Can Roberto Martinez go one better than last season?
In just a few days' time, the curtain will be raised on Roberto Martinez's second season in charge at Goodison Park, the latest page in a new chapter of the club's history waiting to be written under the guidance of the optimistic Catalan who took an unexpectedly big stride last term towards altering the perception of Everton in the wider picture of the Premier League.
The Blues may have developed the tag of plucky underdogs punching above their weight under his predecessor, but in a season in which he was expected to struggle under the weight of David Moyes's 11-year legacy and the precedent of his Wigan Athletic side finally succumbing to relegation, Martinez came within a very late stumble of guiding his new club to the promised land of the Champions League.
Having achieved so much – because of and not in spite of a significant shift towards possession football and a laudible emphasis on a counter-attacking strategy to beat the top teams in the country – and now shattered Everton's incoming transfer record, Martinez goes into this second season with a good deal more expectation on his shoulders than he did a year ago. The media might still prefer to concentrate on the other six clubs that filled the top seven last season but the Toffees – outsiders, dark horses... the label doesn't matter; it's a role they will relish – are very much part of the equation. What's more, there is belief among Evertonians that the manager can go one better than last season.
The World Cup may have provided a month-long distraction that filled a large chunk of what can otherwise feel like an interminable summer and also given plenty of fodder for the red tops' transfer gossip pages, but it has also left Everton's pre-season feeling somewhat disjointed. With players on differing schedules and fitness programmes, and key players going into the new campaign without having played a full warm-up match, it's been hard – judging from the performances in the recent friendlies at least – for the management to align things so that everything comes together seamlessly when the real business kicks off at Leicester.
Things very well may do anyway but there has been some understandable unease among supporters during what has been a strange, winless pre-season. As anyone involved at the professional level will tell you, the results of these warm-up matches mean absolutely nothing but if there is a nagging doubt about the team's preparedness for the new season it has come from the general performances and an apparent lack of sharpness in the players.
Again, Evertonians shouldn't read too much into that either; the reticence among the players to go all-out in warm-up matches given the risk of injury is understandable and where last summer was all about putting into practice a new possession-based game, this time Martinez appears to be doing more of his work with the players on the training pitch. Furthermore, a comparison with the impotent display against Valencia in the last game in the USA a year ago and the disappointing showing that followed against Real Betis (a 2-1 win notwithstanding) should calm the nerves. Neither games were true indicators of the season that would follow, particularly given the infusion of quality that came on transfer deadline day three weeks later, arguably the club's most climactic and influential conclusion to a transfer window since they were introduced.
A similar pattern may play out again this time. With the absence thus far of Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas, Martinez has been without two of the most important components of his attack this pre-season and a case could be made for adding Seamus Coleman to that list given his importance to the Blues going forward and that he played just 30 minutes of the Tranmere friendly before being withdrawn with a hamstring strain.
The loss of those three vital players goes a long way to explaining the conspicuous deficiencies the team has exhibited in the final third over the past three weeks and also underscores the persisting lack of cover in those positions should those players be missing for any length of time once the season gets underway. The impending arrival of Christian Atsu will add more peace of mind in Mirallas's position and compensate for the loss of Gerard Deulofeu from the flanks, but with question marks over the timing and subsequent reliablity of Arouna Kone's availability, further reinforcements in attack should, you feel, be a priority for Martinez before the end of the month.
Coleman's position aside, the defensive part of the team looks in great shape in terms of cover, with Shane Duffy and Tyias Browning bolstering options behind Phil Jagielka, Sylvain Distin, John Stones and Antolin Alcaraz in the pecking order for centre-half, and Luke Garbutt pushing Leighton Baines and Bryan Oviedo at left-back when the Costa Rican eventually returns in a month or two. In the midfield holding roles, Muhamed Besic appears to provide a ready-made alternative to Gareth Barry or James McCarthy while Darron Gibson, although perhaps more offensively-minded, can also step into that position if needed.
The uncertainty over just how many positions the manager aims to address further forward before the deadline is what makes predicting Everton's prospects for the new season somewhat challenging. Should he have two or three aces up his sleeve come 1st September, additions to the team that would add unquestionable quality, then the Blues would quite rightly consider themselves capable of cracking the top four. As things stand, however, a Champions League spot via league placing still feels like a step beyond us, particularly while the question of what happens should Mirallas or Lukaku get injured remains unanswered.
As feared, the flood of new broadcast revenue into the Premier League has inflated prices to the same dramatic degree, thereby keeping Everton's ability to compete with their significantly better-endowed rivals more or less unchanged. The acquisition of Lukaku was a big statement that vaulted the club to greater parity with the company it keeps in the upper reaches of England's top flight but it represented a significant chunk – if not all – of the manager's budget for the summer.
Some quick and very loose arithmetic on Everton's incomings and outgoings since Martinez arrived in June last year reveals that the club's committed funds out are more or less equal to how much it is due to receive to this point, with around £75m from the combination of player sales and the increase in TV revenue receivables for 2014 balanced against around £67m in payments on transfer fees, sell-on clauses and compensation to Wigan for the manager himself. Once the unknown total of agents' fees and increased wages from the new contracts signed this summer are factored in, the ins and outs more or less balance out. While that doesn't preclude another big-money signing before the closure of the window, it does point to the manager spending most of his energy scouring the loan market.
