Back in the summer, when Everton lured Ronald Koeman from Southampton to replace sacked manager Roberto Martínez, a heated debate arose. Saints fans, frustrated by yet another progression-halting off-season of losing key cogs in their successful machine, claimed moving to the blue half of Merseyside was not a step up, given the two clubs’ respective finishes in the Premier League last term.
They ended up sixth, five places ahead of the Toffees. But such an argument was scoffed at by the Goodison Park faithful, who cited a much more decorated history as a reason for the Dutchman to arrive.
Truthfully, both clubs have suffered with the same inferiority complex in recent years. Since gaining promotion to the top flight in 2012, Southampton have seen their best players, and two managers, cherry picked at the end of every season, while Everton, constantly looking as if something big was on the horizon, could never quite make that final push.
While those at St Mary’s have embraced the constant transition at the club, Everton have stepped up their intentions to break into the top six and beyond on a regular basis. Money was always an issue under local businessman Bill Kenwright, but since new investor Farhad Moshiri arrived in the summer, prospects have been greater. All things considered, Koeman’s move made sense.
And yet, if Everton believed their days of frustration in the transfer market were over, they were mistaken. John Stones moved to Manchester City for almost £50million a matter of weeks after Koeman came in, and while City have the financial muscle to buy almost anyone, it was another blow to their ambition of building the best possible squad.
The Dutchman is making an impact and big money is being spent. Yannick Bolasie cost almost £30million and Morgan Schneiderlin, signed in January, was £22million. Star striker Romelu Lukaku’s admission he will not sign a new contract, with two years to run on his existing deal, is another stark reminder of just how far the club has to go to become real contenders, though.
Lukaku has always seemed destined for bigger things ever since he arrived at Goodison Park, initially on loan, in 2013. It was something of a surprise when he made his deal permanent from Chelsea for £28million a year later, but a lack of perceived opportunity at Stamford Bridge drove him away. Two-and-a-half years down the line, its obvious Everton have played a huge role in his development.
If, as expected, the 23-year-old leaves in the summer, Everton will have to look for a replacement. The stature of the new man will show just where they are in their ever-lasting quest for self-improvement, because they will have a lot of money to spend in finding him.
The Liverpool Echo has linked Burnley’s Andre Gray with a move and it is easy to see the logic in that. Gray and the Clarets have looked well at home in the Premier League this season, more so than anyone expected, and he would be a relatively cost-effective alternative.
Manchester United and Chelsea are both willing to pay around £70million for Lukaku according to the Daily Star, suggesting bargain hunting should not be the primary concern. While bettering their firepower without their 21-goal talisman is all but impossible, the options available to them are far wider than perhaps in previous seasons.
Gray was expected to swim rather than sink in England’s top-flight, because he had made easy work of the Championship with both Brentford and Burnley, scoring 42 goals in just two seasons. Form does not always transfer when going up a level, but Gray has again stepped up, with eight goals this term. Burnley, too, have enjoyed an excellent season, particularly at Turf Moor, losing just three games at home in the league.
It will be hard for Sean Dyche’s side to keep hold of Gray, but whether he is good enough to replace Lukaku at Everton is a whole other debate. The biggest doubt is his playing style; Koeman has set up his team to play through Lukaku, who has scored almost half of the Toffees goals in the league this season.
His game is much more complete than Gray’s, in that he can play as a target man and on the shoulder. Statistics do not tell the whole story, but they offer a good idea, and having won 46 per cent of aerial duels compared to the Burnley man’s 34 per cent, his presence is proven to be much greater.
To get the best out of Gray, who’s pace is his greatest asset, Koeman would have to play on the counter attack, and doing so would nullify the rest of the team. Idrissa Gueye, Morgan Schneiderlin and Tom Davies set the tone for Everton and do so by playing through teams, rather than in behind them. Having been brought up in Holland and played for Barcelona, it is hard to imagine Koeman abandoning his possession-based principles.
Everton are more than capable of progressing if and when Lukaku departs the club, but only if they do things the right way. What will really define them is how they go on without him, rather than losing him in the first place.
Andre Gray is a good striker, one who will enjoy Premier League football for years to come. At 25, though he is already two years older than Lukaku and does not have the pedigree at the level which Everton want to get to. They should channel their ambition by bringing in a more proven quality front man.