Normally, the format of this thing is pretty straightforward. I ask three questions of them, and either they ask three questions of me or I just make shit up. Not today, though, not today. Today's edition is a questionpalooza - Alex Fitzgerald of Royal Blue Mersey sent over nine questions, and I sent 10 back in return. It's basically like Inside The Actor's Studio, but about soccer. And not pretentious.
So anyway, here's Everton QuestionFest 2014! Starting with my questions to Alex:
TSF: How big of a loss is Ross Barkley for Everton, and what will the club do to replace him?
RBM: Ross has become a massive player for Everton. He runs the game from the middle of the park alongside Gareth Barry, he is the attacking link between the pair. As far as replacing him I'm not sure that's possible but to cover him we have a range on central midfielders, Barry and McCarthy are first choice but I'd give our new lad Mo Besic a go and let McCarthy have a free role in the centre of midfield.
TSF: Under David Moyes, Everton were really good at, to put it in corporate parlance, doing more with less. Moyes was really good at getting the best out of a small squad/limited budget, and Roberto Martinez seems to be the same. Are Everton fans happy with Martinez and the job he's done since taking over?
RBM: I think every Everton fan you speak to will tell you how happy they are now Moyes has left and Martinez has taken over, and that's nothing against Moyes. We all felt that David had taken his capabilities to its absolute limit at Everton and he would have ended up undoing the brilliant base he has set over 11 years. The base isn't just on the field but the confidence he put in Kenwright financially has allowed Bill to give Martinez a bit more free spend this summer. Martinez has added a brilliant flair to our play and the extra edge we needed. The players go forward with more positivity now.
TSF: Everton finished fifth last season, on 72 points, 7 points shy of what some call the Top Club Club. Will they improve on that point total, and do you think Everton can get into the top four?
RBM: I think if you would have asked me that before the first game of the season I would have said no, because you imagine Liverpool would continue from last year and Manchester United would improve, but being honest neither set their game alight. That fills me with hope and confidence that we can build on the points tally of last year and I think 4th can be ours. Chelsea 1st, City 2nd, Arsenal 3rd and Everton 4th.
TSF: As a person with a ton of Irish family, I've always been intrigued by Aiden McGeady. He was going to be the Next Big Thing, but it hasn't worked out for him thus far in his career. Has he played well for Everton?
RBM: Aiden struggled in his first year with us as he came in January from Russia which means adapting to their game, he would have been deep into the close season. He lacked fitness, however he played brilliantly at Leicester last Saturday and scored a good goal. He looked super fit, possibly fitter than he has been to date and worked really hard. I think Aiden isn't done yet!
TSF: Everton drew with Leicester 2-2 in what was, for a neutral, a hugely entertaining game to watch. Is what we saw on Saturday the Everton you expected to see?
RBM: No. We looked a little short against Leicester, maybe that typical thing in the early season of lacking match practice. We have a lot to build upon and I believe you'll see a different Everton on Saturday.
TSF: How was Everton's summer of shopping? Any new blood you're really excited about?
RBM: Yes, Mo Besic really excites me as a football fan and an Everton fan. He looks so confident and at ease on the ball. Things run in slow motion when he is on the ball, that's the feeling he gives watching him. Obviously I hope Lukaku can just build on his last couple of seasons and continue to work hard and score his goals.
TSF: Apart from the emergency created by the Ross Barkley injury, are there any gaping holes in Everton's squad that still need to be addressed?
RBM: For me I'd love a right back cover, John Stones played there at the weekend and has a couple of times in the past but he is a centre and looks out of position at right back. Tony Hibbert doesn't look like he will see another game unless desperate, under Roberto. Also I'd like another striker, Lukaku could do with some competition and we could do with some cover.
TSF: All we hear about these days from that corner of England is Liverpool's stadium situation. Is Everton happy with Goodison, or are they also looking to expand/renovate/move?
RBM: The little I say about them the better, Everton discussing Liverpool doesn't mix well! But yes we are always looking to move stadiums and it is becoming more of reality than a wish just recently, as the board are now openly talking about the possibility. There isn't a great deal of space in the City however.
TSF: Does Everton value the Europa League, or is that competition seen as an obstacle to doing well in the league?
RBM: I think that one would be judged by each individual fan. But for me as we haven't seen European football in a good 4-5 years it's something that will be good for us to get back into, it's a brilliant competition for a team that has depth and this transfer window we have managed to get some depth in some positions.
TSF: Finally, any bold, reckless, or other predictions for Saturday's game?
RBM: Hmm! I got the last one right with our last game... My heart say 2-1 Everton but my head says 1-1. I'll follow my head on this rare occasion!
And now, his questions to me:
RBM: As an outsider looking in, it appears the Arsenal fans seem to expect to win things, that must create big pressure in itself for Arsene Wenger? Do you feel with the signings, Arsenal could become the winning team the fans expect?
