The Season So Far
Being an Everton fan over the last decade or so must feel a lot like being Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Nothing ever changes. The same routine plays out over and over and over again.
Every few years, an expensive overhaul takes place. The old guard is culled. A recruitment genius comes in and brings with him a new set of shiny big-money/high-potential signings. Most importantly, a charismatic, upwardly mobile, messianic young manager takes over and declares Everton ready to shatter the glass ceiling separating them from the Champions League elite. Unfortunately, it never quite works out.
The signings that looked so exciting never really deliver. The recruitment genius turns out to have just been a guy who knows how to sign smaller clubs’ star players and big clubs’ cast-offs. Consistency is never attained and the manager’s tactics, demeanour and/or soundbites start to drive everyone insane. After a couple of years, half the squad is jettisoned along with the manager, who has now become a hate figure at Goodison Park. The recruitment guy leaves via the back door. The cycle begins anew in the summer.
This season has been more of the same. Marcel Brands and Marco Silva have built a new squad almost from scratch but the players haven’t gelled or ever looked coherently managed. Everyone at the club talks the talk and knows where Everton want to finish in the table, but no-one has no idea how to walk the walk. It’s now March and, while crap results are bad enough, it’s worse still that we’re no nearer to knowing what Everton’s style of play is, or if they even have one.
Famous names like Theo Walcott, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Bernard are on big money and, with Everton’s attack ill-defined and directionless, haven’t delivered. Richarlison has contributed a good number of goals but he looks like a square peg in a round hole regardless of where Marco Silva plays him. Lucas Digne has by all accounts been the Toffees’ player of the season and looks a snip at £18m, while fellow Barcelona reject André Gomes won plaudits before tailing off. The excellent Idrissa Gueye was close to signing for Paris Saint-Germain at the end of January and his departure would have left Everton looking even less like a team than they do now.
The last time Chelsea played Everton I wrote that they had “teething problems rather than major crises”, and to a certain extent that remains true. This is a project which is still in its early stages and it’s worth remembering that almost every member of the starting eleven has been there under two years. That said, Everton’s problem is that no project ever gets beyond its early stages, and there’s already talk of Marco Silva being replaced in the summer.
The Season Ahead
Given that a sustained push for the Champions League places was Everton’s aim, with a solid top-half finish also acceptable, the Toffees’ current position of 11th means there’s precious little to play for. Barring an unexpected upturn in performances and form, neither of Silva’s targets will be met this season and, going forward, there’s little in the way of emerging team cohesion to suggest that such lofty goals will be met next time around.
The players aren’t blameless, but they won’t be the ones held responsible if Everton’s season peters out as it looks like doing. Silva simply has to produce something to convince the board and the fans that he can improve things in the long-term.
Everton have most often played with a conventional 4-2-3-1, based on partnerships all over the pitch. The most important have been between the full-backs and the wide-forwards on both sides, with Digne dovetailing with Bernard to decent effect on the left, while Séamus Coleman and Walcott work together on the right. Almost all of Everton’s attacking play comes down the flanks, but it’s what’s happened next that has been the problem.
Richarlison and Sigurdsson have almost always played and they’ve interchanged almost at will, taking it in turns to come deep for the ball while the other goes high to pin the defence in place and create space. Neither is comfortable as a striker, though, and it’s been notable for long spells of the season that the lack of a quality target man means Everton’s attacks build nicely enough but never reach a crescendo. Since the turn of the year, Marco Silva has used Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Cenk Tosun much more, but both have obvious limitations and using one of them means leaving one of Everton’s more eye-catching star players out.
It’s worth remembering that Marco Silva has long harboured ambitions to switch to a back three system and that it was never intended for Everton to play for so long in a 4-2-3-1. Silva may well use his inability to use his Plan A as a justification for poor results, but the fact remains that Everton have looked equally bad if not worse whenever three centre-backs have been on the pitch together. Last weekend’s dismal collapse away to Newcastle came after Silva, perhaps reasoning that the game was won and it was time to experiment, made a tactical sub and changed formation.
While it may feel like it’s all doom and gloom at Goodison Park, it’s largely because their ambitions are so grand and the fans’ frustration is so intense. Were hopes and expectations less lofty, this team could be admired as one that, with some minor tweaks, could one day produce entertaining and successful football.
On an individual level, every player (with one obvious exception) belongs at this level and has the potential to go higher. There are several promising youngsters on the fringes of the team, with Jonjoe Kenny, Ademola Lookman and Tom Davies especially catching the eye with many mature, effective displays in positions of responsibility.
While there are obvious problems in attack and defence, they’re nor as blunt or as boring as many other teams in the division and, were they to add a top-level striker and a genuinely commanding centre-back over the summer, they’d be on course to develop into something greater next season.
Everton’s lack of cohesion was excusable earlier in the season given how late they did their most important business in the transfer window, but the longer it’s remained an issue, the more glaring the problem has become. In open play, their football is stuttered and prone to breaking down, often ending in aimless crosses which are easily defended. Without the ball they’re much better, though it can sometimes seem like only Idrissa Gueye is interested in getting his shorts dirty.
The other major issue is that they’re famously bad at defending set plays: no Premier League team has conceded more goals from dead balls than Everton this season and we’ve gotten to the point where the fans panic every time the opposition wins a free-kick or a corner. This appears to be another Marco Silva problem, as his Hull City and Watford teams also topped the table for goals conceded from dead balls during his tenure.
While many of their players have genuine quality, few have shown it this season. Jordan Pickford’s form has nosedived after his heroics at the 2018 World Cup, while Kurt Zouma has done nothing to enhance his reputation and Bernard has never justified the hype, despite being clearly a very good footballer. Long-term doubts over Gylfi Sigurdsson’s ability to play in a top team never go away.
Head and shoulders above all disappointments, however, sits Theo Walcott. He’s barely even a Championship-level player now. How is he Everton’s highest-paid player?!
Neither side has any major worries but both will be waiting on expected starters – Coleman and Gonzalo Higuaín – to recover from illness. Chelsea loanee Kurt Zouma is ineligible for Everton and the imposing, self-imploding Yerry Mina should come in. Ex-Toffee Ross Barkley will be itching to face his former club.
A draw does nobody any favours, so let’s say another 1-1.