Evolution of a Top-4 Side

Robert Tressell 02/02/2021 20comments  |  Jump to last

The end of the January transfer window delivers mixed feelings. For some, the departure of some more deadwood and arrival of Josh King looks like an improved chance of top 6. For others, the failure to spend big and bring in real quality means the end of any chance of top 4. Both perspectives are correct in their own way.

What it also means is that we continue the 30-odd-year transitional period since we were last regularly competing and winning things.

How long is that transitional period going to carry on? Probably a little while yet... The priority for the club is a new stadium. In the meantime, though, we can still build. So I thought I’d look at how another club managed to get itself out of the doldrums because there might be some lessons learned in there and some grounds for optimism.


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At the start of the last decade, Liverpool were going through an enjoyable “average” patch.

10/11 season, 6th place finish under Hodgson – 1 place and just 4 points above Everton in 7th
11/12 season, 8th place finish under Dalglish – behind Everton in 7th
12/13 season, 7th place finish under Rodgers – behind Everton in 6th

Then it all changes.

13/14 season, 2nd place finish under Rodgers – above Everton in 5th

From there, we decline a few places on average and find ourselves where we are now, trying to regain the form we hit in the late Moyes years and the first Martinez season. We’re well placed for a return to the respectable 6th or 7th spot but, let’s be honest, anything more is a bit unrealistic given that even our first team is stocked with quite a few players many of us consider to be a bit shit.

Liverpool, the bastards, have a really good squad. I’m not sure a single one of our players would get in their full fit first 11. Maybe Godfrey to accompany VVD. And since they’ve just signed Kabak, possibly not. So, apart from being a glamour club and spending loads of money, how did they go from the doldrums to that 2nd place finish in 13/14 which positioned them so well for the years that followed?

In fairness, credit to Brendan Rogers for creating the feel of a big club again after Roy Hodgson had dampened expectations (something which people hate Moyes for doing at Everton). Also, in fairness to the guy, he’s a really good coach and tends to get teams (Swansea, Celtic and now Leicester) overachieving. Man management, tactics etc. Fair enough.

We also have a really good manager now and a professional feel about the club with Brands showing a bit of ruthlessness with our deadwood.

What I am interested in is what did their squad look like at the end of 12/13 and how did they smash their way up the table to 2nd place (from 7th) in just one season.

So, in truth, they actually had a pretty good team despite finishing 7th. It was something like this (with main goalscorers highlighted with totals):

Henderson (5 goals)
Gerrard (10 goals)
Coutinho (3 goals)
Sturridge (10 goals)
Suarez (23 goals)

Basically, they had a really potent attack (71 goals) but an average defence (43 goals). They conceded three more than us but we only scored 55 goals despite finishing a bit higher. They addressed (or attempted to) defensive weakness by bringing in Sakho (CB) and Mignolet (GK). But it was the attack (with the promotion of Sterling) that really drove them on the following year. They scored (the bastards) 101 goals to our 61 although actually conceded 50 goals to our 39.

That year their first 11 (and main goalscorers) was something like this:

Skrtel (7 goals)
Henderson (4 goals)
Gerrard (13 goals)
Sterling (9 goals) / Coutinho (5 goals)
Sturridge (22 goals)
Suarez (31 goals)

Again, the defence is no great shakes but the attack is really potent.

Which leads me to the evolution of our side. As the sometimes double-figures who read my articles know, I tend to favour sustainable evolution through promotion of youth.

Although they had a bit of a mixed approach, Liverpool sort of went down that route by giving a chance to 4 very talented young attackers in Sterling (pinched for peanuts from QPR), Coutinho (taken for a modest sum from Inter’s reserves), Sturridge (taken from Chelsea for £15m) and Suarez (taken from Ajax for £26m).

At the time, none of these were really glamour signings – and didn’t look like the same sort of quality that Benitez had bought in the form of Alonso, Mascherano and Torres for example.

But those 4 and the big club feel restored by Rodgers completely turned around their fortunes after a bad start to the last decade. Klopp did something similar in giving a chance to Mane, Firminho and Salah – three very talented, dynamic young players.

What is the lesson learned?

For me, it is that a good manager can give you a big club feel. That’s one for Ancelloti. BUT, you have to back that up with the style of your recruitment and the way you play the game. For me, now that we have a solid enough base, we really need to invest in a potent attack.

