MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! The 2016/17 Best-of-The-Rest Cup has returned to its rightful home in the Goodison trophy cabinet. Tarnished somewhat by having been downgraded from 5th to 7th place, it’s still a trophy, and we shouldn’t begrudge Ronald Koeman providing an immediate return on his £7m-a-year salary. From around February we are better than evens to finish 7th, no higher, no lower, and never faced a real challenge to our septpremacy from Southampton under-performing in front of goal, nor from Bournemouth getting their first taste of England’s top 10, nor even from West Brom, returning to the top half of the table for the first time since saying goodbye to one Romelu Lukaku (of whom more later, duh).
We also made progress on the stadium front, securing land at Bramley Moore Dock. I say ‘land’, obviously right now it’s all underwater. In fact, I say ‘securing’, obviously we haven’t raised the money to pay for any of it yet. But you wouldn’t bet against our cadre of Russian money men, would you? Mayor Joe Anderson’s inbox is probably already brimming with offers of dirt on his opponents for the 2020 elections.
We started the season with Lukaku still recuperating from that awkward holiday we’ve all had where your ex turns up to the same resort. Sources from within Belgium’s Chateau du Haillan training camp claim that Lukaku and Robert Martinez could be heard attempting to stoke each other’s jealousy well into the small hours of the morning, the former loudly praising Thierry Henry’s tactical prowess, the latter bouncing on the bed complimenting Michi Batshuayi’s finishing skill.
This meant that we started the season with a 3-4-3, the honed spearhead of Mirallas, Deulofeu and Barkley up top, James McCarthy on the right against Tottenham. In the first half, we took no shots after the 19th minute. In the second, we took none after the 79th. We won a point off a fluky Barkley free kick that found its way through to the far post. The 3-4-3 persisted against West Brom where we overturned an early set-piece goal to win 1-2. With Lukaku back in the team, and £25m man Yannick Bolasie a regular fixture, we mostly fielded a 4-2-3-1 with Barry and Gueye holding, Bolasie, Barkley and Mirallas ahead, or a 4-3-3 with Barry deepest and Gueye and Barkley in the headless chicken roles in the middle, Mirallas and Bolasie flanking Lukaku. The 3-4-3 returned against Chelsea in early November. Antonio Conte had laughed off suggestions he was facing the sack in late September, and by the time Everton made their visit to Stamford Bridge he was already 4 wins into the 13-game winning streak that would all but secure them the title. We took a single shot that day, and Conte would continue laughing for quite some time afterward.
At the half-way point of the season, the top 6 were already 9 points ahead of 7th, and while Everton had picked up a couple of creditable wins against Arsenal and away to Leicester, and grabbed a point off each Manchester side, it was only really a run of four wins against fairly easy opposition in August and September that was propping the season up. The football wasn’t much to look at, we defended a bit better, showed a bit more energy when pressing, but it didn’t feel as if we had any plan or systematic advantages in attack. We crossed a bit, and Lukaku found ways to score.
The fundamental issue we seem to have under Koeman is the disconnect between our build up and our attack. There’s not a great deal of movement and interplay in the centre, so we’re reliant on longer balls (especially out wide) to progress towards the goal. Gareth Barry (offered a new contract at 36, and apparently a target for Tony Pulis) has generally been the only midfielder who reliably can progress the ball in this way. The stat that stands out to me is this: Everton’s passes into the final third were the 6th longest on average in the Premier League last season. Only Watford, Burnley, Palace, West Brom and Sunderland relied on longer passes to get the ball forward. I wouldn’t mind this – gaining lots of ground quickly is great – but we’re bottom half of the table for completing these passes. I haven’t seen much in pre-season to show we’ve addressed these issues: I certainly like Ademola Lookman’s movement more than most of our other attackers, and Klaassen has decent first touch, so perhaps we’ll see this completion rate go up even if the plan doesn’t change.
A minor tactical turning point in our season came in December when Bolasie suffered a long-term knee injury. Deulofeu was unable to replace him, and all that could be done for the poor lamb was to ship him off to Milan to assist more xG per 90 than any player 23-and-under in the big leagues, before forcing him to make a humiliating return to Barcelona. This meant the team, outside the reliable Baines and Coleman, had slightly less width to exploit. Morgan Schneiderlin arrived in January, by which time Tom Davies had broken into the team looking like a Viking chieftan’s daughter disguised in a fake beard after her father forbade her from joining the raiding party, intent on proving her valour.
