Near the end of last season, Everton’s manager Ronald Koeman, brushed off concerns that he was preparing to pack his bags and head off to the Camp Nou. Luis Enrique had decided that life as manager of Barcelona was draining him mentally and the club was now looking for a plucky volunteer for the job.
Naturally, being a Culé and a former player for the side—renowned for his occasional “thunder-bastard” freekicks—the Dutchman was heavily linked alongside Jorge Sampoli and Ernesto Valverde for the job. Also being a student of Cruyff and a former assistant manager for Barcelona, certainly didn’t hurt his cause, and his tendency to blood youth en masse would certainly endear himself to the ultras in the stands. Overlooking his spell in Valencia, Koeman would be the ideal man to quell the dissent towards the board over decisions they have made over the years.
Ultimately, his loyalty to his Everton contract and his own personal opinions of whether he suited the role, rooted him in Merseyside, but Koeman hasn’t been keeping it a secret that the job, however far away from him, is his dream.
When asked at Everton’s training ground regarding the rumours at the time, he said, “I have mentioned several times that it is a human ambition—for players and for managers—but that does not change my position or contract with Everton.”
With the situation behind him, and a summer of heavy recruitment, it would be natural to assume that Everton would push on and improve on their strong 7th position. But so far they have only gathered 1 point from two games in the Europa League, and have lost four times out of seven in the Premier League. What is the problem?
Everton spent the third most out of all teams in the Premier League (estimated £145million) and naturally, you would expect that a lot of the investment would stem from the major sale of Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United. With a keen eye on the defence, they splurged a large chunk of the fees on Burnley’s Michael Keane and Sunderland’s starlet, Jordan Pickford, with an eye looking towards the future with an undisclosed signing of Nathangelo Markelo from Volendam FC and NUFC’s Lewis Gibson. Rounding this off was a Bosman signing of Cuco Martina from Southampton FC.
These transfers on paper make sense. Koeman had issues settling on a tried and tested goalkeeper in Joel and Stekelenburg, and Jordan Pickford is the ideal replacement. He combines supreme talent and reactions for his age, and is able to facilitate a passing game if Koeman wishes to due to his underrated distribution. He is still rough and inexperienced—looking at his inconsistent start for the Toffees—but he has a high ceiling and the upsides are worth it.
Phil Jagielka is easily one of Everton’s best defenders and their captain, but he is now 35 and bringing in a young defender in the form of Michael Keane is a smart move, if not a rather costly replacement in the form of £25m. Maybe at some point with the slightly alarming decline of Ashley Williams, Everton may have to look at their options for the long term future to partner the young Englishman.
Regular right-wing dominator, Seamus Coleman, is crocked after a mangled leg in an international game ruled him out for months, and bringing in Cuco Martina is a decent decision as an experienced potential rotation option for Mason Holgate, who has been flitting between playing as a CB and at right back on occasions. I would like to note that there was a reason why Martina wasn’t the first choice right back for Southampton, and it screams to me that they just wanted a cheap stop gap compared to a legitimate competitor to the line-up. His poor performances suggests that my hypothesis is correct.
With all that in mind, results still haven’t gone their way as they have kept clean sheets in only three out of twelve in all competitions.
Stick or switch
Indeed, looking at results so far, it seems that Koeman can’t either settle on a formation to play his defenders in or on a pairing to make it all work. That makes it hard for his defenders to build up chemistry.
Maybe it is due to a lack of depth as a whole in the squad, while having to cover more games due to the Europa League. This thin squad is further exasperated by niggling injuries to his back line, but this uncertainty must affect the overall cohesion of the team going into each game.
In the first five games, Everton interchangeably switched between a back three and a back two for every game. They started at Stoke with a 3-4-3 and in the away leg at Hadjuk Split, they moved to a back two with Keane and Williams. When they touched home in England, they then changed back to a 3-4-3 at Manchester City. This pattern repeated until their thumping against Spurs, in which they then stuck with a centre back pairing of Keane and Jagielka in their 3-0 loss away at Atalanta. In Europe, Koeman has exclusively kept to a two-man pairing, but after their win against Sunderland in the Carabao Cup, they have persevered with a pairing up until recently.