As Newcastle have just demonstrated, a crappy team can give you all sorts of problems if they’re not scared of your attack. And in reality, very few teams have a defence that looks good when you really have a go at them.

The reason you don’t have a go, however, is fear of being punished by a potent attacking force given too much space on the counter.

I’m not suggesting we get all Kevin Keegan about life. I’m just saying a big club needs to have an attack befitting a big club. And if you don’t, you’re not a big club.

We need goals from wide areas and midfield and lots of them. We also need DCL to get into the 20s and even 30s in goals. We need Richarlison getting 15 / 20 goals. And we need others to contribute. I did a piece last year which identified (based on stats) that we needed about 20 extra goals scored and 10 fewer goals conceded to beak the top 6. You need even more goals for the top 4.

So where does that take our recruitment in summer?

Well, the first team could do with a GK, a RB etc etc but instead of spending a limited budget on, say, Lamptey (£45m?) and Onana (£30m?) we need to focus on getting a talented young bunch of attackers who can develop into world class players. The time to do serious upgrades beyond the likes of Olsen and Keane can come later. A right back shouldn’t need to cost more than £15 million. You could get Dagba or Williams for about that.

What we really need is a dynamic midfielder who scores goals and, whether King stays after his 6-month contract is up or not, reinforcements up front and in wide areas.

Hopefully that is the plan. It will not only improve our chances of a breakthrough season, it will be more enjoyable to watch.

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Reader Comments (20)

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Barry Rathbone
1 Posted 03/02/2021 at 11:19:40
The problem with comparisons with the shite (and other big spenders) is they have all spent hugely throughout the Premiership meaning their base level squad is ALWAYS at a higher level than ours.

Our fatal flaw is not shipping out underperforming players quickly simply because we can't afford the turnover. If Andy Carrol had signed here it's quite likely he would still be on the payroll as would the keeper Karius who the shite had killed after the CL final.

Evolution is not a possibility it takes too long decent players won't hang around - see Stones and Lukaku and now potentially Richarlison. The only answer is an explosive revolution in one transfer window to build a new dynamic and actually win something, only then will decent players stay.

Brent Stephens
2 Posted 03/02/2021 at 11:42:38
Robert, a good piece, good analysis. I agree totally with your prognosis and prescription, when you say:
"For me, now that we have a solid enough base, we really need to invest in a potent attack".

And "As Newcastle have just demonstrated, a crappy team can give you all sorts of problems if they’re not scared of your attack. And in reality, very few teams have a defence that looks good when you really have a go at them. The reason you don’t have a go, however, is fear of being punished by a potent attacking force given too much space on the counter."

Michael Kenrick
3 Posted 03/02/2021 at 13:15:57

Why in the name everything that is sacred about our club are we Evertonians talking about THEM??!?!

It fucken boils my blood, it really does. Don't you guys get enough of this pure shite on every major TV channel and website every fucking day!!

Couldn't we just have one little corner of cyberspace where the universal love-in was simply and completely ignored?

Brian Murray
4 Posted 03/02/2021 at 13:24:21
Amen to that brother
John Cook
5 Posted 03/02/2021 at 13:28:28
Michael spot on !
I haven't watch the c**ts since they beat us in the cup at Maine Road years ago.
I am a season ticket holder and avoid even the game against them at home ! Don't care how much they've won or how good they are they will always be shite to me.Bitter ? Naah
Jason Li
6 Posted 03/02/2021 at 13:28:46
Really enjoyed your article Robert.

As your article is a comparison, I think I can see how we are on the up and they are showing signs of starting to come off their brief peak.

One thing that comes to mind, the RS have a good habit of selling at the peak price for players and re-investing in younger through a good manager in the Premier League era.

We did this well until Koeman and Silva derailed with slow players like Schneiderlin, meaning a bad eye for quality players, which leads to halving the price of our assets within a couple of years for each purchase.

As the RS were mentioned, I think the RS won't be maintaining their flash in the pan lofty standards soon, as their most valuable 5 players: VD, front 3 and Henderson are too old to recoup a large fee, so they are rapidly depreciating assets. Oddly enough, they have broken their own successful system that got them to where they are today and have to run a tight ship.

Using my old... ahem Football Manager system, always sell players at 28 or at worse 29 for the best price and buy the best replacement from a smaller club and not older than 23/24. That model would mean in the real world sell Digne and find a very good young left back and hope some cash is left over.