TSF: I have to say I bristle a bit at "become the winning team the fans expect". Arsenal have finished fourth or better every year of Wenger's tenure, completed the only unbeaten season in modern English football history, and are on the verge of their 17th straight season in the Champions League group stages, the last seven years of which have been spent being fairly financially restricted (in comparison with the other top four clubs) thanks to front-loaded sponsorship deals that helped Arsenal pay for a new stadium.
But, in this modern impatient age, trophies are apparently everything, so to answer your question, I believe that yes, this year Arsenal will take a massive step forward; they have new sponsorship deals that are among the most lucrative in England (at the moment), their stadium debt is manageable, and their squad is stable after a few years of big players leaving. It's a good time to be an Arsenal supporter, but there's never really a bad time to be one, now that I mention it!
RBM: What are your overall expectations for the coming season? Do you believe you are realistic title contenders?
TSF: I do. I think they'll fall just a bit short, but I do expect a sustained title challenge again this season. People forget that Arsenal were in first place until February last season, when everyone on Arsenal's team sheet broke. The club has a new fitness director now, and while it's overly simplistic to say he'll just snap his fingers and the players will be fit, Arsenal have had such problems with fitness in the last few years it can't help but help. I still believe MCFC will probably win, but Arsenal will push them a lot harder than many think they will. I've predicted second place for this year before, and I'll stick with that here.
RBM: Mikel Arteta was a huge part of Everton in his time at Goodison Park. What impact has he given to your Arsenal team since joining?
TSF: Besides setting new standards for amazing hair, Arteta has been very, very important to Arsenal over his time in London. He's one of those players I love to watch - he rarely puts a foot wrong. He's not flashy, he's not the guy your eye is drawn to, but without him in midfield, Arsenal don't work well. He was injured in Tuesday's CL qualifier, and I'm currently dreading the injury report because Arsenal can't afford to be without him for an extended period of time. (ED. NOTE: since this interview, Arsenal have confirmed Arteta will be out for at least two weeks)
RBM: I've also noticed Arteta is your club captain, would he be your choice of captain or would you look to someone else?
TSF: I'm very happy that Arteta was named captain; I would have also been happy if Per Mertesacker were captain, but Arteta's a good choice.
RBM: Arsenal seem to be the team out of the top sides that consistently grind out results against Everton (barring our 3-1 win at the back end of last season), what are you expecting from Everton on Saturday? I'm expecting Arsenal to be very hard to break down.
TSF: I'm actually expecting much the same from Everton, to be honest - "grind out results" is a good way to describe it. Games against Everton are never easy - it's a good squad, and both David Moyes and now Roberto Martinez are managers I rate pretty highly (yes, I still rate Moyes, even after last season). Martinez has taken what Moyes left him and built on it, and Everton might sneak up on a few people this season.
RBM: I would say Arsenal should be aiming their sights at 3rd or 4th come the end of the season, but where do you think Everton will finish?
TSF: As mentioned, I'm aiming a bit higher for Arsenal this year; I think this season 4th is a realistic target for Everton.
RBM: What do you think this weekends final score will be between our two sides?
TSF: I am notoriously bad at this, but I'll give it a shot. Arsenal haven't played all that well in their first two matches, thanks to a healthy dose of World Cup fatigue, but all Arsenal's Cup winning Germans will be back for this game, and Mesut Özil will be back after being rested in the CL qualifier, so it should be a stronger team than we've seen thus far this season. I'll say 2-1 Arsenal but it'll be a nervy 2-1.
RBM: If I was in a position to buy one player out of your current team and bring him to Everton it would be Aaron Ramsey, he is strong and technically brilliant and scores some important goals in big games. Who out of Everton's squad would you like at Arsenal? Barkley isn't for sale!
TSF: Aaron Ramsey is ours and you can't have him! Looking over the Everton team sheet, if I can't say Ross Barkley, I'd find a spot at Arsenal for Romelu Lukaku, and as an American I have to say I'd also bring in Tim Howard even though Arsenal's GK spot is set at the moment.
RBM: Finally, best of luck for the season hopefully you can spare us 3 points on Saturday! One final question, do you think Arsene Wenger is lining up anymore signings for Arsenal before the window closes? Or do you think that's business done?
TSF: Arsenal have had a staggeringly successful transfer window so far. The team identified five needs for the squad (two defenders, a midfielder, another striker and a backup keeper) and filled four of them. There is a very vocal portion of the Arsenal fanbase (which does not include me) that believes Giroud is not the man to lead Arsenal to a title, so Arsenal not bringing in a striker doesn't make them happy, and there's another segment that really wants a central defensive midfielder, which also hasn't happened.
Otherwise, Arsenal have had a great window. Arsene has made noises about not being done in the market just yet, though, and he's really good at last minute buying (see: Özil/Mertesacker) so I don't think we've heard the end of Arsenal's transfer ambitions for the summer. But even if we have, I'm thrilled with the new boys and really looking forward to the season.
Thanks again to Alex! You can check out...well, I guess they're these same questions and answers in their post at Royal Blue Mersey.