Everton had spent around £130million by mid August, prompting optimism around Goodison Park, and the belief that the loss of Romelu Lukaku would merely serve to strengthen the team across all areas rather than weaken it.
Depth was important ahead of a season where the club were back in the Europa League, and four signings of over £20million, plus the return of Wayne Rooney, sent a wave of hope around the club. A relatively big-spending summer under a new majority shareholder, Farhad Moshiri, was seen as an indication that things were on the up.
Then the football started. The club find themselves struggling at the bottom of the table rather than pushing for the top four, and are rooted to the bottom of their Europa League group with back to back games against Group E heavyweights Lyon to come.
Positives are few and far between for the club at the moment, but one of the bright sparks of an otherwise dull season has come in the shape of a player signed on the final day of the transfer window for £10million.
While the club were still revelling in the capture of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Everton nipped in for a player who’d impressed during their games against Hajduk Split in the 4th round of Europa League qualifying.
Nikola Vlasic looked like one for the future, in a similar mould to other summer signings such as Henry Onyekuru, Nathangelo Markelo, and Boris Mathis, but it wasn’t long before it became evident that the coaching staff had first team plans for the Croatian.
He made his debut in the 3-0 defeat at home to Tottenham Hotspur, and just two weeks after signing for the club he was making his first start in the side’s opening Europa League group game at Italian side Atalanta. Unfortunately this game was another 3-0 defeat, but the 20-year-old was showing promising signs each time he put on an Everton shirt, and as the team continue to struggle there’s an argument to be made that he could be the most important of the club’s summer signings when it comes to getting them out of this mess.
The problem with Ronald Koeman’s side at the moment is a lack of balance, and even though there are good players in the squad, getting the right combination of players who complement each other’s skills is proving a tough task for the Dutch manager.
Vlasic’s presence provides a bit of everything, so despite the array of big money signings and more experienced, higher paid senior players, at the moment it seems to make sense to include him simply based on the attributes he brings to the pitch.
Other than Jonjoe Kenny and Aaron Lennon who haven’t played enough Premier League minutes to get an accurate reading, Vlasic leads the team in key passes with 3.2 per 90-minutes. To put this in perspective Sigurdsson is next in line with 2.2.
He also leads the team in successful dribbles with 3.2 per 90-minutes, which is much higher than the next player in line who is another fringe player, Tom Davies, who comes in at 1.2.
Taking opposition players out of the game in attack wins matches, and Vlasic does this both with his passing and his dribbling. It looks like the big decision Koeman has to make at the moment isn’t whether or not to include him in his starting eleven, but which combination of players to use alongside him.
The screenshots below show a good example of his awareness and ability to create opportunities for team-mates. He drags the defender away with his run creating acres of space for full back Mason Holgate to move into after offloading the ball. He plays a neat back-heel into the Englishman’s path to create a good chance which is saved by Mat Ryan.
Against Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday the team may have lacked one more pacy player up front to go with the scheming of Sigurdsson and the creativity of Vlasic, but that would have meant keeping Rooney on the bench for the second game in a row. Oumar Niasse was introduced for the final twenty minutes and the side managed to double their amount of shots on target during this short period.
This is one thing which the Croatian doesn’t seem to produce — shots, but this will come as he’s able to combine with other players. At the moment he needs attackers to be able to get on the end of his final third inventiveness, and once they do they need the pace and finishing ability to see the move through until the end.
There’s no doubt that Koeman is struggling to solve these problems and replace the goals the club lost when Lukaku left, but using one of the few players who isn’t struggling as a regular feature of his starting eleven is the best way forward. Of all the money spent in the summer, the most valuable player for the Everton manager at the current time could be his £10million deadline day deal.