06 September 2015
It's fair to say that this summer saw one of the more eagerly-anticipated transfer windows of the last few years for Evertonians. That sharp drop-off in Everton's fortunes from Roberto Martinez's first season in charge to his second, the club's mushrooming broadcast revenues, the strengthening by teams around and below the Toffees, and the manager's own clearly-stated goals for the close season all combined to raise expectations among supporters that this would be a period in which some glaring deficiencies in the team were addressed.
Tom Cleverley, Gerard Deulofeu, David Henen, Leandro Rodriguez, Ramiro Funes Mori, Aaron Lennon
Chris Long, Luke Garbutt (loan)
It's equally fair to say, therefore, that many Blues will have felt more than a little let down last Tuesday night when the transfer deadline passed without the addition of the kind of quality that many fans feel the team desperately needed. If 2013-14 allowed Everton fans to dare to dream of the possibilities under a new manager who appeared to have banished the underdog mentality that has set in at Goodison, the season that followed served as a cold reality check to an anticipatory fervour that was briefly enhanced by the acquisition of Romelu Lukaku on a permanent basis after the World Cup. This summer afforded the manager an opportunity to inject new life into a team that struggled to match the expectation engendered by his first year in charge.
There is no doubt that the whole transfer window – and Deadline Day in particular – has become a bit of a circus; what with Sky's tension-raising countdown clocks, reporters stationed dramatically outside Premier League grounds, and Jim White entering the studio punching the air like a boxer entering the arena for a televised prize fight. It's an obvious construct of the "TV show" nature of the modern Premier League that drives the tabloid press' cottage industry of baseless speculation and allows for the kind of media-driven pursuit of players like Chelsea's hounding of John Stones last month.
The whole thing is apt for the kind mockery that has been made of it over the past week – not least because the "main event" itself was such a damp squib this time; the deadline was largely free of drama once the David de Gea debacle was out the way and most Evertonians would surely have been glad to have sat the whole thing out had Everton got its business out of the way early. Yes, as fans we've had some exciting last few hours of a window in recent years but most of us would probably have preferred that Roberto have the evening off with his business done... perhaps like his mate Gary Monk might have been on Tuesday night – reclining in his armchair with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, staring up with a contended air at a painting of Andre Ayew hanging over his mantlepiece.
Ultimately, though, the fact that Blues fans were clinging to the hope of some late drama and the last-minute deliverance of a "No.10" from a foreign land was purely down to Everton and the manager's apparent need to conduct much of his business in the final days of the window. Only recently, Martinez himself had asked to be judged not on what the club had done in the transfer market to that point but on what was spent right up to the deadline itself. On that basis, supporters could be forgiven for delivering a harsh judgement... that is if they weren't already fatigued by the usual ratcheting down of expectations and resigned, perhaps, to another frustrating season based on the team's performances in three of the four games of the season so far.
Amid criticism of the whole transfer deadline phenomenon, the argument has been made that too much stock is placed in the power of a "magic" signing to transform a team's season. But Everton's deficiencies coming out of 2014-15 were not about the need for merely one "silver bullet"; that the team clearly lacked quality and depth in a number of areas was obvious and hopes were high that Martinez had not only acknowledged this following a chastening 2014-15 season but planned to address it decisively over the summer. Frustrated by a quiet January, when a struggling team was bolstered only by the arrival on loan of Aaron Lennon, supporters had little choice but to take the manager at his word in May that, "we have got real clarity in who we want,"and that the work he and his team had done in identifying their targets would lead to a productive transfer window.
In the context of Everton realistically getting back to challenging for the top four this season and the "statement of intent" that was the signing of Romelu Lukaku a year ago, you would have to say that the club fell short. It was Martinez who effectively defined the 2015 close season as being about the search for what has become an almost mythical "No.10", the kind of role which he himself described as being very difficult to fill. Especially from the pool of domestic talent which lacks the combination of, in the managers ger's words, "technical ability...good appreciation of where to receive the ball," the ability to "give good service to the forwards," while also "having the mentality to adapt to the physicality of the British game and have an effect and also being able to control the big moments of the game."