Out of the possible pairings, Koeman has picked Keane and Williams as a back two for five games (the most), with varying success; most recently in their loss at home against Burnley. In every game except the opener against Stoke, they have conceded with Jagielka playing in defence. Ramiro Funes Mori is out for the long term, so it seems like Everton will need to figure something out with what they have.
If Koeman wanted time to bed in a formation and his players, he has been given possibly the worst possible fixture list to start off this season. On top of competing in the Europa League—a reasonable goal to aim for—they have faced four of the top six sides in the Premier League, only managing to get a point in a fairly spirited game at the Etihad Stadium.
Any possible errors will be tested in these games, and any opportunity to build up morale with a victory is harder because of the crush of hard games. In the next four, they face Brighton, Lyon (EL), Arsenal and Chelsea (Cup) and these games will be important in establishing their season.
The good news: once that is out of the way, they will have a relatively easier time in the fixture list to pick up some form.
Wanted: A man up top
Imagine being handed £75m to replace your top scoring striker from last season. Usually, that seems to melt any rational thinking from clubs in buying players. Spurs and Liverpool had made dog’s messes of the job in the past, after selling Bale and Suarez, respectively. For example, out of seven signings, only two of the replacement players have stayed at Spurs: Christian Eriksen—who in hindsight has been an exceptional addition—and Erik Lamela. The latter has been injured for long stretches, however, and has failed to pick up consistent form when he isn’t.
It seems as if when a club gets a massive wad of cash, financial beer goggles are put on by management: suddenly Mario Balotelli looks mightily attractive as a potential frontman. Only for the club to sober up later on and realise their mistake and punt him off on loan.
Everton has smartly avoided this pitfall by failing to play their new strikers at all. They quickly sent out Nigerian, Henry Onyekuru, on loan to Anderlecht of Belgium, and have mostly benched Spaniard Sandro Ramires for Dominic Calvert-Lewin. The young Englishman has clearly impressed Ronald Koeman with his ability to add hard work to his game, helping out when he can with the midfield. In the goals department, however, Calvert-Lewis isn’t consistent enough to be their main contributor of goals.
The big boots of Romelu Lukaku
Possibly the only real silver lining of this is that Toffees have a potential “new” signing in the form of Oumar Niasse, who, after a sprinkling of Marco Silva magic on loan, has suddenly discovered how to shoot in Everton colours.
Koeman has admitted that the reliance on Lukaku hurt the team when he left, and has tried to bring in players to spread out goal contributions. He revealed, “When we sold Lukaku I didn’t think at that time we would get a striker in who would score at least 25 goals because maybe it is impossible to find that striker.” He then added, “What I expected was to get more goals from other players around the striker.”
Those signings were in the form of Davy Klaasen, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wayne Rooney. The only issue being that Rooney is the only one who has managed to get on the goal tally this season in the Premier League. On top of which all three are more or less the same type of player. Koeman is stacking one type of player instead of complementary ones and that unbalances the midfield; he can’t play them at the same time, but due to the fees, it makes it hard to bench them. His formations as a result of this spending tends to create a singularity in the middle of the field where there aren’t many natural wide players (as per my colleague, Eugene Gonello), making it so easy for attacks to fizzle out when Everton have the ball. The opposite can be said when opponents target Toffees’ fullbacks.
Koeman has shown his frustration in the club failing to buy a hold-up man to punt the ball up to—a bid wasn’t accepted for Olivier Giroud—and it is likely that a further bid might be forthcoming in the next window. The addition would hopefully give Ronald Koeman different tactical options to work with if they manage to acquire the Frenchman.
It isn’t all doom and gloom for Everton, but the sudden need for both capable defenders and consistent attackers will be a nagging problem over this season.
Koeman has reiterated that he wants to stick by his three year contract penned last year, but 16 months in, he must be aware of other opportunities if things go sour in Merseyside.
Manager of the Netherlands national team, Dick Advocaat, is 70 and must be soon looking for a slow wind down of his career, having failed to secure the team a place in the World Cup. In his spell at Sunderland in 2015, he signalled his retirement in management only to come back on his word for another season. He has since managed Fenerbace for one year and must again be tempted by a final goodbye at this time, now that Euro 2020 qualification is a long wait.
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