As he has shown already, Martinez can be a highly skilled operator in that market and his ambitions and success on that front could be key to Everton's chances of cracking that infamous glass ceiling this season. While the Catalan says that the battle to finish in those top-four slots shouldn't be about money, the cold hard facts show that it is. Martinez demonstrated that skillful management could overcome financial superiority to a degree last season when he steered Everton to a higher finish in the Premier League than both Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, but in the final reckoning the seven-point gap between the Blues and Arsenal in fourth was illustrative of the top four's relative strength in depth. Belief, tactical flexibility and superb coaching could only get Everton so far against the uncompromising reality of the imbalance that exists in the Premier League.
While Spurs will go into the new campaign with a sizeable question mark hanging over their heads as they begin life under Mauricio Pochettino – with his Latin style and emphasis on passing football, he represents North London's answer to our Roberto – and Liverpool will be weakened to a degree by the loss of Luis Suarez, most of the teams around us in that top seven promise to be as strong or stronger this time around.
Manchester United will almost surely improve. Free from any distraction in Europe, their squad bolstered significantly by the likes of Ander Herrera and with Louis van Gaal's hard-nosed style replacing the uncertain leadership of Moyes, it is too much to expect another season of misery at Old Trafford. Chelsea and Manchester City, meanwhile, have added more expensive talent to their ranks to shore up their respective challenges and both would expect to again be serious contenders for the title.
Given that they were the fourth-placed team last season, Arsenal would ordinarily be the team that Everton would have foremost in their sights but the Gunners look, on paper, to be a much more dangerous outfit this time than they were last season. They led the League for a good while last season before falling away but once they were free of the disruption caused by injuries to the likes of Theo Walcott, Mezut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, Arsene Wenger's side powered ominously through their last five matches with a 100% record, ending our top-four hopes in the process. With the mental handicap of their own trophy drought dispelled with triumph at Wembley in the FA Cup Final in May and the introduction of Alexis Sanchez over the summer, Arsenal look formidable.
So, again, it's still hard to see a way into the Champions League places for Everton without further injection of match-winning talent than we've already managed and, last-minute surprises notwithstanding, Martinez's rhetoric of late suggests that he is more or less satisfied with the numbers and quality in his squad. Concerns remain among fans, though, that the Blues simply don't have the necessary depth to wage a campaign in Europe on top of the usual domestic commitments – all four fronts of which could overlap come the New Year should we progress into the later stages of the Capital One Cup – and still sustain a realistic push for the top four. Many teams have struggled to balance a challenge on the Continent with domestic league and cup campaigns, though it's worth mentioning that Everton under Moyes were not one of them.
Martinez is pragmatic about his team's chances, though, being careful to maintain that the Champions League remains the ultimate goal without putting a specific timescale on his being able to achieve it. Central to his longer-term aims will be the experience in the Europa League this season, a competition that now boasts the carrot of a place on European club football's biggest stage for the winners. If the manager is able to successfully navigate his way through the Europa League and win it, the Blues could find their way into the Champions League via the side entrance and not have to rely on the more gruelling path via the top four back home.
It's an intriguing aspect to what promises to be a fascinating season. How will our manager fare in his second season in charge? Will another one or two of their rivals stumble and allow Everton to step over them into the coveted top four places or can Roberto prove that the power of good management and psychology can overcome simple economics?
Key to that last point will be what sort of start Everton make, particularly in view of the six points they dropped during a comparatively favourable run of three matches to start the 2013-14 campaign. The trip to Leicester on the opening day offers a tricky but winnable start to the season ahead of the Goodison double-header against Arsenal and Chelsea that will close out August. That one-two against two of last season's top four teams is daunting on its face but provides Martinez and the Blues with a wonderful opportunity to get priceless points on the board before either team has had the chance to really bed in their new players and find some rhythm.
In that respect, the continuity in his team, represented by the retention of Lukaku and Gareth Barry, that Martinez cites as being so important this season could be his greatest asset in the very early stages. Assuming that the Belgians play a part in the opener at the King Power Stadium on the 16th, Lukaku and Mirallas should be sufficiently sharp by the time the Gunners come to town, putting the Blues in a great position to make a statement to the League from the outset.
After that, much will depend on the favour of fortune on the injury front. This Everton side under Martinez, with the lack of fear and never-say-die attitude that he has fostered, will be a match for anyone with the bulk of Martinez's first-choice XI on the pitch. The more the manager is able to call on that core group, the better the Blues will fare. And with optimism high among the faithful and growing, season-ticket sales at the highest levels they have been for many years, and that unrivalled away support, the team should have no shortage of backing from the terraces.
After so many years of treading water, the future at Everton is reassuringly bright and with so much burgeoning young talent on the books plus one of the brightest young managers in the game, the chances are surely good that the thirst for silverware will soon be quenched. The top four may remain elusive for another season but a successful cup run is well within the team's grasp... and if that just so happens to be in Europe, then Martinez can kill two birds with one stone!