99 Problems

For all the acknowledged mitigating circumstances surrounding what Marco Silva inherited, there is little question that Everton have regressed under his leadership. The Blues have a multitude of issues which the manager has time to fix. Now he has to prove he can.

Lyndon Lloyd 24/02/2019 0comments  |  Jump to last
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Even by Everton standards, the rapidity with which Blues fans have been plunged back into despair at the situation concerning their club has been quite something. With hindsight, the burgeoning optimism at the perceived momentum that Silva was building prior to last December might have been a little mis-placed but, having been seen false dawn after false dawn and then been subjected to six months of Sam Allardyce, Evertonians could be forgiven for regarding their collective glass as something approaching half full rather than half empty.

Then came the now infamous Merseyside derby and the “Everton, that!” circumstances behind Divock Origi's stoppage-time winner that extended a horrendous run in the Anfield derby to 20 years. A “Kevin Brock” moment in reverse, it knocked six bells out of the confidence of a group of Everton players that was just starting to form an identity and some mental fortitude.

The aftermath has thrown up a run of just three wins in 13 further Premier League games and, after a wholly unconvincing third-round victory over League Two Lincoln City, seen the Blues dumped out of the FA Cup by Championship strugglers Millwall. It means that this is now the longest stretch in the club's history without a trophy, a galling milestone that can only partially be explained away by the increasingly uneven playing field that plagues the top flight of English football.

Again, it was only two months ago that Evertonians were approaching the derby with optimism that this might finally be the year that the painful significance of Kevin Campbell's solo strike in September 1999 would be eased with a rare win across Stanley Park.

It was based on bolder displays at the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United in the preceding weeks, games on “big six” grounds that yielded just one point but which seemed to point to a more potent and undaunted Everton who were ready to start rubbing shoulders with their former peers who have progressively left them behind since the glory days of the 1980s when Howard Kendall's Toffees, at times, swept all before them.

They weren't ready, of course. The fact that they failed to score at either the Emirates or Stamford Bridge despite deserving to, only registered via the penalty spot at Old Trafford and failed to beat any of Wolves, Bournemouth, Huddersfield or West Ham in the opening weeks of the season was evidence enough of that. But when weighed against the shambolic nature of Ronald Koeman's second season in charge and the tedious, unadventurous Allardyce spell, progress was evidently being made.

Richarlison was making buffoons of pundits like Paul Merson, André Gomes was looking like the coup of the summer transfer window, Bernard was hinting at being a hugely astute free transfer acquisition, and in Lucas Digne, Marcel Brands had answered one of the biggest looming questions of modern Everton history — how to replace Leighton Baines. Combined with the dead wood that was off-loaded on loan, the summer business, bar the need for a striker, had been pretty impressive and things were looking up.

Some of the alarming results since Anfield have brought the debate over Silva's suitability for the Everton post into sharp focus a lot sooner than most of us envisaged. After so much upheaval at Goodison since the end of a decade of relative stability under David Moyes, there was a natural inclination to plead for patience among the fanbase as a new Director of Football and manager duo settled into the posts. But for many Evertonians, on the back of 10 defeats in 16 games in all competitions, the situation has already moved beyond the realms of wait-and-see.

Had the team continued in a vein of being frustratingly close to breaking the top six this season but obviously not being quite up to it in terms of personnel, that would be one thing. There was an acceptance that not everything could be fixed in one transfer window and that Brands and Silva might need to two or three before they could assemble a team capable of challenging near the top of the Premier League.

Put simply, if Everton were pressing along in seventh, in touch with the “big six” but evidently short of a signing or two — my kingdom for a striker! — before they could viably capitalise on any slip by those teams above us then the majority of fans would be on board and prepared, however restlessly, to see how things played out.

The problem is that the team has regressed over the past two months; defensive problems that were intermittent and seemingly fixable over the short term persist to a maddening degree; the exciting, forward-thinking football that we thought we were developing under Silva has disappeared; confidence has been destroyed; and Everton have been in relegation form since the derby.