However, in this period of time we've rightly bought in experience and some very good players, because we have a very young squad already with the likes of Dom, Davies and Holgate. The mix with hungry Champions League pros like James and Allan has improved them too.

I'm looking at the squad, and think we won't be buying much more 28/29 year olds any more, unless they are outstanding and very well priced.

Hopefully, we progress now with purchases of outstanding young players because:

>Outstanding young players tend to play more often in the season (we've watched Godfrey, Baines, Coleman as a reference).
>We can keep them in the squad for more years - no need to loan them out and waste time on trying to find buyers to take them off us.
>Means less need to buy a second player to make up for buying the first player whose not right for the squad - which bloats the squad (we did four number 10s and none were right for the long-term - crikey!)
>If you sell an experienced top Premier League player who is 28 and still very effective, you will almost certainly have enough to go to the market and find an outstanding less experienced younger version of the player sold. Helps the transfer kitty grow.

Of course, all clubs have had a history of bringing in players in the late 20s or even 30s and they were excellent. That comes down to the manager not buying a name but a player who really is still outstanding. I think Carlo has that knack and judgement, because there are the outliers once a player goes over 30 if they are able to mix it twice a week chasing fliers like Pulisic or Vardy or getting away from the likes of Godfrey.

I'm optimistically seeing Ancelotti and Brands reforming the squad into the best shape in years and making the transition happen. If King helps us somehow add an extra 7 to 10 goals in total - goals, assists, pre-assists, we'll be right in the top 4 mix.

In fact, I think we'll be a very competitive squad by the end of the summer transfer window.

Fran Mitchell
7 Posted 03/02/2021 at 13:36:51
I get why Robert has made this comparison, however there are too many variables I feel that invalidate it:

Income: Liverpool's worldwide fanbase and thus income through sponsorship and more.

This meant that the season they splurged god knows how much on players like Carroll, they also had the ability to buy Suarez. When they bought Keita, they also bought Fabinho. When they bough Oxlade-Chamberlain, they also bought Salah. When they bought Benteke, they also bought Firmino. and it goes on.

So they make 2 big money purchases, and even if one flops, it isn't much of an issue.

Wheras Everton spend big on Sigurdsson, and that's our budget and we won't be buying a 40 million + player for lord how knows.

As much as the media like to praise their asses off, and will talk constantly of Robinson as to how good they are in the transfer market, their keeper cost 70 million, their centre back 70 million, Keita 60 million, Mane 40 million, Wijnaldum 30 million, Salah 40 million, Oxlade Chamberlain 40 million, Fabinho 50 million, Jota 40 million.

And that's not including the 20 odd players bought for between 15-25 million that were not successes (Lallana, Shaqiri, Clyne, Lovren and more).

So what makes a top-4 team?

Spending money, and continuously spending money until you get ir right.

If we are to compare Everton to any other teams in the league, then Leicester, Spurs, Villa, West Ham are the ones that merit comparison. Similar in levels of income, fanbase and financial power.

Derek Thomas
8 Posted 03/02/2021 at 13:37:03
Michael @ 3; nobody able to find the editorial blue pencil today?
Kevin Molloy
9 Posted 03/02/2021 at 15:10:23
yes, when you're top everything you touch turns to gold, look at the players Kendall bought when we were good, Pointon Power Clarke, they all looked great when playing for Everton. Everyone wants to join the party, that's why they get £20m for Brewster. But I think it's a mirage, as soon as beardface goes they will head downwards. As such, I think the model for us to follow is Leicester. Outstanding recruitment, with an eye to the medium term. Be prepared to let your stars go, as long as you get top dollar.
David Currie
10 Posted 03/02/2021 at 18:02:42
Michael 3 and John 5, both great posts the only time I see that scum is when we play them.
Barry Rathbone
11 Posted 03/02/2021 at 18:26:38
Fran Mitchell


Robert Tressell
12 Posted 03/02/2021 at 18:36:57
For the sensitive souls who don't like the mention of the RS, a quick analysis of Leicester. Some say Leicester are a better comparison. In some respects that's right, but we're a much bigger club than Leicester and once the stadium is built we'll properly eclipse them again.

Anyway, so how did a Leicester side in the doldrums under Claude Puel revive their fortunes as Champions League contender?

17/ 18 season they finished 9th (behind Everton in 8th)
18/19 season they finished 9th (behind Everton in 8th)

But then they appoint Rodgers:

19/20 season they finish 5th ahead of Spurs, Arsenal and us in (for fuck's sake) 12th.

