Who are Everton? Through managerial change, high player turnover and a failure to build consistently over several seasons, this question has become increasingly pertinent.
In their recent 3-1 shellacking by Manchester City one glaring difference between the two teams was brutally evident – the winners have a clear identity, the losers don’t.
The feeling of optimism that surrounded the start of this season is difficult to recall now. Having finished seventh last term with their highest points total in three years, the Toffees spent big in 2017’s summer transfer window.
Established Premier League stars arrived along with bright continental prospects. The ambition was to break England’s established top six. Some, such as former Sky Sports pundit Richard Keys, went bolder, predicting a change in the Merseyside football hierarchy was on the horizon.
But, unlike Tottenham, Everton didn’t establish their identity before spending and without clear principles they ended up with a complete lack of tactical clarity. An early Europa League exit and domestic struggles led to Ronald Koeman’s dismissal and replacement by Sam Allardyce: Guarantor of Premier League Survival.
Now, the confusion is at its apex. ‘Big Sam’ turned to exactly the sort of football his managerial career has been built around; he has also brought about an improvement in results. However, many individuals within the squad are arguably underutilised and the long-term vision is unclear.
In the defeat to Manchester City, the average age of Everton’s starting line-up was 28.2. This was despite the club possessing one of the youngest squads in the Premier League. Allardyce’s team included three players over the age of 30 – Wayne Rooney, Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines. This isn’t why they lost, but it does indicate the direction of travel at Goodison Park.
It’s difficult to think of a more promising crop of young talent in England today. Academy graduates include 19-year-old midfielders Tom Davies and Beni Baningime, and 21-year-old right-back Jonjoe Kenny. Others, such as defender Mason Holgate and forward Dominic Calvert-Lewin, both 21, were brought in from other domestic clubs, while 20-year-old winger Nikola Vlašić joined from Hajduk Split last summer.
There are also a number of youngsters out on loan who could make an impact on the Everton first team next season. Ademola Lookman (20) has played regularly since joining German Bundesliga side RB Leipzig on a temporary basis in January, while Henry Onyekuru (also 20) has impressed with Anderlecht in Belgium. At English Championship level, both Kieran Dowell (20) and Joe Williams (21) have enjoyed productive spells on loan with Nottingham Forest and Barnsley respectively.
The decision to build the team around experienced heads is a strange one considering the quality of those coming through the academy and the scouting system, though this is perhaps the default thought process of Allardyce, who has spent years fighting relegation. The same thought process is behind Everton’s new style of football.
Only seven teams have averaged less possession than their 46.4 per cent in the Premier League this season, while only five clubs have worse pass success percentages than their 74.4 per cent. Furthermore, only three sides – Burnley, Brighton & Hove Albion, and West Bromwich Albion – have hit more long balls per game than the Toffees.
These statistics evidence the change in approach since Allardyce came in. His Everton are a more direct outfit than Koeman’s version, and they place much more emphasis on minimising risks than building and controlling possession. However, this tactical modification does not get the best out of the players available.
Last summer, the club spent vast sums of money on No.10s. It actually became a bit of a joke – how on Earth could they all fit into the same line-up? Gylfi Sigurdsson, Davy Klaassen and Rooney – who has gradually been converted from striker to second striker to midfielder – joined a team that already featured the aforementioned Davies to ensure an abundance of creativity in central areas. Unfortunately, these attributes and areas aren’t being maximised at present and the playmakers are suffering as a result.
While the defeat to Manchester City is perhaps not a good example due to the dominance of the opposition, it was telling that the central midfielders selected by Allardyce only completed 27 passes combined. Rooney and Morgan Schneiderlin rarely got on the ball, and that’s because the ball is rarely played through their domain.
Everton aren’t going to be relegated this season, and Allardyce deserves credit for engineering their safety. However, if the squad is to fulfil its vast potential, it is vital that an identity be put in place soon – one built on nurturing youth and maintaining more effective possession.
Perhaps then the Premier League’s top six will beckon once again.