At the final whistle at Millwall and against Wolves, you were left with the feeling that, from the boardroom to the dugout and onto the pitch, the Blues have a multitude of problems.

It is, perhaps, too soon to fully assess the effects of the reshuffle at boardroom level last year and the club's commercial performance may still be stunted in comparison to the rest of the Premier League's ever-present clubs and Manchester City but it's the incremental progress with regard to Bramley-Moore Dock that is providing the beacon towards which Everton FC and its supporters are navigating. They do so with hope that everything will come together by the time the first ball is kicked in that brand new stadium in a few years' time but, unfortunately, it's on the field where we feel as far away as ever.

Mitigating circumstances

No one of a Blue persuasion need be reminded of just how flawed was the transfer strategy employed by Everton prior to the arrivals of Brands and Silva last year. The hiring of Steve Walsh and Ronald Koeman in 2016 promised so much based on their respective reputations but the scattergun and profligate approach to recruitment undertaken by that regime is a significant factor behind the Blues' current travails on the pitch.

What they built on top of what was inherited from Roberto Martinez was an expensively-acquired hodge-podge that ran the gamut from astute, in the case of Idrissa Gueye's acquisition from Aston Villa for just £7.1m to misguidedly sentimental, in the form of Wayne Rooney; calculated (but ultimately costly) gamble where Sandro Ramirez was concerned to simply improvident, in the cases of Gylfi Sigurdsson and Morgan Schneiderlin, and it left a bloated squad for Brands to sift through. The further passage of time since last August has also exposed January 2018's arrivals, Theo Walcott and Cenk Tosun, as further misfires in the market.

That the Dutchman was able to offload part or all of the wages of 10 players signed under Roberto Martinez and Koeman and free up room in the squad and the payroll was no mean feat and while the jury hasn't returned a full verdict of Brands's acquisitions, there is reason, on the whole, to feel confident that the recruitment side of things is in good hands.

However, the team still lacks leadership, a general in midfield, a reliable striker and genuine creativity, factors that would limit what the Blues could achieve this season even in the best of circumstances.

Multi-Million Pound Misfits

Again, not all of these conundrums were of Silva's making and he inherited a number of problems that don't have easy solutions. For one thing, some of those players acquired under the previous regime were done so for big money and signed to expensive contracts which has made them very difficult to shift.

Even if Sandro had managed to score a goal in either of his loan spells back in La Liga, it would be difficult to persuade any suitor to pay a fee for him and take on his reported £120,000-a-week salary as well. The fact that he has drawn a blank in every appearance for all three of the teams he has represented since leaving Malaga for Goodison in 2017 apart from the consolation goal he scored in the Europa League drubbing at the hands of Atalanta, has diminished the prospects of selling him even further.

He may be out of sight, out of mind at Real Sociedad for now but the club has to count on the Spaniard returning in the summer along with the full amount of that massive wage taking up space on the payroll.

Meanwhile, Morgan Schneiderlin, on paper an attractive option if not for a lower-half Premier League side then at least a club in Spain, Italy or his native France, was signed by Everton for £20m and is earning around £100,000 a week, far too rich for most teams to consider. Since his last appearance as a substitute before Christmas, the Frenchman has cost the club £800,000 without kicking a ball in anger so you would imagine Mr Brands would be weighing up how much of a loss he would be prepared to take by offloading Schneiderlin for below market value but it would still require the player accepting a pay cut elsewhere in order to keep playing.

Walcott, acquired for the same fee as Schneiderlin, is another that falls into the category of players who sounded good in theory but whose Everton career to date has merely served to underline why they failed to consistently pass muster with their previous team. Still possessing decent pace despite closing in on 30 and with a highly respectable goalscoring record at Arsenal, the former Southampton man seemed like just the kind of signing a shot- and goal-shy Allardyce was desperately in need of a year ago but now, with his impact limited and his commitment being questioned, he feels like another £100,000-plus-a-week millstone around the club's neck.

