Confused Everton Must Decide What They Want To Become Before They Can Move Forward
It was meant to be the start of a bold new era for Everton. Buoyed by the expectation of substantial investment from billionaire backer Farhad Moshiri, the club's marketing team sought to tap into the feeling of optimism sweeping the club by boldly unveiling the now notorious 'Nothing will be the same' advertising campaign for 2016-17 season.
The promise was to take Blues supporters on a journey which could, potentially, scale new heights - and break through the existing glass ceiling that had been in place for much of the last two decades. Even for a largely sceptical fanbase that had witnessed the club's decline from one of English football's powerhouses in the 1980s to Premier League also-rans over the ensuing 20-year period, it was hard not to be caught up by the promise of something bigger and better. For once, it looked as though Everton were laying the foundations to challenge the established order.
18 months on, though, and despite initial optimism, it's hard to pinpoint any positive change in the direction of the club on the pitch. Certainly, under Moshiri's watch, Everton are spending more money in the transfer market than ever before- around £250m in the last four windows, at the time of writing- but nevertheless little headway has been made in the bid to compete at the top end of the Premier League table.
Close to £140m was invested over the summer in an attempt to help a side that had finished 7th the previous season take the next step, yet a marked decline in performances and results this campaign has seen dreams of Europe and cup success swapped for fears over relegation. Sam Allardyce's appointment as manager serving as the clearest indication yet that long-term aspirations have at least temporarily been placed on hold until fears of the drop are well and truly banished.
The Goodison club's remarkable regression makes for a fitting cautionary tale for nouveau riche sides seeking to find a way of closing the gap between themselves and the top six: Money, in isolation, is not enough in itself to bridge the divide. Indeed, while clubs like Everton, West Ham and Leicester once again find themselves listed in Deloitte's top 20 richest clubs in Europe- and thus ahead of many of their peers in Italy, Spain and Germany financially- the truth is that domestic rivals have moved even further ahead in terms of revenue. Still unable to compete at the top end of the market, Everton and others must look to find their gains from elsewhere. Canny recruitment and fastidious planning being the order of the day until new stadia like Bramley-Moore Dock are built.
With that in mind, the stark nature of the decline at Goodison- from European qualifiers to relegation battlers in half a season- shows that the reality of the situation for Everton is that these pieces are not yet in place. A scattergun approach to recruitment over the summer left the Blues without a replacement for Romelu Lukaku over the first half of this campaign, but ironically possessing three new recruits capable of playing in the No.10 role.
Further back, the failure to sign recognised left-back cover has been exposed by injury to Leighton Baines. Those brought in from the continent to add additional elements to Everton's play have been written off as failures already, with both Davy Klaassen and Sandro Ramirez apparently surplus to requirements. Multiple costly errors across the board that have taken their toll.
Stylistically, Everton have flittered between three distinctive, incompatible styles under Ronald Koeman, David Unsworth and Sam Allardyce. A pale imitation of Dutch Total Football followed by Unsworth's focus on youth and Allardyce's defence-first approach. It has left the Blues without a coherent identity on the pitch, and with what some supporters have called a 'Frankenstein squad' top-heavy in certain areas, desperately short in others and lacking players in the prime of their careers.
It's probably no surprise, then, that the one constant over the last 18 months, director of football Steve Walsh, has seen his role come under threat in recent weeks as links with PSV's Marcel Brands have emerged. Given the speed with which Premier League clubs swap managers in the modern era, there is a certainly a case to be made that directors of football should set- and then help implement- a specific style that runs through club regardless of who is in charge in the dugout. Recruiting for Allardyce when the markedly different Marco Silva could theoretically be in charge over summer arguably makes flops like Sandro and Klaassen even more likely in the future. Nor would any transition from one manager to the other be easy from a tactical point of view for Everton's players.
What's become strikingly apparent this season is that Everton still don't know what they are- nor want to become in the future. Not thriving in any particular area of play, they've also failed to lay building blocks for the the future on the pitch this campaign. Even under David Moyes- a manager who brought just relative success to Goodison- there was quite evidently a discernible plan in place, with new signings rigorously vetted before they were signed. Everton, at that time, had a good reputation for buying well at a budget, with Seamus Coleman, Tim Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott several examples of astute purchases. Whatever ground was made up, it was done through hard-work and meticulous planning. It was far from perfect, but the one accusation you absolutely couldn't level at Moyes-era Everton was that they were lacking an identity.
So what would the equivalent look like now? The examples of Spurs, who muscled their way into the top six thanks in large part to long-term project manager Mauricio Pochettino, and Burnley, who repeatedly punch above their weight due to Sean Dyche's resounding success in refining one particular style are perhaps most prescient as far as implementing a specific style are concerned. Both clubs famous for looking to build on what they're already doing well in order to make gains in the mid-term. Everton's version will undoubtedly be different, but both models offer pointers as far as strategy is concerned.
That conversation should now start in earnest, with the Blues' continued struggles in the market, and the resultant problems on the pitch, arguably serving as the ideal catalyst to ask certain existential questions. What tools do they already have at the club that they can hone? How do they see this current squad developing over the next five years? A good place to begin, given recent success in this area, would be in assessing which of the club's talented crop of youngsters will be central to the project moving forward. Youth development remains one of Everton's strongest suits; an area in which they excel and thus a potential starting point for whatever is to follow.
As the club's hierarchy look back critically as part of the quest to move forward, they may well realise that muddled thinking has led to the failure to progress this season. Unless solutions are found, they'll also probably discover that a change in fortunes is particularly unlikely too.
Learning lessons from the latest false start functions as the first major step in Everton's rehabilitation. Only then will the 'Nothing will ever be the same' strapline really stand a chance of ringing true.