A New Hope
11 August 2018
Having been handed the reins, Marco Silva gets to prove he is worthy of the Everton hierarchy’s faith but the outlook is already considerably brighter after one of the best transfer windows the club has seen
If hope alone won silverware, no one associated with Everton FC would be looking ruefully back on 23 barren years without a major trophy. Evertonians have expended a gut-full of unrequited hope since the FA Cup triumph in 1995, to the point that when matters reached their nadir with the appointment last November of Sam Allardyce as manager, what was left for many was simply despair.
Things can change quickly in football, though. It was only a few months ago that Everton were plumbing the depths of the statistics tables for attacking metrics under the journeyman Dudleyite's uninspiring leadership. So it is to Farhad Moshiri's credit that merely rising above the dross that occupied the bottom half of the Premier League to finish eighth was not achievement enough for Allardyce to keep his job at Goodison Park any longer than was necessary.
The appointment of Marco Silva as his successor poses some obvious risks but there is at least the prospect of significant upside under the enterprising young Portuguese which represents a welcome improvement on the low ceiling established by a manager who, mercifully, proved to be merely an interim hire following Ronald Koeman's dismissal.
Now, having been handed the reins, Silva gets to prove he is worthy of the Everton hierarchy's faith but the outlook is already considerably brighter after what unquestionably ranks among the best transfer windows the club has overseen. In stark contrast to the scattergun and mostly flawed approach undertaken by their predecessors over four windows, a considered recruitment and squad-management plan was devised and implemented in concert between Silva and new Director of Football, Marcel Brands and it has put the Blues back on the course envisioned by Moshiri when he bought a major stake in the club two-and-a-half years ago.
Though unproven in the arena of Europe's biggest leagues, Brands came to Everton with a stellar reputation on the Continent for his achievements at AZ Alkmaar and PSV Eindhoven and the excitement generated by his arrival has, thus far, not been misplaced. Where Steve Walsh was exposed as being ill-prepared for the role as Everton's inaugural director of football, what the club and its fans have seen so far with Brands is a genuinely experienced and savvy sporting director in action.
The triage required of him will require more than one transfer window and there is more residual dead wood in the squad than desired but the Dutchman has made an impressive start to life at Everton, surely surpassing expectations in his first few months in the job.
The ill-advised, sentiment-driven Rooney reunion was terminated; one of the biggest transfer miscalculations of last summer, Davy Klaassen, has been moved on; and a bloated squad has been pared of other underperforming elements in the form of the seemingly uncommitted Kevin Mirallas and Ashley Williams, with scope to jettison a few more before the end of the month.
Just as importantly — if not more so — the management team have moved to address some crucial frailties: a worryingly soft centre in defence where age is threatening to finally catch up with Phil Jagielka and Michael Keane remains consistent in his fallibility; almost non-existent cover at left full-back; the lack of a strong, ball-playing link-man in midfield; and insufficient trickery and creativity in attacking midfield.
Where Walsh and Koeman largely paid over the odds for poorly-scouted players and flooded central midfield with three acquisitions of varying age, ability and effectiveness, Brands and Silva have brought in six players, all under the age of 26, that fill specific and targeted needs. The jury is, of course, out on whether they will prove to be any more effective than last year's signings but there is no question that they are superior on paper.
In replacing Ramiro Funes Mori, Yerry Mina promises to provide height, physical presence and a goal threat from set-pieces and Kurt Zouma offers similar attributes. Lucas Digne, meanwhile, finally answers the question of what happens after Leighton Baines or when, as was the case last season, he is sidelined for an extended period.
In Andre Gomes, a player blessed with deft skills and the ability to pick a pass, Everton have a player evocative of Mikel Arteta — a talented midfielder who had lost his way, under significant psychological strain in the Portuguese's case it would seem, and looking for a home where he can undergo a renaissance. Bernard will inject similar skill and vision with the ball at his feet but with the added weapons of lightning fast feet and an eye for goal from outside the box.
Finally, with Richarlison, a player with a season of Premier League football already under his belt, Silva has another fleet-footed, versatile, attack-minded presence who, like Theo Walcott, can compensate for the absence of an incoming striker with his ability to play down the middle when necessary.
Indeed, with Cenk Tosun fired up for his first full season in England, Walcott ready to prove wrong the doubters from his Arsenal days, Gylfi Sigurdsson no doubt desperate to prove himself worthy of the massive fee Everton paid for him a year ago, and both Ademola Lookman and Kieran Dowell having places to fight for, the Blues have an exciting and potent attack when all personnel are fit and firing on all cylinders. Quite the transformation from the Allardyce-led outfit that could go successive games without registering a single shot on target.