This is an entirely aesthetic metric, but you can see the change in our play by looking at the ratio of crosses to through balls. Before the New Year, we took around 27 crosses for every through ball we made, the 6th highest ratio (Arsenal take 4 crosses for every through ball, Swansea and Palace 60+, just for some context). After the New Year, though, we had the 6th lowest ratio: 14 crosses per through ball. In this period we still oscillated between the 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3 but I actually quite liked some of our play, harrying opponents’ midfielders, occasionally producing nice combinations in the centre, and securing some memorable wins, not least the 4-0 against Man City. What we didn’t manage to do was bring that final third entry pass length stat down. Tom Davies added a lot of energy and some penetrative passing to the team, Schneiderlin has some of Barry’s long ball game, and finished the season with the highest xGBuildup per 90 of anyone in the team. But without Lukaku’s 24 non-penalty goals from ~17xG on the end of all this, I’m unconvinced we systematically create enough danger to really compete at the top level of the EPL.
Let’s talk Lukaku: he was better than we deserved when he arrived on loan, and he’s been better than we deserved every season since. If he were on a great Everton team, he’d be rivaling Gary Lineker’s numbers, but as it is we got to see an Everton player finish with 25 league goals in a season for the first time in more than 30 years. He stayed for promises of Champions League football, gave Koeman a chance, and leaves us with a profit of nearly £50m. His capture was possibly Roberto Martinez’s singular achievement, both in convincing the player and the board to make it happen.
Strikers often struggle with perceptions. I always remember Lukaku’s goal against Chelsea in the FA Cup, he points where he wants Barkley to put the ball, makes the run, looks up, looks up again, beats two players, shrugs off a foul, beats another two players with the tiniest of touches, and side-foots it past Courtois inside the far post. The commentators inevitably described him as “like a man-mountain there”. It was a lovely goal, and it’s true: his strength kept him on his feet despite one defender grabbing his shoulder and trying to haul him down. But I don’t think Lukaku gets much credit for his vision and intelligence, and the amount of work he puts into his technical game off the field.
That all plays into the narrative that he’s clumsy and has terrible first touch. We can investigate if this perception is actually fair with some simple stats: strikers receive passes in the final third, and we look at whether their next non-shot action is successful or not. So, they get the ball, and maybe pass, or dribble past a defender, whatever. Which strikers have a better or worse success rate with these actions? Looking at the last four seasons and limiting to players that have received a total of more than 500 passes in that time, Lukaku ranks 10th out of 26. He’s above Diego Costa, Harry Kane, Alexis Sanchez, Luis Suarez, Olivier Giroud and plenty of others. He ranks worse for the eventual xGChain of those possessions, so perhaps he’s not creating a ton of a danger in his hold-up play, but at the same time Everton rely so much on him to be on the end of moves that you’d expect less xG from possessions involving him in the buildup. Either way, I don’t think he’s as bad as people think, and besides, it’s not our problem now. Go with love, Big Rom.
Everything turns upon this simple equation:
Position2017 = 7th – Lukaku – European Campaign + The Genius of Steve Walsh
Are we a seventher team than last season? Are we more than seventh? Or without Lukaku’s goals, and facing attrition from Europa League games, might we actually find ourselves south of Southampton this year? Our Summer business was ambitious in quantity, if not in quality. But even if we land Gylfi Sigurðsson for the price of 0.25 Neymars, I don’t think we’ve made a single signing in the same league as the outgoing Lukaku (or the top 6’s incoming Salah, Morata, Lacazette, Mendy etc etc). Maybe you’d stack our signings up against Tottenham’s big pile of nothing, but over 24 months they seem like as good a team as any in the EPL and don’t seem to expend any fucks on European competitions.
I haven’t accounted for one additional factor in the complex scientific equation above: Charlie Reeves, a data analyst poached from Forest Green Rovers, indicating at the very least that Walshie wanted an up-to-date spreadsheet to start sorting. My only concern is that in this window, the flashing red light attached to his veto button has clearly malfunctioned. If there’s budget for a replacement, future windows might make more sense to me.
