12 August 2016
With one stellar campaign and one of disappointing regression behind him, 2015-16 promised to be a defining season for Roberto Martinez, and it proved to be so in devastating fashion for the Catalan. Everton began the season with a squad that felt disconcertingly short in key areas but with hope still alive that moves could be made before the transfer window to address those long-standing deficiencies.
It was hope misplaced, although had Martinez been able to bring in what many felt were the couple of key players he needed to round out the squad, they would surely have papered over the huge cracks underneath that ultimately brought his tenure at Goodison Park down in ruins. The former Wigan boss would not get to see out the campaign; sacked with one game remaining and a season in which he badly needed to show forward progress in tatters, he left the Blues disadvantaged by a second successive bottom-half finish but with enough mis-managed talent at the club to give his successor a fighting chance in his first term.
There has been some revisionism of the “best Everton squad since the 1980s” mantra recently, particularly after a pre-season that started positively enough but which has seen the team lapse back into the familiar turgidity of the past two seasons under Martinez.
To simply dismiss the notion that, on paper at least, the former manager had indeed presided over the best collection of players Goodison has seen since Howard Kendalls second spell is a little simplistic, though, even if the personnel concerned should shoulder a portion of the blame for the disastrous way in which the 2015-16 campaign came off the rails.
Thanks to the return of Gerard Deulofeu, the make-up of the first team a year ago was remarkably similar to the one that performed so brilliantly in Martinezs first season, and the Spaniard, together with John Stones, Ross Barkley Romelu Lukaku — to a certain extent James McCarthy, Muhamed Besic, and Joel Robles as well — once again formed the foundations of an exciting young side. They were bricks on which the manager could build with an anticipated return to that impressive form of 2013-14.
The stubborn rejection of Chelseas attempts to lure Stones away represented a statement of intent, one that looked at times last term, as Lukakus goals flowed, Deulofeu emerged as The Supplier and Barkley weighed in with goals and assists of his own, as though it might be rewarded with European qualification or a long-awaited trophy.
The reality was quite different, of course, but Everton unquestionably showed in patches just how good it could have been under Martinez had a little more attention been paid to defensive organisation, managing set-pieces (at either end), and discipline when it came to defending a lead.
With the Martinez experiment over, replaced by a higher level of manager — in terms of playing pedigree, experience and coaching achievement, Ronald Koeman is easily a step above the Catalan — and a new major shareholder with significant financial resources the club now has a platform in place to push Everton forward and back towards success.
Its quite evidently going to take time, however, and the slightly uneasy feeling pervading much of the fanbase on the eve of the new season is indicative of the fact that the rampant optimism of earlier in the summer has been tempered by frustration that has been steadily building the longer the close season has gone on without significant additions to the squad.
Letting the Dust Settle
The process of luring Koeman away from Southampton may have been uncomfortably protracted and Euro2016 was, predictably, a drag on the European transfer market as whole getting moving, but few Evertonians would have guessed a month or so ago that just two new faces would be in place coming into the final week before 2016-17 kicks off.
That all-too familiar delay, coupled with lack of big-name signings, has led to some hugely premature accusations that Everton under Moshiri is simply sell-to-buy business as usual and another false dawn — the cynicism born of three decades of under-achievement is clearly hard to shake. But with all that has happened at Goodison since late February, its easy to forget that its not even six months since the Blues de facto new owner came on board. In that regard, Rome certainly wasnt built in a day.
In hindsight, of course, the month between the confirmation that Maarten Stekelenburg would become the first acquisition of the Koeman era and the signing of Idrissa Gueye from Aston Villa was a necessary interval which the Dutchman used to fully assess the squad he inherited from his predecessor. It also allowed for Evertons successful pursuit and appointment of Steve Walsh as the clubs first Director of Football which was not concluded until the third week of July.
Then there was the long-anticipated sale of Stones which, perhaps with its implications for Evertons adherence to Uefas Financial Fair Play rules, appears to have greased the wheels for the Blues transfer dealings to finally take off in earnest and, with moves seemingly afoot to quickly fill the void, Koemans squad is starting to take some shape.
Ashley Williams has been drafted in from Swansea City, fresh from a typically impressive showing for Wales in the European Championship Finals, while a bid for Sunderlands Lamine Kone and the refusal to let Phil Jagielka go as part of any arrangement support the managers assertion that he wants four senior centre-halves at his disposal this season.
The make-up of the Blues team that will start the season is going to be very familiar, though, and makes it still very difficult to properly assess Everton's prospects this season. A couple more additions before Saturdays opener against Tottenham would have provided a welcome shot in the arm for morale — for the fans, if nothing else — but it looks as though the significant action in the transfer market will take place between now and the end of the deadline. Koeman has indicated he would like to add three or four more players but the uncertainty around Lukakus future means things could remain fluid for the next three weeks.
If you accept the notion that the Everton squad of last season was a lot better than the dismal 11th place it eventually managed and that much of the blame for its under-performance lay at the feet of Martinez, then the presence of Koeman alone and the significant improvements to the squads fitness his management team are likely to make could be worth a handful of league places on their own.
