayed an uncomplaining attitude, which has been evident already this season when first Neville and then Tony Hibbert slotted in at centre back and when Gosling was required to deputise at right back in Europe. Now, however, the team has to comprise of the best 11, not the last men standing.

Against Wolves, for example, Moyes' decision to field John Heitinga alongside Jack Rodwell in the centre of midfield appeared just the sort of compromise that was forced upon him last season. This time, however, it was a managerial preference. With a trio of attacking reinforcements in Yakubu, Jo and Fellaini, however, the Scot could allow Heitinga to drop into defence in the second half on Saturday.

Having striking substitutes provides an element of novelty in itself. Moyes now has three international strikers at his disposal for a side that has often appeared at its most comfortable with one forward. Indeed, there may be a further trio who aspire to play behind the sole striker in Fellaini, Cahill and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

After the Russian opened his Everton account, Moyes said that there were three positions the £10 million midfielder can fill: on the left, where he started the match; on the right, where he ended it; and in the hole.

And it is here that Moyes' often astute recruitment may complicate matters. Steven Pienaar, arguably Everton's outstanding player of the calendar year, will be fit soon and has excelled on the left flank. Yet Bilyaletdinov, compared to Kevin Sheedy by his new manager, is also best suited to that position. It is thought the Scot's initial intention was to sign a right-sided midfielder before ending up with the left-footed Russian.

But it provides a second position where Everton's pivotal players double up, rather than dovetailing. Since Fellaini arrived, it is apparent that the Belgian is at his happiest supporting the main striker. But that is the role Cahill covets and has copyrighted in his five years on Merseyside.

Both have been used as conventional central midfielders in that time, rendering the Australian less potent in front of goal while during a striker shortage, and Cahill's exploits as an auxiliary striker last season camouflaged the conflict of interest between the pair. Back-to-back summers of uncertainty may have contributed to the confusion: like Bilyaletdinov a year later, Fellaini signed towards the end of the transfer window when Moyes was running out of time.

The defensive equation also intrigues. Heitinga reverted to right back for Saturday's second half. Given Hibbert's limitations, he may prove the regular choice there with Neill, signed after the transfer deadline because he was a free agent, currently the third choice.

In the centre, however, the man under threat may be Everton's current captain. In Neville's absence, Joseph Yobo has been leading the side. But his troubled start to the season has been accompanied by Sylvain Distin's smooth integration into life at Goodison Park. When Jagielka is able to return, Yobo could be the most fallible of the current back four. As it is, the Nigerian may have a month to find form before being challenged though Heitinga, like most of Moyes' recruits, has the versatility to operate in several positions.

The adaptability of the side means that a manager who had become accustomed to picking the only 11 he felt comfortable naming should soon have a myriad of potential selections. And while a glass ceiling has been erected to prevent Everton's progress in the Premier League, they may at least have one distinction to serve as a consolation: a stronger substitutes' bench than Liverpool possess.

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