Then there is Gylfi Sigurdsson, simultaneously the club's record signing and, arguably, its most vexing enigma. It's debatable whether Messers Silva and Brands would have made the Icelandic man their top transfer target in the manner in which Koeman and Walsh did — the £45m price tag alone might have warded the Dutchman off from a player approaching his 28th birthday and it's not clear that he really fits the system that Silva has tried to employ at Everton. Having inherited, however, the Portuguese has done his best to fashion an attacking midfield unit around him with mixed results.

While he is capable of scoring or conjuring a goal out of nothing, he has been largely unproductive for weeks now but the investment the club made in him, coupled with the fact that he is the team's second highest goalscorer this season, means that Sigurdsson is essentially undroppable. The result is that as the manager has tried to tinker with the formation, he has felt compelled to repeat the errors of previous Everton regimes by deploying the Nordic star wide on the left, a position that both his time at Goodison and his spell at Tottenham have demonstrated to be wholly unsuited to his talents.

Sigurdsson ingratiated himself with the Everton faithful early in the campaign with a tireless work-rate, some memorable goals and a few valuable assists but as results have fallen away, general fatigue seems to have taken its toll on Silva's high pressing game and he has been less and less influential, the former Swansea man has become a lightning rod for fan frustration.

Part of that is a perceived lack of leadership from Sigurdsson who has often cut a subdued figure on the field when things haven't been going Everton's way and the team is desperately in need of someone to take a game by the scruff of the neck. He is by no means alone but his stature in an underdog Iceland team, his leadership through deed at Swansea, combined with his enormous transfer fee perhaps gave Evertonians a false impression of the kind of player they were signing when Koeman pursued him so doggedly.

Sigurdsson was successful on a personal level in South Wales but ultimately disappointing during his spell at Tottenham, suggesting perhaps that he can really only thrive as the focal point of the team or in a particular system. And while he will point to the fact that he is in double figures for goals in all competitions this season, there is no question that the neither system that Silva has been trying to use at Everton nor the general conditions in the team are providing the environment for Sigurdsson to thrive.

And yet, given all of the above, Silva and his charges demonstrated earlier in the season that there is enough talent in the team to have sustained a challenge on the fringes of the top six; the next pieces of the puzzle that could push Everton to the next level would then be added in the summer.

That, after all, was the over-arching plan. Spurious comparisons between the current regime and the distasteful Allardyce interlude have been made, with many Blues pointing out that the team is actually worse off than it was under the journeyman Dudleyite — as if that is an argument that we should have retained him as manager. That his successor has failed to date to progress the side in terms of results and league position does not mean we should have kept a manager without any demonstrable, sustained success at the right end of the Premier League any more than it supports the notion that the return of Moyes would make any sense.

The decision to install Marco Silva as Koeman's permanent successor was based on the belief that Everton would be getting a progressive, forward-thinking manager; a young Mourinho or new Pochettino. All managerial appointments are gambles to a certain extent and, unfortunately, on the evidence of the past few months, Moshiri has crapped out. The final 11 games of the season should provide a clearer indication whether or not that is the case.

This horrible run since the derby has, however, called into serious question a number of key facets of the current Everton team and its coaching staff, most notably the motivational, inspirational and tactical powers of the manager and the character and resilience of his players.

Regression

If the early indications in Silva's first season in charge were largely positive, there was one glaring issue that Blues fans feared might become an intractable problem under the new manager, particularly after he expressed his adamance that he wasn't for changing over the issue. Zonal marking, or whatever hybrid version of it that Everton currently employ, was exposed as an early vulnerability for the team but the hope was that either the initial teething troubles would get worked out or Silva and his staff would end up abandoning it altogether.