That would be progress enough for the Dutchmans first season — to get Everton back into contention for the top six and the European places — but in the wake loud of proclamations in the media of Moshiri handing his new managerial setup a £100m war chest, and speculation surrounding moves for the likes of Axel Witsel, Kalidou Koulibaly and Juan Mata, the bar of expectation has been raised significantly.
The three arrivals to date, good fits and needed additions that they were, clearly werent at the level that will vault the Blues into the promised land of the Champions League — Leicester City proved, of course, that anything is possible — but there has been a mis-match between Everton's new-found purchasing power and the club's image and reputation following successive bottom-half finishes. As Swansea, West Ham and Stoke City proved with Andre Ayew, Dmitri Payet and Xherdan Shaqiri respectively, the Premier League can be a big draw if you're prepared to pay the premium to bring that calibre of player in.
Everton under Moshiri might well have the fiscal latitude to match those kinds of offers this time around but the really big fish want Champions League football to go with their sizeable wage packets and that might have been an impediment thus far to the club landing the marquee acquisition that so many supporters are pining for.
That enthusiasm on the part of Evertonians for the new boss adding real star quality to the side is understandable. The club has been making do for years and only recently has the standard on the pitch been elevated to something approaching world class with the likes of Lukaku and Stones in the ranks. Moshiris financial muscle puts the club on a whole new tier in the broader context of European football but the playing field at home has never looked so competitive.
The Strong Field
The coalescence of some of the best managers in the game around the Premier League — and the northwest in particular — coupled with even more top playing talent lured from the Continent means that this coming season looks as daunting as ever. Of course, it often feels that way and there are always examples of stars that flame out in spectacular fashion — Ángel di Maria and Radamel Falcao come readily to mind from recent seasons — and at least one of the fancied sides struggling to get things together but 2016-17 arrives with a much bigger swagger than usual.
Pep Guardiola makes his much-vaunted debut in English football at the helm of a Manchester City side bristling with a bigger embarrassment of riches than usual. From established stars like Kevin de Bruyne, Sergio Agüero and David Silva to new big-money signings like İlkay Gündoğan, Nolito and Leroy Sané, the former champions look as they will almost certainly be stronger contenders for the title than they were last season.
Jose Mourinho, legendary for his swift success at new clubs, has stolen much of the summer limelight and landed what is now the worlds most expensive player in the form of Paul Pogba, augmenting an impressive list of signings that includes Zlatan Ibrahomovich and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Where Louis van Gaal struggled and could only prolong the Red Devils absence from the Champions League, his successor must surely be favoured to complete that clubs recovery from the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Arsenal, despite having Granit Xhaka as the only real marquee signing of the close season, should have more than enough existing quality in their ranks to be there or thereabouts again, particularly if Arsene Wenger can finally end his long search for a reliable goalscorer and, as speculation suggests he still might, add Riyad Mahrez.
Tottenham, curiously quiet in the transfer market but a year older and wiser following last seasons close call with destiny, can also be counted on to be top-four contenders again, particularly if Harry Kane can bounce back from his Euro2016 disappointment and pick up on the goals trail where he left off last term.
Chelsea, meanwhile, will feel that between new manager Antonio Contes intensity and the addition of the likes of NGolo Kanté and Michy Batshuayi to their squad that they have all the ingredients to put last seasons misery behind them and reclaim a spot at the top table.
Then, of course, there is Leicester City, 2015-16s impossible fairytale come true whom many feel couldnt possible reprieve their stunning achievement this time around, particularly with the way in which their rivals have strengthened since May. Logic dictates that they will struggle to compete for the title again this season, particularly with European football to contend with, midfield anchor Kanté gone and should Mahrez leave, but Claudio Ranieri has made mugs of people betting against his team once already.
Add to that formidable sextet a strong West Ham outfit and a Liverpool squad that has undeniably been improved this summer by Jürgen Klopp with the signings of Sadio Mané, Georginio Wijnaldum and Loris Karius and you have a robust field of teams who should, on paper, be battling it out in the top half for honours and the European slots come next spring.
Without a head-turning procession of new signings to usher in the Koeman era, Everton have not really been part of the conversation as the build-up to 2016-17 reaches its climax. Not that they ever are mind you, but it probably speaks to the size of the job that outsiders feel the former Southampton boss has on his hands after last season rather than an underestimation of his managerial ability.
Again, however, a lot could depend on who is able to bring in before the transfer deadline to make the difference to a team that has been slow to throw off the pedestrian and directionless demeanour that characterised their alarming form over the last third of 2015-16. Achieving full fitness will undoubtedly help but a lack consistent creativity going forward remains one of the biggest issues.
At the time of writing, the club are trying to push through a deal to bring Lamine Koné to Goodison Park from Sunderland which, when added to the acquisition of Williams will add much-needed experience, leadership, steel and brawn to a back four that was often conspicuous by its lack of all of those qualities last season.
