06 August 2015
The start of a new season... For those Evertonians of a certain vintage, old enough and fortunate enough to remember the glory days of the 1980s (and, indeed, the few years that followed before the reality of our decline started to bite) it was a time of wonderful possibilities. A fresh start, a clean slate and the realistic potential of claiming the title or a trophy at the end of it if everything went our way.
Nowadays, of course, the landscape of English football has been altered beyond recognition, the playing field tilted in favour of an ever-more powerful clutch of elite clubs who, it feels, have a lock on the top four and the Champions League places this coming season before a ball has even been kicked in anger. That dominance by Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City has been part of life in the Premier League for a number of years now – broken only briefly by Everton two seasons ago as the Red Devils faltered following the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson and the season before that by Tottenham as Liverpool struggled to finish seventh – but it just feels stronger and more unbreakable than ever coming into 2015-16.
Where under the natural cycle of the old order, United would probably have needed to undergo years of reorganisation and rebuilding in order to find their way back to challenging once again for the top honours, under Louis van Gaal they have spent a fortune to buy their way back into the top four after just one season of turmoil. For the rabble across Stanley Park, the impact of the Gillette and Hicks debacle and the rampant spending on mediocre players that followed should have been far more damaging than it has been and they remain capable of out-spending most of the top flight to keep them in the top-five picture year in, year out.
Just 18 months have passed since Martinez's Everton had Champions League qualification in their own hands following seven wins on the bounce. But a combination of the retrograde steps made in 2014-15 and the fact that many of the teams around us have made positive additions to their teams mean that the fight to finish "best of the rest" behind the monied top four or five is going to be as competitive as it has been for some time. Put bluntly, without some truly top-drawer acquisitions before the transfer deadline, the Champions League looks as far off as ever.
One of the biggest frustrations for Evertonians over the past two or three seasons has been the lack of investment in key areas during the January transfer window, particularly in 2014 when targeted acquisitions might have made the difference between that eventual fifth-placed finish in Martinez's first season in charge and squeezing Arsenal out of the top four.
It's not just Everton managers who cite the mid-season window as a difficult environment in which to strengthen but our perennial budget contraints mean the need to get value for money is particularly acute and it appears to have trumped the old "speculate to accumuate" adage in recent years – in the past three Januarys the Blues have signed just four players for the total outlay of about £5m.
Fortunately, one of them has blossomed ahead of schedule into a first-choice starter and the most sought-after young centre half in the Premier League but David Moyes's acquisition of John Stones was a decision made very much with the longer term in mind; unlike the supposed bid for Alvaro Negredo that same month, the lad from Barnsley was not intended to make an instant impact. Signing Aiden McGeady from Spartak Moscow was a frugal move where the immediate benefit to the team's attacking options was traded off against a nominal fee to land him in January 2014 and Aaron Lennon made an almost immediate and positive impact. But neither signing was supported by significant further additions, particularly in attacking midfield and up front where they were badly needed.
Having accepted that budgetary rationale as underpinning Everton's lack of significant activity in the winter windows, Evertonians were expectant that this summer would see the manager address his squad-strengthening needs quickly and decisively. Martinez asserted at the end of last season that he and his team "[have] worked really hard since January to identify [our] targets," but while Gerard Deulofeu and Tom Cleverley were brought in early, the Blues will start the season with just those two additions to the first team. The net spend of just £4.25m so far may be a little misleading as both signings have much higher market values but the squad remains worryingly short overall.
Martinez has spoken on more than one occasion of his desire to bring in "two or three" more before the 1st of September but there is considerable unease among the fans that while clubs like West Ham, Stoke, Southampton, Newcastle and Swansea – teams we would rather not believe are now our peers but reality now dictates otherwise when you consider last season and the summer's transfer business so far – have all made positive moves to improve their teams, Everton have thus far stood still. New signings are no guarantee of success, of course, but they provide a fresh injection to a team and generate positivity among supporters. Indeed, how many Blues fans would not have been buoyed had Martinez signed a player like Wijnaldum, Clasie, Ayew, Affelay or Mitrovic this summer, regardless of how untried they are in the Premier League?
The Catalan has conducted some of his most meaningful business on the final day of the window, however, and it makes predicting how the Toffees will do this season somewhat difficult. Taking the squad as it is now, it's hard to see how the Blues will be able to make the step back up to challenging for the top four.
The arrival of Deulofeu will replace the direct running of Lennon and provide some more unpredictability and craft down the flank – albeit at the expense of some defensive presence in front of right back Seamus Coleman – and hopefully more in the way of service to Romelu Lukaku. Two years older than when he first arrived, he maintains he has developed as a player in the interim but his time at Sevilla suggests that he still has room to grow and mature into a reliably productive outlet.