The biggest story of our Summer is of course the return of always a blue Wayne Rooney. He brings with him such a weight of narrative I don’t know where to begin. When he left Everton, we immediately finished in the top 4. Now he’s returned, does symmetry demand that we or Man Utd return to the top 4? The boy Rooney ended Arsenal’s famous 49 match unbeaten run, could the man put us ahead of Arsenal, and end Wenger’s tenure entirely? Storylines aside, Rooney is still a perfectly cromulent Premier League player, but he’s more of a replacement for Ross Barkley than Romelu Lukaku. I don’t believe that Rooney plus Sandro Ramirez (plus Sheffield lad Dominic Calvert-Lewin) equals anything approaching one Lukaku, but then again I don’t really understand what Koeman’s hoping for in attack.
Elsewhere, Davy Klaassen joins our midfield, though I’m slightly suspicious of attackers coming from Eredivisie with anything but bonkers stats, which he does not possess. He certainly has tidy feet and quicker passing than we’re used to, but I’ve seen little evidence of enough intelligent movement around him to really take advantage.
Since Neville Southall, it’s never felt like Everton have had a truly generational keeper. Nigel Martyn’s swan song and Tim Howard’s often-unfairly maligned tenure brought some solidity, but could Jordan Pickford be Everton’s number 1 in 5 or 10 years? I’ll admit I didn’t see him much last year, it was hard to watch Moyes’s Sunderland, a bit like your dad going through a bad divorce and trying to get all his uni mates back together to for one last year-long binge. But his shot stopping numbers look fine from the small sample we have. As long as he doesn’t fall out of his loft or get injured warming up he certainly seems like he has a better shot than most, if only because of the expectations of his price tag.
Michael Keane shaves some necessary years off our defence’s average age. He’s joining a very different back line to Burnley’s, his numbers last year show very little pro-active play in terms of tackles and interceptions, but his aerials and blocks per shot were good. Our passing model quite likes him, and already in pre-season I’ve seen him sprint 40 yards through the middle of the pitch with the ball so it’ll be a wild ride at the very least.
There’s also the possibility that Ross Barkley leaves. I genuinely think he’s progressed and taken up more responsibility, but there are always the suspicions that the gaps in his game are all things that can’t be taught: decision making most of all. I’d always hoped that if we cashed him in, it’d be for John Stones money, but barring a bidding war those days are gone, as his contract winds down and his manager constantly criticises him in the press. If he moves, I hope he’s turns out to be more Rooney than Rodwell – he always put in the effort, and came back from some horrible injuries early in his career. Who knows, maybe he’ll make a dream return as our number 10 for the 2025/26 season.
Anyway, I’ve cranked all that through the supercomputer and it reckons… 7th.
So what’s the long-term plan? We’re behind the rest of the class and we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are? Are we to sit poised in 7th, waiting for the Mad King Arsene Wenger to self-immolate? Hoping Mourinho and/or Chelsea have another 2015/16, that Pep truly is a fraud, that Pochettino’s head is turned by a more generous sugar daddy and his Tottenham project is picked apart, that Raymond Verheijen will jump out with a police baton and assail the knees of the entire Liverpool squad?
We’ve spent, upped our wage bill, and signed solid players to accommodate Europe. I feel grumpy saying this, but it’s all probably fine. It’s entirely possible that Koeman’s targets from the board do ultimately include the top 4, maybe he even thinks we have a shot this season. Our last mad dash for the Champions League was Martinez’s series of loan gambles, and hell, we had a bunch of luck and very nearly got there, before it then immediately fell to pieces. But I see no hope of replicating that in the next couple of years. It wasn’t so long ago that you’d interpret any sort of £50m bid as a sign of ambition, but in Premier League terms who knows what it now represents, especially taking into account our new and deeper pockets.
I’m not a huge fan of what’s happening on the field, and I don’t think we’re getting value in the transfer market. But look at the next 5 years as a slow, iterative process: secure 7th, not a bad spot in such a competitive league. Try to become a fixture in the later stages of the Europa League. Between that and the stadium, slowly increase our reputation and make us more attractive to transfer targets and commercial partners. Build out the back office, chuck in a few analytics people. Keep developing and playing the youth, who are already a big part of their respective England setups.
There are worse ways to run a club, and let’s face it, we’ve witnessed most of them in the last 30 years. Nil satis nisi septimum.