10 August 2017
With a newly reinforced spine, Everton look as though they could be a stronger outfit than last season, even without the departed Lukaku. Is it enough, however, to crack the top six or four?
Five or six years ago there was a website — a single, simple page — that encapsulated Everton's predicament as it then was and illustrated the shackles against which the club was straining in its protracted attempt to return to football's “top table” since the decline that had set in during the 1990s.
The ever-lengthening period of time since the Blues had paid money for a first-team player after the deadline-day acquisition of John Heitinga in September 2009 was chronicled by this Everton transfer clock, one that was pertinent until January 2012 when the arrivals of Darron Gibson and Nikica Jelavic ended 28 months of enforced austerity which had deepened Evertonians' frustration and their sense of stasis in the post-Kirkby atmosphere.
Fast-forward through the Roberto Martinez era, where the mushrooming Premier League broadcast bonanza and the ability to cash in on his predecessor's astute transfer dealings like Marouane Fellaini allowed the club to spend a combined £41m on just two players in the form of James McCarthy and Romelu Lukaku, to the present day and Everton are in the throes of a rapid and far-reaching revolution under Farhad Moshiri.
After nearly three decades of neglect, mis-management, regression and false dawns, supporters could have been forgiven for their scepticism at the British-Iranian billionnaire's ambitious talk when he purchased a 49.9% stake in the club in February 2016. In what has been a somewhat dizzying 2017 so far, however, Moshiri has quickly been dispelling doubts and putting the foundations in place for what could be the genuine renaissance of Everton Football Club.
Consolidation of the club's outstanding debts under one interest-free loan, significant, tangible progress towards a new stadium on the waterfront, noticeable movement in the commercial sphere with lucrative new sponsorship deals and the bankrolling of more than £95m worth of incoming talent (before Lukaku's sale redressed the bank balance somewhat) has announced the Toffees as serious players in the Premier League as the kick-off to 2017-18 looms. A far cry from the bitter talk of “other operating costs”, the price of lawnmowers at Finch Farm and murky offshore lenders in the British Virgin Islands…
If Blues fans were prone to agonising over the fact that the majority of the recently established “big six” — Arsenal and Tottenham to a lesser degree but especially Chelsea and Manchester City and United — could drop jaw-dropping sums on top-class players while Everton could only watch on with their noses pressed against the proverbial window then the change ushered in by Moshiri has been beyond expectation.
And yet, despite “owning” the summer 2017 transfer window for a few weeks, breaking the club's previous transfer record, setting a new one for a British goalkeeper, and adding six new players to the first team in total so far, Everton will kick off the new season as very much the unfinished article.
That, in itself, is neither unique — Tottenham have barely spent any money in their attempt to go one better than last season and finally win the title again and Liverpool fans are gnashing their own teeth at their clubs relative inactivity — nor anything new. Successive regimes at Goodison have sometimes used almost every available minute at the end of the transfer window to advance or finish their squad-building plans.
But having demonstrated such massive ambition in the early weeks of the summer, been so effective at landing so many of Ronald Koeman and Steve Walsh's top transfer targets and spent sums of money that Blues fans never thought they would see their club spend in their lifetimes, Everton are under a heavy imperative to start the new campaign strongly, particularly given how challenging the early part of the schedule promises to be.
From Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane at the back to Davy Klaassen and Sandro Ramirez in midfield and attack, the spine of the side has been fortified to an encouraging degree and, with an average age of 23, very much with a long-term time horizon in mind. Wayne Rooney's return, meanwhile, offers vast experience and the potential for goals from someone other than the centre-forward.
Long term, there are reasons to be very optimistic about Everton's prospects as perennial challengers in the right half of the Premier League table. It could be argued, however, that the vital ingredients when it comes to taking the next step and cracking the top four this coming season remain elusive and with no direct replacement for last season's top goalscorer having been signed, Everton don't currently look fully equipped to deliver on the promise of and desire to finally qualify for the Champions League.
Goals. Creativity. Flair.
If there was a missing dimension to Everton's play in the second half of last season, once Koeman had got his feet under the table and fully assessed what he had inherited from Martinez, it was what was dubbed on these pages as “the creativity gap”.
While the Blues were able to press home their self-confidence, drive and sense of purpose on home turf, losing just once at Goodison Park in the league between the turn of the year and the end of 2016-17, they struggled away from home where energy alone can't deliver consistent results.