20/21 season they seem likely to contest a top 4 place, although might miss out to a much richer club.

That jump from 9th to 5th is a big one, especially for a club like Leicester who (recent success aside) are not a big club at all.

How did they do it?

Their 18/19 season team is something like this:

Tielemans (3)
Maddison (7)
Gray (4)
Vardy (18)

That's a pretty good team - with a few young players bedding in - but the loss of Mahrez from the previous season has hurt them big time.

Who did they buy?

- Tielemans £45m (age 21)
- Perez £33m (age 26)
- Praet £20m (age 25)
- Justin £7m (age 21)

That gave them a really classy midfield trio + Perez and Maddison hovering behind the ageless Vardy. It also gave them an excellent versatile full back.

In addition, and this is really significant, they didn't need to spend money on replacing Maguire - because they'd already bought in a replacement. Caglar Soyuncu had been bought the previous year for £20m from Freiburg in Germany. He was 22 at that time and had a year to settle in order to really hit the ground running last season. They didn't really miss Maguire at all. So they could spend all the Maguire sale proceeds on reinforcing the midfield and astutely buying Perez, who has excellent assists and goals record in the Prem and is a very good foil for the more prolific Vardy.

So really they did it because Rodgers is a better coach than Puel by some distance. They also did it by clever acquisition (something they have a knack for).

They have tried to develop an all round team rather than go all out attack. I think that's right for them. At the end of the day, they are just Leicester. Even now, opposition teams probably worry more about Arsenal than they should and much less about Leicester than they should. They'll never have the fear factor about them.

We're a notch above. A bit more like Spurs - but Spurs a just more developed than us because of the stadium and greater riches in recent times.

We can, I maintain, spend relatively little on reinforcements at full back and even midfield now (Dagba at c. £15m is not materially worse than Aarons at c £30). The key thing is to develop as an attacking force with forward / wide players who can star for Everton over the next 5 years or more. That is particularly important next season because summer 2022 we are likely to lose Richarlison if he's not gone already. We could even, heaven forbid, lose DCL. So we need to stock up in advance to make sure it doesn't hurt if that does happen.

Bill Gall
13 Posted 03/02/2021 at 18:40:30
Chelsea started the big spending when Abramovich took over. after that when a number of other clubs relieved the backing from rich owners, i.e. Man City and when they started to outspend the Sky Darlings the FFP ruling was brought in to stop the owners using their wealth. Problem with the lawyers they have they can get round it,. For Everton to reach that level they need Usamov to become an owner, not a shadow figure
Jerome Shields
14 Posted 04/02/2021 at 08:27:58
Good article, Robert. In my opinion, Everton have the players for a Top 6 finish. To get a Top 4 finish and challenge consistently, they need more Top 4 players.

This is particularly the case as you say in attack. A Top 4 attacker can pass and shoot with either foot, as well as head the ball. They also can link play, beat their marker, get 10 seconds of space and shoot with accuracy and power. A Top 4 side also has a Top 4 goalkeeper. In the Newcastle game, Pickford showed he was the difference between a Top 4 place and not.

You are correct that an attacking threat is essential against most teams to prevent them pushing up in support and that midfield has to be in control and able to snuff out counter-attacks. I think that the introduction of King, who looks unfit, will between now and the Summer put increased pressure on Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison for the above reasons. The commentator's 'weak foot' comments eradicated.

I do think that Ancelotti's goal is to fulfil the requirement you outlined and he has started to work on changes.

Robert Tressell
15 Posted 04/02/2021 at 12:11:00
Thanks Jerome. Agree with your points. Whether a top 4 side needs a truly excellent keeper is possible to debate though. I think that's often a pre-requisite for title winners (Schmeichel, Cech, Ederson etc) but not necessarily for the 3rd or 4th placed team.

As Fran says, we can't (unfortunately) keep spending until we get it right. And Usmanov seems to have little interest in a higher profile. So with a limited budget it makes sense to buy Olsen on the cheap and save our pennies for dynamic attacking players - especially in wide positions (willing as he is, I've never been convinced Richarlison is a winger).

A major upgrade on our GK is secondary right now.

Jerome Shields
16 Posted 04/02/2021 at 15:10:35
Robert I think you are right regarding the goalkeeper. Olsen was brought in to cover and a Goalkeeper to replace Pickford was never a priority. There where other priorities getting rid of deadwood and sorting out other positions.