Cleverley, meanwhile, may not have set the pulses racing when he was drafted in on a free transfer from Manchester United but the versatility he offers, his tidiness on the ball and his willingness to move it forward mean that he could surprise a lot of people this season. Capable of sitting in in defensive midfield or playing further forward in a more attacking position, he has the potential to fulfill a role that Darron Gibson looked capable of occupying when he was fit last season. Unfortunately for him, while he continues to be beset by injuries, the door is open to Cleverley to make that kind of starting role his own and hopefully ease a transition away from Martinez's over-reliance on Gareth Barry alongside James McCarthy. In the interim, the ex-Aston Villa loanee is likely to be the round peg that goes into the square left-midfield hole – he can go in that position but he won't be the best fit.
Without the distraction and extra burden of the Europa League, the Blues will hopefully be able to avoid the alarming mid-season slump that had some fans fearing another relegation battle following four consecutive defeats over Christmas and the New Year and develop some of the consistency that was more prevalent in Martinez's first season in charge. While the impact of the club's involvement in Europe was often over-stated last season – Everton's worst period of form came during the three-month hiatus from Continental competition and was, arguably, largely due to inflexibility on the manager's part in terms of tactics, personnel and formation – it unquestionably played its part, if only in terms of team selection, player rotation and mental fatigue.
Though it doesn't look likely to happen at the moment given the unbelievable spate of hamstring injuries that has hit Finch Farm this summer, Everton are also going to need better luck with injuries. Robbed of the services – or full capacity – of vital players like Ross Barkley, Lukaku, McCarthy, Stones and Coleman last term, the Blues' hopes of making a strong start were badly undermined from the outset and the team struggled for continuity with players of that level in and out of the side. Add in the significant loss of Steven Pienaar's talents for three quarters of the campaign and some of the supporting cast like Bryan Oviedo and Gibson and you can see some of the evidence for the drop-off in results from 2013-14 to last season.
That has heightened the need for squad depth and, pleasingly, the club's impressive youth Academy looks to be bearing fruit at just the right time to bolster the squad. Brendan Galloway has shown in his cameos at the end of last season and in his showing in pre-season that the lightning that produced the precocious talents of John Stones could yet strike twice with another 19-year-old central defensive prodigy. Tyias Browning, too, is showing encouraging signs of developing into a player capable of deputising at first-team level, either at right back – just as well, seeing as Tony Hibbert has already been ruled out of the first two to three months of the season – or in central defence. It would be folly to risk having to rely on two raw Under-21 players should injury strike the two first-choice centre backs, however, and Martinez has, pleasingly, reiterated in recent days that a central defender remains one of the three positions he is looking to strengthen before the month is out.
Similarly, Ryan Ledson's progress through the ranks continues and Kieran Dowell has shown remarkable maturity during his pre-season runouts but while they offer an exciting glimpse into what is coming down the pipeline at Finch Farm in the coming years, both are too young to be considered for regular Premier League action.
While a more settled team, some evolution in the manager's tactics and a better run of injuries could see Everton achieve a top-ten finish – and, with a bit of luck, end up in the Europa League equation come May – there is little doubt that in order to seriously challenge in the top six, seven or higher in the Premier League, Martinez has to add players of genuine quality this month rather than merely adding bodies in positions where he is short.
Everton have done a commendable job in keeping the club's most important and prized players at Goodison Park over the last couple of years and together they form an impressive nucleus of a potentially brilliant side, but there is still some way to go before the pool is deep enough and possesses enough match-winning talent. And the longer that situation persists, the greater the risk that the Blues' best players will leave. There is already a feeling that another mediocre season without Europe at the end of it will see us lose the likes of Lukaku, Stones and Mirallas come next summer. Some key additions this month could at least get us close to where expectations were a year ago and give those kinds of players a reason to stay.
If last season confirmed anything – and there was evidence of it in his first season, too – it's that the team is crying out for a top-class playmaker capable of breaking down entrenched defences with a killer pass, a moment of magic or a goal out of nothing. The likes of Pienaar and Leon Osman have offered that at times but with both reaching the end of their careers and suffering with injuries, neither can be relied upon with any great regularity. Such players are hard to find and usually come at a price but it's an area that must be made a priority this month if Everton are at all serious about getting back into the mix for Europe. That and help for Lukaku up front are two key areas where the side is currently lacking, but supporters are having to wait with bated breath to see if the manager and Board will follow through on the pledge to add in those positions.
Difference-makers? Cleverley and Deulofeu are the only two new arrivals so far
That he publicly stated back in March that he was not in the market for another striker was surprising to put it mildly, and while many observers have felt that he was always likely to add a forward before the deadline – even if only on loan – it's heartening that Martinez has now acknowledged the need for another goalscorer. As things stand, the loss of Lukaku for any significant length of time would cut our challenge for Europe off at the knees. Based on all the evidence of his two-year Everton career thus far, Arouna Kone looks several levels below what we need as a back-up or auxiliary striker. Steven Naismith is one of the most natural finishers at the club but lacks genuinely ability to lead the line as a lone striker in Martinez's chosen system. Despite his impressive scoring record, Kevin Mirallas is in the same boat, his best role being playing off a centre-forward or cutting in from the flanks. And Conor McAleny remains an untried and inexperienced alternative.