Six months later, the problem persists to a maddening and, in the case of the defeat at Millwall, embarrassing degree. Former defenders among television pundits have expounded on the virtues of the zonal marking system when deployed effectively but it has become clear that, at Everton, the practice is either being mis-applied or Silva simply doesn't have the players capable of playing in it. And the problem is exacerbated by a goalkeeper in Jordan Pickford who used to be far more apt to dominate his six-yard box but who now seems to be under instruction to stay on his line at set-pieces.

Whatever work is being done on the training ground to perfect it, it isn't working and it's leading, on a worryingly regular basis, to galling mis-matches in the penalty area, with fullbacks (some of the smallest players in the Everton side) ending up marking the opposition's biggest or most aerially dangerous personnel at corners and free-kicks.

Defending is the indispensable fundamental in football — it's why back-to-basics managers start there and why Allardyce was able to steady the ship last season — but in English football especially, being able to deal with dead-ball situations is an absolute essential and Everton are among the worst teams in the Premier League at it. Unfortunately, Silva's previous clubs, Hull City and Watford, betrayed similar susceptibility to conceding from set-pieces, suggesting that it's a problem that won't be easily solved and there is a growing plea from Evertonians for the manager to just ditch it.

Unfortunately, like Martinez before him, the Portuguese appears to have a stubborn streak when it comes to his methods. Cheap free kicks and set-piece vulnerability will end up being the epitaph of Everton's 2018-19 season and, unless he can rectify it, probably Silva's tenure as well.

The problems aren't confined to defence, either, of course. Like Martinez, Silva has displayed a fondness for trying to play out from the back but engineering coherent passing moves to cut through opposition lines is a problem all over the pitch. It's why so many of the Blues' completed passes are sideways or backwards and why so many moves falter in the final third.

Evertonians have always looked at teams of Manchester City and Arsenal's ilk with envy because of the slick way they move the ball but when the likes of Wolves come to Goodison Park and play the home team off the pitch, it makes one wonder why if Nuno Espirito Santo can achieve it at Molineux, why can an Everton boss not come anywhere close to instituting a passing game.

The arrival of André Gomes, heralded as a masterstroke after his first few appearances, hasn't had the desired effect of making Everton any more effective at moving the ball forward with any threat over the course of the season. In fact, the on-loan Barcelona man has looked as lost as anyone in recent weeks, a consequence, perhaps of playing his first season in the Premier League having not had a pre-season due to the hamstring injury he suffered in July, one that sidelined him until September.

Richarlison, unquestionably a successful signing who is repaying the £35m outlay the club undertook last summer in goals and his healthy market value, has scored goals but hasn't emerged as the kind of player who can create goals for team-mates. Indeed, in 25 league appearances thus far, the Brazilian has just one assist and at a time when Bernard is still finding his feet in a foreign country, Walcott has been so disappointing and Ademola Lookman has flitted in and out of the side, it's left the team with precious little in the way of genuine and consistent creativity.

Add in the fact that the gamble that between Cenk Tosun, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison hasn't worked, you have a side that can't reliably defend and can't score enough goals. The fact that the Blues go into their next game against Cardiff sitting in 11th, seven points off seventh place and a massive 17 away from the top six tells you everything you need to know — 2018-19 has been a massive disappointment and it has manifested itself in a mounting crisis of belief that afflicts this Everton squad at the moment.

Confidence. Consistency. Character.

It's a precedent that's been raised a lot in football over the past three years but as much of a black swan event as Leicester City's utterly remarkable Premier League title win was, it was the embodiment of the notion that confidence is the currency of the game of football (distinct, of course, from the actual hard currency that now runs the sport).

The latest of Everton's collapses has also seen how a desperate shortage of that currency can impact performances and once you get stuck in a rut like that, it can be incredibly hard to get out. Every team goes through spells of self doubt to varying degrees and it is the strength of their collective character coupled with the motivating powers of the managerial staff that usually gets them out over the hump.

At different times during his tenure, Moyes used team-bonding events to rekindle a sense of camaraderie and focus in his charges, often with a degree of success that enabled them to re-find some belief and continue to consistently finish in the top eight of the Premier League.