Now, in his customarily optimistic manner, Martinez has already fallen back on characterising the Blues' summer as a success based on the retention Stones, a line of argument that, unfortunately, plays right into the hands of the Goodison Board's biggest critics. Signing players of the calibre of Lukaku should be the club's expression of ambition; keeping its best players should be the minimum requirement. The concern is that by not improving the squad to a degree that will enable Everton to realistically challenge for Europe this season, they have not demonsrated sufficient ambition to keep the likes of Stones and Lukaku from looking at pastures new next summer and at clubs where their own ambitions can be realised. The manager's strategy of building a young core – a "golden generation" – risks being undermined by the fact that key ingredients that really could have transformed the Blues into the "winning team" the Catalan says he is looking to build were not secured and it leaves Everton in an uncomfortable no-man's-land position with respect to the team's immediate prospects.
While the Blues' window – in supporters' minds at least – eventually came to be defined by that fruitless quest to land a "No.10", the truth is that the side just needed a reliable creative spark, someone to replace the creative talents and imagination of Steven Pienaar and bridge the gap between an isolated lone striker and an often guile-less midfield. The club's rigid wage structure, unwillingness to write any more buy-out clauses into players' contracts, or simply pay over the odds for players in their late 20s may have precluded moves for the likes of Ayew (£100,000-a-week salary and an estimated signing-on fee of around £7m), Xherdan Shaqiri, Dimitri Payet and Yohan Cabaye, but it appears as though Everton did come close to acquiring a true "marquee player" in the form of Andriy Yarmolenko which would have rounded off the window in impressive fashion and provided a different kind of catalyst to a team that looks like it will struggle to consistently break opposition teams down. The apparent collapse of that move, while predictable in a way cynical Evertonians are all too familiar, was massively disappointing.
None of this is to overlook, of course, the fact that Everton spent close to £20m this window, the club's first significant increase in net spend for many seasons, and still secured two very good signings in the form of Gerard Deulofeu and Tom Cleverley for under £5m, plus brought the unspectacular but dependable presence of Aaron Lennon to Goodison on a permanent basis. The jury will, of course, remain out on Ramiro Funes Mori, not to mention the inflated fee that the club ended up paying for him, but there is now more depth at centre half, even if it's disconcertingly short in terms of experience.
What the "so-nearly" nature of the Blues' summer transfer window does do, though, out of necessity is offer Martinez the chance to really prove his managerial mettle and adaptabilty while also providing some players the opportunity to step into those key creative roles that the manager was unable to fill. In Deulofeu and Kevin Mirallas, the club have versatile players who, while not true "No.10s" in terms of their ability to orchestrate a game, could provide that missing link and creative spark between the midfield and attack if given the license to do so. Similarly, once fit again, Cleverley offers a a bit more attacking intent as a long-term alternative to Gareth Barry, whose advancing years and slowing legs are starting to offset the benefits of his extensive top-flight experience. And then there is the ever-improving Ross Barkley who has the potential to render the whole "No.10" debate moot if he continues to mature the way he has over the past year.
There are options available to Martinez with such players at his disposal, particularly when it comes to creating genuine width and re-finding some of that offensive threat down the left – both Mirallas and Deulofeu can operate on both flanks – but he appears to have developed a reluctance to truly experiment with the make-up of his attacking unit. We can only hope that with the return of Lennon, a more industrious player who can be deployed down the right, the manager will see more scope to finally play two wingers again and restore some balance to a side that was crying out for it last season. You fear, though, that it'll merely mean even less playing time for Kevin and Gerard and more history continually repeating itself.
The core of the side that finished in 5th place just 16 months ago is in place again but it now remains to be seen whether it possesses enough quality to improve on last season's disappointing 11th in the face of the strengthening undertaken by those clubs who finished around us in the table last term and whether there is enough depth to cope with continuing bad luck on the injury front. Certainly, a medium- to long-term absence for Lukaku in particular – Coleman, Stones or Jagielka would also be serious losses – could cripple the Blues' season and condemn them to another mid-table drift. Fingers crossed he stays fit and gets closer to that all-important 20 league goals marker this time around.
The landscape of the Premier League has changed remarkably in just the last couple of seasons. Though their massive outlays on players haven't translated into the strongest of starts to the new season for all of them, the dominance of the big four clubs is unlikely to have diminished. The unprecedented influx of broadcast revenues that took spending in England past the £1bn mark this summer has certainly upped the level of quality across the board in the top flight, though, and significantly increased the competition for those clubs, like Everton, aiming to break into the top six or seven.
A rational assessment of Everton's close-season transfer dealings would suggest Martinez and the Board have not been able to accomplish enough this summer to get back to the levels achieved in the Catalan's first season in charge. It's up to him and his players now to prove there was enough talent and managerial acumen in place already and that the new acquisitions have merely provided extra options.
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