You where right to draw the comparison with our neighbours. It was the best way to get your point across and simplified your analysis. Other Clubs had too many variables and Moshiri though he has dug deep is looking for more good footballing solutions.

Dave Bowen
17 Posted 04/02/2021 at 15:34:27
Robert, I bet you needed a good shower after doing that much digging into the RS’s history!
Adam McCulloch
18 Posted 06/02/2021 at 10:09:33
Robert (12),

I completely agree with your assessment of Leicester, and their purchases after the sale of Maguire shows the kind of joined-up thinking that we so sorely lacked when Koeman and Walsh got involved. However, it's worth saying that Leicester – along with the other clubs mentioned in comparison – have wasted lots of money too.

Slimani cost a fortune and has (I think) finally left on a free transfer. They also spent big on a Portuguese midfielder (Adrien Silva? Not 100% but like Michael I try and keep my focus on us so I'm not gonna give Google my time). Pretty sure that was a big splurge and they couldn't play him for 6 months. West Ham are another that have wasted millions (Carroll again, Haller they recently sold at a huge loss) but their recruitment has improved since Moyes took over...

What does this tell us? Well, as Fran said, it's a mixed bag. The Premier League has been awash with cash. Recruitment can work and also fail spectacularly. The only difference with us is that the ratio between good buys and those we are lumbered with has not been good enough. We've also had new managers who have overseen major overhauls – even Allardyce's brief tenure has left us with picking some of Walcott's wages on loan and Tosun's at Besiktas.

We certainly have got a base to work from. Yep, there are problem positions and still bodies to move on. But hopefully with Carlo in charge and given the time that the aforementioned managers have had, we can turn that corner. In the summer, I expect to see a few choice additions where we need them (in goal, full-back, an attacking player).

We may not be exactly where we want to be but we are headed in the right direction. Beating Man Utd tonight and Spurs in the cup would certainly help. COYB.

Robert Tressell
19 Posted 06/02/2021 at 10:39:43
Adam, absolutely recruitment is hit and miss. One of the keys is to be able to cut your losses on the inevitable failures.

The Leicester purchase of Slimani who you mention is a real lesson. He was bought age 27 for £31m having never played in a top league. When he arrived in a top league, he looked no better than the very average strikers who get about 5 or 6 a season for clubs at the bottom of the Premier League. He was an £8m player bought for £31m.

At his age, he was never going to improve. His peak was going to be to bang in goals in weak leagues. But because he'd been given a Premier League wage, no club in a weak league could afford to buy him back. His destiny was to go out on underwhelming loans until released for free.

This is the identical story to Tosun.

Contrast the situation with Kean. Bought young, we will make a profit even though many on here think he's absolute garbage. Contrast with possibly our weirdest ever signing, Onyekuru. Again, bought young and we make a profit on the sale even though he never kicked a ball for us.

So you can improve your chances in the transfer market by buying young - because you can shift the failures fairly easily and even make a profit in the process (Lookman, Vlasic, Onyekuru etc).

It also means those who work out (eg Godfrey) can be a fixture in the side for 5 to 10 years (even more). This means you don't need to keep recruiting 5 or even more players each season at great cost and risk.

Kevin Prytherch
20 Posted 06/02/2021 at 10:53:30
Adam and Robert - one of the best analysis’ of how we should recruit that I’ve read.

We have wasted a fortune on ready made players (Walcott, Tosun, Schneiderlin, Sigurdsson, Delph etc) and also splashed out a fortune on wages on players who were essentially reserves for previous clubs or expensive free transfers and have simply come for the money (Mina, Bernard, Gomes etc).

Like you have alluded to, if we buy 5 young hungry players (Godfrey, Holgate, DCL etc) and only 2 work out, then we can likely recoup our money on the other 3. We can then re-invest. If the 2 that are a success stay for years then we will always have a blend of young and experienced players. In addition, because the players are coming to the club to prove themselves and not just for a big contract, we are less likely to get the dour uncommitted performances that we get with certain freeloaders.

The issue for a section of toxic Everton fans is having the patience to let the young recruits integrate into the team and the mistakes that will be made while doing this. It is a long term strategy that requires patience and tolerance. Unfortunately, since we came into money, a significant section of the fan base expect instant success and will be openly abusive to any youngster learning their craft (think of the abuse received by Davies, Kenny, DCL, Holgate, Barkley, Kean etc).

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