The summer business means that there is balance and, apart perhaps from in goal and up front, depth to a team that has been without both for too long. That can't be underestimated when it comes to bettering last season's performance in the Premier League, gearing up for a couple of deep cup runs and, no doubt, Silva's hopes of surprising a few people this season.
And in that respect, opportunity could some knocking for Everton. Just as at Goodison, two of last season's top six clubs are kicking off this season with new managers at the helm while others face possible challenges born of a lack of sufficient transfer business this summer.
Maurizio Sarri is the latest Italian boss to take the helm at Chelsea and takes charge of a team in England for the fist time. Likewise at Arsenal, where Unai Emery arrives after two seasons at Paris St Germain where there were plenty of questions asked about his methods and suitability to a club desperately seeking long overdue Champions League glory. Of course, in contrast to the conveyor belt of coaches at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal are starting a campaign without the measured and dependable presence of Arsene Wenger for the first time in 22 years and the impact of that significant transition is hard to predict. If their experience is anything like that of Manchester United's after Sir Alex Ferguson retired, it could make for fascinating viewing… and represent an open door for Everton.
At Old Trafford, meanwhile, all eyes are on Jose Mourinho to watch whether his notorious third-season syndrome strikes yet again. His pre-season moans, apparent discord with certain individuals in his squad and gripes about the lack of boardroom support for his desire to sign a new centre back seem to have laid the foundations for the struggles that usually befall the third year at each club he manages.
For Tottenham, where there seems to be a growing unease that if they don't win something soon, the team that Daniel Levy has patiently assembled could fragment and some star names might depart along with the manager, the challenges could come from a disrupted pre-season and the fact that they were the only top-flight club not to make a signing this summer. Spurs had more players than any other team still at the World Cup by the semi-final stage and both a possible lack of sharpness caused by their late return and collective fatigue could come in to play early in the season.
Outside of the top six, consideration inevitably shifts to an analysis of how well other teams have strengthened over the summer, with some notable examples who have rivalled Everton for the spurious notion of “winners of the transfer window”.
West Ham, with a Premier League winner in the form of Manuel Pellegrini now in charge, have spent big over the close season following their brush with a relegation dogfight last season. Having been criticised in the past for drawing the purse strings too tight, Messers Sullivan and Gold have splashed out almost £90m on new talent, including around £35m on Brazilian midfielder Felipe Anderson from Lazio, £20m on French defender Issa Diop and, of course, Andriy Yarmolenko from Borussia Dortmund for around £18m, while Jack Wilshere was drafted in from Arsenal on a free.
That has the Hammers considered many as being top-seven challengers along with Everton and Leicester City. So too are Wolves and Fulham, two newly-promoted clubs who have also recruited in impressively comprehensive fashion as they invest big in an attempt to stay in the top flight this season.
The Midlanders, Everton's opponents in the season opener at Molineux, made four of their loan stars from last season's storming season in the Championship permanent acquisitions while also adding a mixture of experience in Joao Moutinho and goalkeeper Rui Patricio to younger talent like Leander Dendoncker and Adama Traore.
For their part, the Cottagers invested over £70m in the players like Alfie Mawson, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Ivorian midfielder Jean Michael Seri from Nice and then acquiring Calum Chambers and Andre Schurrle on loan.
If the Blues were merely two defeats from Burnley away from finishing in seventh last season because of the paucity of other competition around them for the mantle of “best of the rest”, this season looks like there will be some strong contenders vying for what is often the last European spot. Of course, there is often a club or two — witness Everton last season — who have big transfer windows but fail to gel into a winning side so there are no guarantees, even if the signings look good on paper.
Regardless of how 2018-19 plays out for Everton, they now have the look of a generally more coherent outfit that can play to a more identifiable plan and style. Crucially, Marco Silva's Blues should be much more more dangerous going forward and the building blocks appear to be in place for a strong campaign that could see them vying for a place in the top six if the manager can instill some solidity at the back.
Even if the club's league position doesn't improve much on last term — no failing given the period of necessary transition we find ourselves in again — it should be a lot more fun watching it all unfold. In many ways, it feels like the first season under Roberto Martinez when there were players capable of providing attacking thrills and a slew of memorable moments in the side. Everton might not be back quite yet but, perhaps, the chains can be cut on the doors to the School of Science and some of the joy of following this unpredictable club can return!
Predicted finish: 7th
Key player: Bernard
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