Everton 2016-17 Season Preview
Once Everton has touched you, nothing will be the same. Nothing, of course, except the reliable engine of hope and disappointment that has driven us backwards, forwards, sideways, and finally backwards again since the 80s. I should be more excited about this season: Roberto Martinez is gone! His style of football flew too close to the sun, and his wings (phenomenal, world-class wings) turned out to be held together by mere bullshit. We have our billionaire! No more mortgaging our future, selling our stars, lowering our ambitions...
I miss Moyes. I was brought up in the post-Kendall era of relegation battles and dodgy loans - I miss being the best of the rest. We're in a league now in which at least one of Guardiola, Conte, Mourinho, Wenger, Klopp or Pochettino have the fight of their lives to scrape anything better than 6th. When Moyes left on his three-year mission to flush his reputation far enough down the toilet that it could stick to Aston Villa or Sunderland, we had options. Ralf Rangnick was right there, in the room, being interviewed. No manager available to us at that time could have better embodied the school of soccer science, and given us a tactical head start in a post Tiki-Taka world. Instead we hired the guy that got relegated but twatted us in the cup. For a brief time memories of Moyes kept our defence from collapsing, before we faded into a bottom-half team, a patchy, wilting Christmas tree with some inexplicably shiny baubles.
How ambitious we were to reject £40m for Stones! Only twelve months before, we had missed the Champions League by a whisker! It's time to end the hubris. We never matched Moyes' on-pitch solidity with a reliable, long-term, financially secure plan off it. Now our billionaire has arrived, it seems too late to really differentiate ourselves, in a world with vast TV money and so many competitive teams. But I'm reassured by the fact that we haven't immediately had a Robinho moment - it implies we're willing to actually put in the proper work.
And so it is that we welcome Ronald Koeman to the helm. The Dutch Moyes is probably exactly what we need. At the very least, his appearances in post-friendly interviews have been hugely refreshing - a spade is once more a spade, and not a phenomenal, world-class ground-penetrating system. Two things mystify me, though: one that he was our first and only managerial target (if you take that claim at face value) and two that we have thrown enormous amounts of money at him between his contract and the compensation to Southampton. If we were willing to throw money around, why not a more ambitious choice? Why not offer someone like Roger Schmidt silly money?
Elsewhere in the org chart, the arrival of Steve Walsh as Director of Football may signal a more long-term approach to recruitment. Whether or not he was the man who single-handedly sniffed out Riyad Mahrez, or who personally sorted the spreadsheet by tackles per game to find N'Golo Kanté, he's at least another grown-up in the room if a manager ever embarks on another passion project like Oumar Niasse. Previous Leicester target Idrissa Gueye has since arrived to patch the holes in our midfield, so that at least implies Walsh has smuggled out a USB drive with the "TOP SECRET ANALYTICS.xlsx" file that won Leicester the title last season.
When Martinez arrived, much was made of his attempts to remodel the club from top to bottom, to ensure the same style of play was being taught at every level (which presumably means nobody has practiced a set piece at the club for three years). You have to then wonder just how much disruption is caused by an outgoing manager with such a singular vision. Despite the fancy DoF title, Walsh's background is as a scout, it seems unlikely that he is directing our football or training ground operations to any great degree. Given that he's probably not giving the club much continuity above and beyond our current manager, why not just call him Head Scout?
Never before has it been so easy to call yourself a billionaire in the EPL. The TV money can basically pay for everything now, and if not, we're probably clearing £100m for Stones and Lukaku. If Farhad Moshiri, deep in his heart, never intends to give Everton any more money than his initial investment, it will be a very long time before anyone notices. So I would suggest we don't get ahead of ourselves and make any assumptions about our new status. Maybe the stadium talks will move forward, and maybe future windows will feature splashier forays into the market, but I'd much rather the club quietly upgrade our infrastructure (perhaps buying some of it back from the council would be a start) and plan for the future. Either way, in Moshiri we appear to have a sensible, unemotional driver at the wheel (or at least taking up 49.9% of the car and telling the driver where to go, you know how metaphors work), and billions or not, he seems to want his money spent sensibly. It's entirely possible that 21st Club's involvement during the takeover will result in better, more objective decision making throughout the club at some point in the future.
