The Season Just Gone
To say Everton’s 2015-16 "didn’t quite go to plan" is a bit like saying England’s result against Iceland was "less than ideal". Roberto Martínez, heroically deluded to the last, maintained that his unbelievably frustrating side was, despite an ever-growing amount of contradictory evidence, playing really well. According to the now-Belgium manager, bad luck, bad refereeing and individual errors were the only reasons that his side remained mired in midtable, rather than challenging for the European spots as their performances deserved.
The rest of the world, however, saw something rather different: a team that, yes, had an incredible amount of potential, but one that had almost no defensive structure, no idea how to play without the ball and, perhaps least infuriatingly but most importantly of all, one that had no strength in depth. Everton’s squad was constantly affected by long-term injuries last year – Leighton Baines, Séamus Coleman and Muhamed Bešić all missed long periods of the season – and teenagers like Brendan Galloway, Tyias Browning and Matthew Pennington picked up way more minutes than they could ever have expected to, while senior players like Gareth Barry and James McCarthy were ran into the ground.
So, with no idea of how to defend and no protection of a youthful defence, not to mention a goalkeeper so old and past it that he may possibly have been better used as an exhibit in a museum, it’s easy to see why Everton repeatedly failed to achieve the results their undeniable and enviable set of attacking players made possible, and that Roberto ‘Ostrich’ Martínez found himself hounded out at the end of the season.
The Season Ahead
With Martínez’s era now over, Ronald Koeman has stepped into the hotseat and, armed with a sizeable transfer kitty thanks to the investment of Farhad Moshiri – not to mention the sale of John Stones and the probable departure of Romelu Lukaku – has and will continue to set about ringing the changes. The pool of exciting young talent will diminish somewhat, but the results in the short-term will surely improve. …or will they?
In some circles, there is a lot of debate regarding Koeman’s value as a manager. Sure, Southampton did great things while he was manager, but Southampton have been doing great things regardless of who their manager is for years now. Nigel Adkins had great success in the Championship, Mauricio Pochettino made them into the force they are now, while Koeman kept the ship moving forward – or so goes the #narrative.
It seems reasonable to dig a little deeper, and to wonder whether it may really be that Southampton are simply so well-run from top to bottom that the manager is basically a patsy – someone to stand on the touchline and point and shout a bit, and then give non-inflammatory interviews to the media after the game, all so that it looks like Southampton are a normal football club.
There are plenty of observers – this writer included – who remain unconvinced by Koeman’s record and wouldn’t be surprised at all if Everton once again failed to live up to their promise, albeit in a more general "they’re just basically crap" way, rather than the "OH FOR F**K’S SAKE, WHAT THE F**KING F**K ARE YOU DOING?!" way that they managed it last season.
Koeman’s Southampton were one of the better organised teams in the Premier League, with an easily defined set of characteristics which made the Dutchman obviously attractive to Moshiri and Everton. Strong in defence, well-drilled in midfield and very direct/cross-heavy and accurate in attack: these were all features of the Saints’ play which stood out both when watching them play and when revising the statistics over the course of the season.
If us Koeman skeptics are wrong and he isn’t a dud, and the remaining time in the transfer market plays out as expected, he can conceivably turn Everton into a similarly effective side. The basic tools are (almost) all there: for ‘Virgil Van Dijk’ read ‘Ashley Williams’, for ‘Victor Wanyama’ read ‘Idrissa Gueye’, for ‘Dušan Tadić’ read ‘Gerard Deulofeu’, for ‘Graziano Pellè’ read ‘Romelu Lukaku/Wilfried Bony’ and for ‘Sadio Mané’ read… okay, we’ll figure that one out later.
But the point is: if Koeman isn’t a sucker and his work on the training ground is good, we can reasonably expect Everton to evolve from the maddening set of tippy-tappy workshy wimps they were last season into something far more sturdy, more combative and more cross-y.
The season hasn’t started yet, so it seems somewhat churlish to say exactly what they’re really good at. As ever, they’ve got loads and loads and loads and loads and loads and lo-[Ed: stop it] of potential: Ross Barkley, while inconsistent, is capable of just about anything, while Deulofeu and likely new arrival Yannick Bolasie are expert improvisers who can turn any defence inside-out.
Ashley Williams is the leader they’ve needed for years, while the signing of Gueye makes a lot of sense when it comes to adding some much needed steel to the midfield. Lukaku is likely to depart but 1. Not before this game and 2. Bony is a bloody good replacement anyway.
While this writer has always been a vocal defender of Tim Howard, there’s no denying that new goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg inspires rather more confidence. And, again, if Koeman isn’t a dud, then all these elements could come together to form a rather fearsome outfit.
First things first: Ramiro Funes Mori. He’s a clown.
Otherwise, the usual: much as Koeman seems to have done a lot of decent work off the pitch when it comes to fixing Everton’s obvious problems, it’s another matter when it comes to producing the goods on match day. As José Mourinho said in one of his press conferences this season, players retain the habits learned under their previous managers for a surprising length of time, and most of the habits Everton’s players picked up under Martínez were not the kind you want your players to have. It’s still very early for the new regime, and there will almost certainly be a period of transition when the old Everton reappear and spectacularly shoot themselves in the foot.
Also, it bears repeating: Ramiro Funes Mori really is that unspeakably bad.
It’s day one so it’s hard to be sure, and Everton have plenty of work to do in the transfer market before Saturday comes, but this seems like a reasonable set of line-ups to predict.
It’s the first day of the season and we’re not really sure what kind of state Everton will be in, nor whether Tottenham are going to be fit enough to look good for more than an hour, so I’m gonna sit on the fence and say a score draw.