By Max Worthington
This season marked Goodison Park’s 125th anniversary as Everton’s spiritual home and the mood among fans was buoyant: a new billionaire owner, a Barcelona legend as manager and an outlay of around £150 million on new players. Fast forward three months and any pre-season optimum has fizzled out in spectacular fashion.
There are inherent structural problems plaguing the club which have no short-term fix. The failure to acquire an adequate replacement for Romelu Lukaku should be laid squarely at the feet of Everton’s Director of Football, Steve Walsh, but there also appears to be a wider malaise throughout the team.
Against Atalanta, Everton’s midfield was too easily bypassed and left an already fragile defence exposed. Thus, it is in the defensive half that the new manager Sam Allardyce can help unify the team. Both his man management and tactics are needed to instil confidence, foremost in the obviously shaken Michael Keane, and to reverse the astonishing defensive collapse of Wales captain Ashley Williams.
In recent years, Sam Allardyce has been viewed primarily as a guarantee of Premier League survival through direct, if uninspiring, football. To some fans, his appointment represents a regression and knee-jerk reaction to a slow start to the Premier League.
West Ham fans vehemently demonstrated against a perceived lack of footballing identity and finesse under the Allardyce regime; rival managers have further bolstered this perception with Jose Mourinho even going so far as to describe it as ‘19th-century football.’
Such a view underplays his achievements with Bolton, which demonstrate Allardyce’s legendary pragmatism can be adapted into a more free-flowing style with the right players and funding. An early adopter of technology and statistics in sport, his analysis of minor details, from throw-ins to set pieces, highlights a keen tactical mind which could reinforce Everton’s defensive instability.
Over 41 percent of games won with Bolton bodes well to suggest he can handle a top-half club. His first Everton press conference, however, focused on ‘ambition’, and that win ratio must be substantially raised if Everton can challenge for European places and trophies.
Indeed, his management focuses on maximising the potential of what resources have been provided to him. Everton, therefore, represents a huge opportunity unlike what he has faced before – an opportunity large enough to tempt him out of a self-imposed managerial exile.
The challenges, however, are manifest throughout the hierarchy of the club and there is no one solution. His first task must surely be to unite the dressing room and fans behind him.
While a mixed reaction to his appointment is probable from the fans, an emphatic win could take Everton as high as ninth in the table and looking up the table rather than towards the relegation places.
Such a quick rise could point to an overly hasty sacking of Ronald Koeman after facing so many of the teams contending for Champions League places so early in the season. A few wins would also go a long way to unite fans behind the new manager and transform Goodison Park back into the ‘bear pit’ atmosphere.
Structurally, questions must be asked about the hierarchy and rumours of tension between Chairman Bill Kenwright and majority-owner Farhad Moshiri are to be expected. The January transfer window will likely see incoming players, albeit at a premium because of Everton’s well-known squad imbalance, but Steve Walsh has the potential to uncover some unexpected gems.
Next summer, however, will likely see an overhaul of the squad and the removal of some veteran players to shape the team in Allardyce’s image. Koeman was afforded the same opportunity but a long-term project is required.
The Dutchman’s Everton appeared to lack a cohesive vision in the mould of Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs, given the lack of balance within the current squad. Marco Silva remains a long-term interest but Allardyce offers the most realistic ambition for this season.
Despite these challenges, Everton’s future seems bright given the current crop of academy graduates pushing for first-team places. An aggressive U23 recruitment policy has seen some of the most talented youngsters in the country make the shift to Merseyside.
A lease agreed on the ground for a new stadium can only add to Everton’s future prospects but challenging for trophies must be a long-term goal. Allardyce’s hope will be to build a dearly-lacking winning mentality and some momentum to bring Everton’s season up to speed.
18 months may not appear to be a long time but given the average length of a managerial reign remains around 14 months, Allardyce will at least have a chance to impress and push up the table in the 2018-19 season.
‘Nil Satis Nisi Optimum’ (Nothing but the best) has been a constant refrain in the Gwladys Street end for 125 years and nine league titles but Allardyce is the man to assuage any relegation fears and build a foundation for the future. For now.
Photograph: Egghead06 via Wikimedia Commons