Everton have huge problems in the middle. Our defence has been bad, and has had no protection from central midfield. Gareth Barry moved the ball forwards nicely enough, but the weight of his enormous contract on those aging legs made him a liability going the other way. James McCarthy doesn't have much more defensive output than Barry, and very little of his passing. Idrissa Gueye comes into the team having made as many interceptions per 90 (possession adjusted) as McCarthy and Barry combined (3.32 versus 1.76 + 1.60), but will he single-handedly stop the succession of high-quality shots making it through to our goal?
With Stones likely to leave close to the opening day of the season (with the possibility of the error-prone Ashley Williams replacing him), and no rumours of a true goalkeeping upgrade, the entire pipeline from our midfield to our goal seems shaky, and even if you lay all of the blame with Martinez's system (which you should not), there hasn't been a huge amount of time to drill the team. Pre-season games haven't played out so differently from the Martinez-era - exciting attacking football, but too easy to penetrate at the other end, and still utter chaos when the ball is in the air.
In the game of 'Whose Knees Give Way First?' it appears that Mo Besic has been outlasted by Darron Gibson. It's shame that it looks like we'll never get a full season out of the Bosnian try-hard, he adds a slightly different, more direct dimension to our passing which certainly felt missing in monotonic system of the past couple of seasons. The same is true of Gibson's style, somehow earning him a two-year contract extension despite spending part of last year shoeless, on the sauce, and mowing down cyclists in his Nissan Skyline. It certainly seems that we have no long-term succession plan for Gareth Barry. Look at the average gain towards to opposition goal that our players made last year:
|Ramiro Funes Mori
Compare Barry to McCarthy and Barkley to Deulofeu - outside of build up from the back, we don't have too many adventurous players, and Besic and Gibson only just manage to average a positive score. It's not all bad news going forward though. While we awaited Romelu Lukaku's return from the Euros, Koeman opted for Deulofeu through the middle in pre-season, and he looked bright and dangerous. Here's how he looked last year:
I do not know what physical or psychological flaws the boy has that cause him to be benched by Christmas each year, but I genuinely believe he's the only truly magical player that we have. As much as Aaron Lennon proved productive last year, his main achievement was to steal minutes from the player who perhaps needed them most. While his shot numbers as a winger last year weren't great (basically a shot every other game), his assists per 90 were second only to Özil: 0.42 to the German platter-server's 0.45, albeit from radically different xA numbers. Deulofeu struck gold from his 0.33 xA per 90, Arsenal's conversion rate almost halved Özil's expected assist total of 0.7 per 90. That's worth keeping an eye on, but either way his overall scoring therefore adds up to basically the same as Lukaku's (0.55 to 0.58). Obviously that's a testament to the partnership as much as anything, but Deulofeu has combined well with Mirallas up front in pre-season. I hope we see much more of him this season, wherever on the pitch he ends up. It would be a tragedy if he suffered the same fate as Dusan Tadic at Southampton, who Koeman often seemed reluctant to field despite his talent.
If Lukaku's rumoured return to Chelsea goes ahead, we'll be losing the most reliable goal-scorer Everton have seen for decades. I don't truly know what style of football would suit the still-young Belgian, but it never felt we were particularly built around him, if only because it might have occurred to another team to stop making him look so clumsy with his back to goal. If he leaves we'll certainly miss his raw output, but I don't believe he's tactically irreplaceable, especially in an attack built around Deulofeu, if such a thing is possible.
And finally we have Ross Barkley. Did he make The Leap, or did he stumble again? Certainly, the same old habits held firm: the runs that went nowhere; the complete lack of recovery running; the terrible decisions. But he began to show some sings of actual output last season, ending with 0.33 NPGA90. I would accept anything approaching Stones-level money for him in a heartbeat, but it's entirely possible that slowly but surely he could one day, with the right training, stop being the most infuriating player on the team.
As grumpy as all this undoubtedly sounds, Everton are today in the best shape they've been since my family moved to Winsford in 1987 and I looked at the nearest clubs in the league table, pointed, and said 'that one'. Koeman isn't the most exciting possible appointment, but he's fine. We haven't gone out and made a statement in the transfer market, but too often that statement just ends up being "we're idiots with no sense and lots of money" anyway. It is hard to accept that there is no short term plan to transform this squad into a Top 4 one, but right now we just need to prove that it's a top half one, and build a future from there.
Of course if by the first day of the season we've spent £200m and all this is rubbish, then I'm well up for that too.
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