Moreover, it's not just cover for injury that another attacking option is required. Lukaku was dropped from the starting XI following the defeats against Southampton and Stoke over the Festive period last year in order to allow him to recharge, refocus and reset , and while it was during that period that Kone scored his one and only Everton goal to date, the Blues looked especially toothless without the Belgian.
Whatever happens between now and the 1st of September transfer deadline, the Blues will almost certainly kick off the 2015-16 campaign with a nearly identical squad to the one that finished the club's most disappointing season in nine years and that is raising concerns among fans about how we'll manage through what is a challenging run of 10 fixtures against eight of the best teams from last term. Pre-season performances are no reliable indicator of how well a team will fare when the real business gets underway but it's not unfair to assume that without some significant changes in training and coaching over the summer, with the same personnel will come the same challenges and shortcomings.
Again, if the squad looked and felt dangerously under-cooked coming out of last summer because of the World Cup and a disorganised pre-season, this time around it looks ill-prepared in terms of depth and quality. With the season starting a week earlier there is a danger that, should Martinez's business occur (as seems increasingly likely) right before the deadline, 10% of the season will have gone before the new signings arrive. From what we know from 2014-15 and the limited reliability of pre-season form, does this Everton side have the quality to get enough points from those first four games to make a good start to the new campaign?
The start could be all-important, too. The Blues have begun slowly in each of Martinez's first two seasons at Goodison but while 2013 was down to him bedding in a new possession-based system without a reliable goalscorer leading the line, the points dropped in August 2014 were massively disappointing and, the manager has admitted, they took a huge psychological toll on the players from which they took months to recover. Thanks largely to the silence on the transfer front since Deulofeu's signing was announced and the consequent lack of a feel-good factor going into the opening day, anything short of victory over Watford would immediately set supporters on edge and put the pressure back on the manager's shoulders. With Southampton, Manchester City and Tottenham to follow, collective morale would be in jeopardy from the beginning and even if new recruits were to arrive in the interim or around the deadline, precious points would be lost.
Psychologically speaking the reverse is true, of course. Get off to a flyer in the first few games and everything will look and feel completely different – more so if Martinez can make those much-needed additions that would support a sustained challenge near the top of the table by the deadline. Everton have shown in the last couple of years that they can match most teams on their day and that there is enough talent in the existing ranks to compete with the best when everything is clicking.
Therein lies the rub in the context of a gruelling 38-game season. It requires Barkley to quickly rediscover and consistently produce the moments of brilliant form with which he lit up his first full season at senior level; Lukaku to receive regular service and remain lethal in front of goal for nine months; Tim Howard to regain the levels that made him a reliable if not infallible presence between the sticks; Martinez's maurauding full-backs to re-find their scintillating form; and the likes of Mirallas and Deulofeu to stay injury-free. Unfortunately, given how the elite clubs are spending and Everton's new rivals in the top 10 have also been capitalising on the television rights bonanza to add quality to their ranks, it also demands that the Blues as a collective be at peak level week in, week out if they are to challenge for the top four or five places. And that isn't realistic, even without the vagaries of injury crises, suspensions and the like.
With that in mind, many are hoping that Martinez places maximum importance on the cup competitions this time. Given the desire to progress in the Europa League, Everton's Capital One Cup campaign was nobbled before it could clear the first hurdle given all the changes the manager made to the line-up against Swansea in the third round, while the FA Cup arrived at a time when the team was still reeling from its horrendous run of results during the Festive programme.
While the domestic trophies have lost some of their lustre in the face of the riches and prestige associated with the Premier and Champions Leagues, they represent an achievable route to glory, silverware and Europe for Everton this season. In the same way that Martinez appeared to prioritise the Europa League last season, few fans would complain if he took the same approach to the FA and League Cups now... anything to end the trophy drought and get the Toffees' name back up in lights in an era where our proud and illustrious history is too easily overlooked.
Should he be able to achieve it, it would be a huge boon to Martinez who comes into 2015/16 knowing just how important the season is going to be for him personally. Following one expectation-defying campaign and one massively disappointing one, many expect the Catalan's third season to be a defining one in terms of his ability to lead Everton back to competing for the top honours. Free from the distractions of Europe and with a more focused pre-season behind him, the conditions should be right for him to convince a significant section of the fanbase who approach the big kick off this weekend with grave scepticism and prove he has what it takes to take this club forward.
Final position: 9th
Key player: Romelu Lukaku
Top scorer: Romelu Lukaku
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