Lacking reliable presences offering guile and the ability to beat a man or pick opposition defences apart, Everton struggled to pick up points on the road last term. While over that same period from the New Year to May they were racking up nine home wins, they won just once away from Goodison Park… and even that solitary victory needed a late goal from Seamus Coleman to narrowly claim the points
Ross Barkley occasionally threatened to provide the solution and his on-field relationship with Lukaku and Mirallas flattered to deceive as a counter-attacking threat but a general lack of pace and flair in the side made Koeman's Blues a fairly one-dimensional outfit in away games. Had Barkley been able to dictate games and routinely provide goals as the early promise of his career suggested then things — not to mention his relationship with the manager as it relates to his own future — might have been very different.
The two performances in the Europa League against Ružomberok— even with the caveat that it's still effectively pre-season taken into account — served to underscore the need for a “difference maker” in the No.10 role and outright pace and skill in wide areas.
Is Koeman, Barcelona legend and product of Holland's famed era of Total Football, going to be content with a team based largely on pressing, fitness, energy and direct passing or has he taken heed of the his side's shortcomings last season? The management's transfer activity to date and the Dutchman's rhetoric over potential targets doesn't suggest that that problem is going to be solved any time soon.
And where are the goals going to come from now that Lukaku has finally got his wish to move to greener pastures? Everton's moves in the market this summer thus far suggest a desire to spread the goals around a lot more than was the case last season. In Rooney, England and Manchester United's all-time top goalscorer and Davy Klaassen, Koeman and Walsh have added the potential to score more from midfield or deeper-lying areas.
On his day, Kevin Mirallas can also chip in and there are, of course., high hopes for Sandro who netted 16 times in La Liga last season, outscoring even Neymar who became, by some considerable distance, the world's most expensive player this month.
It would be unwise to expect an ageing Rooney, an untested Sandro and the frustratingly mercurial Mirallas to adequately replace Lukaku's strike-rate and the quest for Gylfi Sigurdsson and reported interest in Olivier Giroud suggest that Koeman doesn't expect to.
There is a danger, however, that the pursuit of the Icelandic midfielder and that other striker will consume the remainder of the club's budget at the expense of other areas of the team and, perhaps, that much-needed No.10.
”It's not my money”
Everton may have rivalled Manchester City in the swiftness and effectiveness of their early summer transfer business but the optimism engendered by that spending spree has been tested by the seemingly interminable situation regarding Sigurdsson.
A target of Koeman and Walsh for the past 12 months — the Blues reportedly tried to sign him for £25m last summer but were rebuffed by Swansea City as they have been consistently ever since — the Iceland international was again installed near the top of Everton's shopping list for the current transfer window.
The amount of money that will be needed to prise Sigurdsson away from the Liberty Stadium has climbed to uncomfortable levels as the close season has worn on, however. What looked as though it might be a club-record £35m deal would now be closer to £50m — or two thirds of the base fee that Everton will receive from Manchester United for Romelu Lukaku.
It would be unreasonable, of course, to expect every transfer to go through as smoothly as the those involving Klaassen, Keane, Pickford and, to a lesser extent, Sandro. While it's clear that the groundwork for those deals was laid months in advance, there is also an argument to made for the fact that Everton, backed by Moshiri's significant resources and a new £60m credit facility with a Chinese bank, have paid what was required (or over the odds, perhaps?) to get those deals done quickly.
Where Sigurdsson is concerned, the number required to get the transfer over the line is a difficult one to swallow but it's one that the club look likely to force down, grin and bear in order to get a key target into the team before the transfer window closes. With each passing week, however, the deal makes less and less sense at such exorbitant levels.
Following Lukaku's sale, one which could eventually see Everton realise a profit of £62m, the club clearly has the money and on that basis, many fans are just baying for them to pay what is needed to sign the player. “It's not my money — what do I care?” goes the refrain.
The concern among many Evertonians, however, is that £50m is a massive sum to pay for a 28-year-old whose skill-set doesn't appear to address the team's biggest remaining weaknesses — again, flair, pace and creativity. The price tag and the time it has taken in pursuit of him would make sense if Sigurdsson were the last piece of the jigsaw but, again, the Blues are clearly in need of further additions even beyond a winger and creative types.
Ramiro Funes Mori's extended lay-off coupled with Ashley Williams's iffy form would seem to make another top-class defensive addition a must but speculation over who might be brought in as cover in that area has centred around more makeshift options like Thomas Vermaelen and Winston Reid rather than more youthful, longer-term options.
Left-back cover for Leighton Baines has been a source of concern for a long time now and while he has finally publicly acknowledged the need to draft some in, Koeman appears focused on signing a centre-half who can cover that position as well, echoing the acquisition of Cuco Martina. Is that a reflection of his preference or is the “eggs in one basket” chase for Sigurdsson swallowing up the bulk of the money that could be used on signing a natural left full-back who could be groomed as Baines's long-term successor alongside Antonee Robinson?