He was aided to an extent by the fact that there were natural leaders in the group — either through voice, deed or both — like Phil Neville and Tim Cahill who exhibited an unquestioned commitment to the cause and helped foster unity and once results started to turn around, confidence returned and with it, a measure of consistency.

A lack of desire and commitment is a criticism that has often been levelled at the current Everton squad this season but it's harsh one where certain players are concerned. Seamus Coleman's waning form is one thing but the Irishman has never really lacked for determination to his best for the club; Idrissa Gueye had every reason to take the collapse of his “dream” move to Paris St Germain badly but he has been on top form since (whether his efforts are for our benefit or in the interests of securing that transfer to France in the summer is irrelevant; the net result is a player wanting to do his best); Cenk Tosun has, though friends, expressed his determination to stay at Goodison to fight for his place; and both Kurt Zouma and Lucas Digne have demonstrated passion and fight in bucketloads this season, with the former earning two yellow cards for dissent at Watford because of his indignation at a poor refereeing decision.

There is scope, perhaps, for speculating that rather than not caring, the team appears to be at a collective loss as to how to go about changing their circumstances and finding a way out of their current streak of bad form. It's rather damning, however, that Everton have earned just two points from losing positions this season and, in that respect, the notion that a team is a reflection of their manager rings true because Silva seems to be as lost and powerless as they are. Ultimately, the buck stops with the manager and the onus is on him to find the solutions from a holistic point of view where individual players can't.

Progress imperative

One of the most disappointing aspects of where Everton find themselves at this juncture of Silva's maiden season is that we were sold the idea from some of his former charges that we were getting a “meticulous, dynamic, flexible” manager — part young Mourinho (in terms of his intensity and focus), part Pochettino. The reality has been quite different; Silva has shown himself to be rigid in many respects, inconsistent in others and lacking in true imagination when it comes to fashioning a way out of his team's current doldrums.

With the benefit of a 17-day break in which to take stock of the situation and with the final weeks of a campaign that is now essentially a bust ahead of him, he now faces a hugely important period where has to prove he has what it takes to lead this club forward over the long term.

He has the opportunity to experiment with personnel and the way he sets the team out in a way that has been either unwilling or unable to do so to this point. Only in recent games has he dared stray from the 4-2-2-1-1 formation (with Sigurdsson usually too far off the striker du jour) on which he has relied for so much of the season, introducing a third central midfielder to help shore up that part of the pitch, and one would hope that he will feel compelled to think further outside of his hitherto small box. Walcott, for instance, has failed as a winger but has shown he can operate as a second striker yet hasn't been tried there. Bernard, meanwhile, has the tools to operate as a “No.10” instead of Sigurdsson and it would be interesting to see if he can provide something different in that role.

Within the context of giving a manager time, allowances can be made for teething problems and the requirement to bed in new players and systems but Everton under Silva have been lacking in the bare basics since early December. There need to be concrete signs of a plan now, of the potential for gradual improvement, of problem-solving, of some of those qualities that Moshiri believed he was getting when he first tried to lure Silva away from Watford and proof that the pattern established at Hull then Vicarage Road and now Goodison Park, that of instant impact followed by a drop-off in form, can be reversed.

The majority shareholder has publicly backed the idea that his appointee was installed to craft and lead a young team and that will take time but it's hard to see how a continuation of what is essentially relegation form between now and mid-May would leave Moshiri confident in keeping Silva in the hot-seat for next season.

The pressure is, therefore, on the manager. The next few weeks are important in terms of his standing with the players, the fans and the hierarchy. Again, progress can — and really would be expected to — be incremental but progress has to be demonstrated and there are some big occasions coming up against some top sides at Goodison where the crowd will be behind him if he can get his charges organised and up for it. Marco Silva has been afforded the time, now he has to deliver, starting at Cardiff on Tuesday evening.




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