Some critics of the Williams signing have drawn a straight line from the departure of Stones, a young, talented, ball-playing centre half, to the arrival of a battle-hardened, near 32-year-old but its an unnecessary over-simplification of what could prove to be a master-stroke by Koeman in the vein of Richard Gough when he joined Everton as grizzled veteran himself under Walter Smith — albeit one that promises more longevity than the Scots top-flight swan-song.
Whereas Stones could continue to blossom into the kind of elegant defender to which a future Everton, lording it up back in the upper echelons of English football, might aspire, Williams is exactly the kind of committed, tenacious player that the Blues need as Koeman seeks to shore up a defence that routinely leaked goals under Martinez.
Though bringing in right back cover would appear to a be fairly urgent issue to anyone other than the incumbents of the Goodison hotseat ever since it became clear that Tony Hibbert should have been eased out of the way, the defence would appear to be fairly settled otherwise.
The rest of the spine of the side still needs attention, however, if Everton are to be a threat and even a dark horse for the top four this season. When he arrived, Stekelenburg was clearly categorised by the local press as being a back-up option and Koeman himself said that he would prefer to have three goalkeepers from which choose. The Dutch stopper appears to have made the first-choice jersey his own for the time being, however, but the less-than-stellar reviews of his form for Fulham last season suggest that the manager needs to prioritise signing a top-class ‘keeper before the deadline.
Gueye will supplement a solid collection of defensively-minded midfielders and offer a bit more ability to protect the back line with his talent for interceptions, blocks and generally disrupting play but when it comes to attacking midfield, the Blues remain short on guile and someone who can dictate a game. Its the kind of role that a Mata or someone of that ilk could make his own at Goodison and thereby solve a problem that dogged Martinez after he failed to land his promised “No.10” last summer. Again, the hope is that this is high on Messers Walsh and Koemans list of priorities.
Setting the stage? Will Gueye and Williams merely be the start of some significant signings before the deadline?
Finally, up front, the fact that Everton will start a new season with only Lukaku and Arouna Koné as recognised strikers — leaving Oumar Niasse out of the discussion for obvious reasons — beggars belief, although, again, much of the blame for that resides with Martinez. The Ivorians return of just 6 league goals in 42 appearances is a damning indictment of his previous managers mis-placed faith in his abilities at the age of 32 and coming off a knee injury that almost ended his career. Its unthinkable that Koeman will make the same mistake and its heartening to hear that he is indeed looking at bringing in striking reinforcements before the deadline, regardless of what happens with Lukaku.
And yet Lukaku himself remains something of an open question even at the dawn of the new season. Will Chelsea finally take their campaign to destabilise and tempt the Belgian from the print media to the boardroom and lodge and official offer? And if they dont and Lukaku stays with the Blues, will his heart be 100% in it? Will he display the requisite commitment for a player who is the focal point of the team?
There is no doubt that Everton would struggle to replace the 23-year-olds goals — the dearth of prolific goal-scorers is why Chelsea are reportedly willing to pay almost £30m more for him than the amount they received for him two years ago — but that would depend very much on whether the Lukaku of the first half or the second half of last season shows up this term. Regardless, Evertonians would be feeling a lot more comfortable had his future been put to bed before now.
The Progress Imperative
Despite the deja-vu nature of the current close season, where it appears — falsely, one hopes and assumes — as though the club are stuck in the same mode of selling to buy and buying late in the window, there has been rapid and seismic change at Everton over the past six months. The depth of Moshiris pockets and the apparent scope of his ambition have ratcheted up expectations among the fanbase to a degree that the clubs transfer dealings thus far havent quite matched.
That should change between now and the closure of the summer transfer window and, in many ways, the real season for Everton starts after the international break, with the new manager aided by a favourable run of fixtures between the opener against Tottenham and the end of August.
Irrespective of who is eventually brought in, though, the fact remains that even with Stones gone, the nucleus of a very good team is still intact post-Martinez. Koeman has plenty of talent, both established and emerging from the Academy, to work with as he moulds his team.
Furthermore, the infancy of Moshiris revolution at Goodison shouldnt be overlooked either. The savvy businessman is clearly in it for the long haul and even though Koemans history as a manager has been characterised by relatively short tenures at his various clubs, he could well be sucked into the long-term possibilities of the “project” he has taken on with the Blues as well.
Balanced against the efforts underway to drag Everton out of the doldrums off the pitch, of course, are the day-to-day imperatives of Premier League football as the kick-off to a new season draws near. Realistically, this should necessarily be a year of transition for the Blues while Koeman and Walsh adjust to their new surroundings and continue the job of rebuilding a broken team into one capable of challenging for those coveted top four spots in the years to come.
A rational view of the teams chances this season suggests that a return to the respectable seventh-place finishes that Everton averaged under David Moyes and another deep cup run should be considered successful progress in Koemans first season in charge. More than that would, arguably, be a bonus in the context of that strong field of rival clubs.
Final position: 7th
Key player: Still to be signed?
Top scorer: Romelu Lukaku
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