Likewise on the right where Martina has the look of a temporary fill-in option rather than a natural fit at fullback while the club waits to see how soon — and, frankly, if — Coleman can return to the peak of his powers following his double leg break earlier this year. If Jonjoe Kenny, whom the fans really want to see given a go, isn't going to be handed the role of deputising for the injured Irishman then budget should be retained to sign a player who can properly fill the role.
As with the uncomfortable deployment of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Barkley as wide players, Koeman appears happy to play players out of position rather than go out and sign options that are naturally suited to the role. Normal Everton protocol is that such measures have been enforced due to a lack of funds but that doesn't appear — or at least doesn't appear to have to be the case this summer. If a better allocation of the transfer war chest is what is needed, most fans would surely prefer the management do that if it means a more well-rounded squad.
Surveying the summer transfer activity of other clubs often engenders envy and an air of pessimism that vies with the usual pre-season optimism that comes with a new campaign, a fresh start and hope before a ball has been kicked in anger. Layered on top of that these days is the sheer strength from which Everton's rivals in the top six were starting from in terms of personnel when the close season began.
In that sense, there was more than just that yawning eight-point gap that separated the Blues from the clubs above them in 2016-17 and Manchester City began the summer by enhancing their portfolio of stars with the targeted acquisitions of goalkeeper Ederson (potentially solving a problem position from last season), fullbacks in the form of Kyle Walker, Bernard Mendy and Danilo, and a midfielder in Bernardo Silva.
Add in a fit Gabriel Jesus — the Brazilian had the look of a big-impact signing last term — and the fact that Pep Guardiola will be working with the benefit of a year's experience in England under his belt and City look a formidable proposition in 2017-18.
As do the defending Champions, Chelsea, who have drafted in a classy striker in Álvaro Morata, replaced the outgoing Nemanja Matic with Tiemoué Bakayoko and covered John Terry's departure with Antonio Rüdiger. Apart from Antonio Conte's reported dummy-spitting over not getting Lukaku, there don't appear to be any indications that the West Londoners will falter in their defence of their crown like they did two years ago.
Arsenal and Manchester United, meanwhile, have addressed specific needs that will stand them in good stead in the coming campaign. Both splashed out big on potentially reliable strikers; Lukaku's Premier League credentials are there for all to see in his goalscoring record at Everton while Alexandre Lacazette comes to England with a rich pedigree of his own, although Arsene Wenger will have no guarantees he will settle as hoped.
In the long-serving French manager's favour, however, is the manner in which he and his team shrugged off the severe turbulence that followed their humiliation at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League, the clamour for Wenger's resignation after two decades at the Arsenal helm, and the retention thus far of Alexis Sanchez.
A strong start — they've struggled to achieve that before and they kick off against Leicester on Friday without the injured Sanchez — and any lingering unrest among Gooners will no doubt subside, likely ensuring that they will be strong candidates to return to the top four after last season's uncharacteristic failure.
For their part, United and Jose Mourinho should be a tougher proposition in 2017-18 simply by having a reliable goalscorer leading their line who might turn last season's slew of draws into wins. The Red Devils went on an impressively long unbeaten run between October and May which suggests that if they are able to improve on 2016-17's glut of draws, they, too, could be a force to be reckoned with.
Meanwhile, Liverpool's big summer signing to date, Mohamed Salah, will add yet more potency and pace — are you watching, Mr Koeman? — to an already dangerous attacking unit. Their defensive frailties will likely persist this season if they can't get top target Virgil van Dijk (the Dutch centre-half will need time to get back up to speed following injury regardless) and there are big question marks over Philippe Coutinho.
Alongside Sadio Mané, the Brazilian is arguably the Reds' most dangerous player and if or when his proposed move to Barcelona goes ahead could dictate how much time Jurgen Klopp has to replace him before the transfer deadline. Expect Liverpool to be in the mix but unlikely title contenders despite their fans's perennial and premature proclamations.
If there is to be a reverse wildcard this coming season, it could come in the form of Tottenham who will be playing their home games in the comparatively unfamiliar environs of Wembley Stadium this season. Spurs struggled there in European competition last season, winning just one of their Champions League group games and drawing 2-2 against Gent in the Europa League which ensured they exited the competition 3-2 on aggregate.
Saddled with spiralling construction costs for the new White Hart Lane, the North Londoners have yet to make a signing this summer which could add another negative psychological dimension to the new season if nothing else. Even without the departed Walker, they remain a very strong side but the “Wembley factor” could play a crucial role in their Premier League campaign; should it become a hindrance rather than a home away from home, it's not hard to see Mauricio Pochettino's men being the team to fall out of the top four this season, thereby offering Everton a way in.
