For a number of seasons, Tony Hibbert and Phil Neville have been jousting for Everton’s right-back jersey. More often that not, club captain Neville wins the duel, and finishes each campaign having played a greater amount of minutes in the role. However, this year David Moyes has seemingly opted to remodel his defence, starting Hibbert for the past nine straight Premier League games. This decision has surprised a significant proportion of Everton fans who clearly value Neville’s input. So what is the thinking behind this?
On paper, Neville has always seemed the more attacking option, and therefore a selection more likely to satisfy supporters. There is a perception that he is more inclined to assist in attack and roam forward, whilst of course boosting the side with his vast experience and respected leadership qualities. Approaching 35, his recent absence has lead to speculation that many of his best traits have begun to wane, leaving Moyes deeming it necessary to make a switch.
When challenging the Premier League’s elite sides, in order to stifle some of the division’s more formidable attackers, Moyes often drafts in the more defence-minded Hibbert. In these instances, Neville is generally shifted into midfield, however this season, before being sidelined with injury (as he currently is), he had found himself on the periphery of things, a predicament unfamiliar to him during his Everton career.
The ever dependable Hibbert has now featured for the Toffees in 12 straight seasons and is closing in on 300 club appearances. A durable, academy product, he is tenacious in the tackle and defensively robust. Supporters’ main gripe with his game is his attacking limitations coupled with a lack of pace that occasionally sees him caught out in awkward situations.
To compensate for Leighton Baines’ rampaging forays forward from left-back, Everton’s manager has seemed content for his right-sided full back to be the more defence-minded of the pair. Neville is certainly not a liability at the back. Many will remember his exemplary performance last season against an in-form Gareth Bale, where the Everton skipper nullified the PFA Player of the Year’s threat so well that his performance even resulted in his name trending across Twitter! He is certainly capable, but there are few who would argue he is technically superior to Hibbert when defending.
To delve further into the logic behind this current transition at right-back, here is a look at Neville’s full season last year, predominantly played at right-back, pitted against Hibbert’s nine straight starts this season.
The first noticeable factor is that Everton are conceding far more goals with Tony Hibbert at right-back, and are in fact yet to record a clean sheet. What quells this initial finding may well be the Toffees’ recent daunting run of fixtures that has seen them face Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United in four out of five games.
When the individual statistics are digested, it suddenly becomes apparent just how much better Hibbert has faired defensively. He wins far more 50-50’s, on the ground and surprisingly in the air too. What is most striking is just how superior his tackling is. He contests far more and has a truly first class tackle success rate of 86%, especially given the elite adversaries he will have recently encountered. In just nine games he has already performed a pair of last man tackles, something Neville never managed all of last season.
From then on, the division in defensive and offensive ability becomes more obvious. Hibbert tends to loose possession more frequently and, whilst his passing accuracy surprisingly trumps Neville, his crossing accuracy of 12% is woeful. Given his numbers after just nine games, Everton are giving him more opportunities to deliver, but he simply has not produced.
Neville’s attacking statistics are hardly imperious. Recording one assist, a feat already matched by Hibbert this season, is a feeble effort. Judging by his numbers, he crosses less (despite a better accuracy), so it is debatable exactly how much he is actually managing to support Everton’s attacks. It seems his flush credentials and previous international pedigree have perhaps augmented his aura at a time when his attributes may have faded slightly.
Moyes’ dilemma is whether he should plump for a strong defensive choice in Hibbert, willing to advance but unlikely to contribute much going forward, or his club’s leader, more adept in attack, but who seems to be struggling to contribute as much as he has throughout his illustrious career. On current form, a compromise between the two may be the best solution.
Away from Goodison Park, it makes sense for Hibbert to play. Everton’s attacks will be less adventurous and the Toffees will need to be more defensively rigid. Hibbert should also continue against leading opposition at home, but against supposedly inferior opponents, a rested Neville may currently be the more sensible option, more likely to provide an accurate cross whilst not being relied on as much at the back.
Whilst both of these club stalwarts will continue to compete for Everton’s right-back slot this season, once Moyes becomes convinced Seamus Coleman has honed his defensive skills sufficiently, it may be the Irishman who disposes of both Hibbert and Neville sooner rather than later. Both have notable deficiencies in there game and in an era where buccaneering full backs are pivotal components of offensive raids, especially at home, seeing Coleman develop into the starting right-back my be the more rounded solution for Everton’s future.