There's no question that the seemingly endless and increasingly questionable Gylfi Sigurdsson saga, combined with the gaping hole left by Romelu Lukaku and the glaring lack of pace in the side exposed by the two legs against Ružomberok, has taken a lot of the gloss off Everton's transfer blitz in June and July.
The impressive efficiency and money's-no-object manner in which the club began the close season had Evertonians purring in anticipation of 2017-18 but there are plenty who feel that in order to be in with a genuine chance of following through on Moshiri's ambitious rhetoric, more quality signings will be needed before the deadline.
For the first time in the 1980s and very early 1990s, Everton appear to have the means to go out and compete for some of the best players around. To date, Koeman and Walsh have opted for solid acquisitions that have strengthened the spine; the task now is that tack on a genuine match-winner or two. A Kanchelskis-type who can provide pace, power and goals; a silky early-Everton Arteta-esque magician in the centre of the park who can dribble and pick a pass; or a Pienaar-like visionary who can revive Baines's attacking prowess and rid Koeman's side of their over-reliance on the right flank as an attacking avenue.
Yet players of that ilk don't appear to be high on Koeman's wish-list and with stars like Riyad Mahrez on his CV, this was an area where many hoped Steve Walsh would prove his weight in gold. There has been nothing concrete to suggest the pair aren't considering flair players as a matter of urgency but the media speculation and credible “in the know” chatter (such as it exists these days under Moshiri) hasn't been throwing up many names.
Where the Toffees' competitors have prioritised players who can turn matches — Willian, Hazard and Pedro at Chelsea; Jesus, Silva and De Bruyne at City; Mané. Salah and Coutinho at Liverpool; Cazorla and Ozil at Arsenal; and Eriksen at Tottenham — Everton under Koeman have a very workmanlike look about them while the likes of Ademola Lookman and Kieran Dowell are still learning their trade, Gerard Deulofeu has moved back to Spain and Ross Barkley appears to be in limbo.
A Barkley living up to his billing and early flourishes as a teenager with consistent performances week in, week out could fill part of that unresolved brief at Goodison Park. It doesn't look as though Koeman is convinced he can, however. Should he move on before the deadline or flit in and out of the side while he winds down his contract, the hope is that the manager and director of football will move decisively to fill the void but, regardless, a game-changer in the final third of the park should be the top priority along with a striker to match. Is that Sigurdsson? Should they succeed in landing him, time will tell if he can be more than just a dead-ball specialist.
Even if the transfer window slammed shut tomorrow, Everton would still be a tough proposition for all comers this season and an unquestioned member of the new top seven that emerged last season as Leicester's flash in the pan burned out. Given the curious statistic that the Blues would have finished seventh even without Lukaku's goals and the additions of Klassen, Rooney and Sandro, Koeman's side would also be regarded as dark horses for the top four. Again, however, you sense that it would require two or three of the teams who finished above them to falter rather than Everton genuinely being their equal unless further headway is made in the transfer market over the next three weeks. The same goes for the club's chances in any of the cups, you feel.
The addition of the impressive-looking Keane in defence and the reliable-looking Pickford in goal, a solid rearguard protected by the likes of Idrissa Gueye, Tom Davies and Morgan Schneiderlin, should ensure, though, that the Blues will be as as hard to beat at home as they were after the turn of 2017. That will provide an indispensable platform on which the other newcomers further up the pitch can bed in and set about the business of creating and scoring goals.
Away from home, however, where the weapons of pace on the counter and creativity in midfield are so much more vital, is where Everton could continue to struggle with the current personnel. Given that the Toffees must travel to the Etihad Stadium, Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford within the first five games, it's hard not to feel beneath the excitement of a new season a measure of dread and disappointment that the team isn't closer to being the finished article.
Thankfully, the transfer window remains open and the funds should be there, even if Sigurdsson arrives. Aware that another window of larger context, the one in which Everton can still realistically break back into the elite, could be all too narrow, Moshiri has spent big trying to quickly assemble a strong team that is better than the one that finished last season.
In the context of this being the second year of Koeman's initial three-year project, there isn't necessarily any imperative for him to go significant further towards finishing the job before the end of the month even if there's a sense that it's simply a wasted opportunity otherwise. If he doesn't, you feel that year two of the Dutchman's reign will be another season of consolidation and progress with just the potential rather than the likelihood of improving on last season's seventh place finish.
Final Postion: 6th
Key Player: Still to be signed?
Top Scorer: Sandro Ramirez
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