Memo to Dyche: Everton have become a stepping-stone-on-the-way-down club
Jarrod Bowen scored with a header after a corner was half-cleared, then he scored again on a break. “Set-piece second phase, then a counter-attack …” Frank Lampard said wearily afterwards, as though the failings are so familiar to him he has started regarding them as things that just happen, acts of God he can’t be expected to influence any more than he could control the weather or the traffic on the M6.
At other clubs at other times, the criticism would have focused on the way Everton lost at West Ham. Lampard’s teams have always conceded goals from set-plays and counters. But so vast, so all-encompassing, is the Everton crisis that glitches of defensive organisation seem almost trivial.
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The sacking of Lampard on Monday was undertaken with an air of a sad duty being performed: this is just what clubs do in these circumstances. The manager perhaps was a problem, but he was not really the problem. There seems little real expectation of anything getting much better any time soon at Everton.
If none of Ronald Koeman, Sam Allardyce, Marco Silva, Carlo Ancelotti, Rafa Benítez and Lampard can do it, who can? Other than the thrusting young German intellectual, the Goodison board have tried every category of manager there is, and none have worked out. But that is part of the problem: those managers with their divergent approaches have all had at least some influence over signings and that means the squad is a mess.
That Sean Dyche (British, pragmatic, direct) looks set to be appointed and Marcelo Bielsa (Argentinian, quixotic, fixated in pressing) was seriously considered highlights both the lack of guiding philosophy and the reliance on established names. There has been no real thought of finding a bright young manager on the way up; their last appointment who had not already managed a Premier League club was David Moyes in 2002.
And this is a club who in the last five seasons have signed Idrissa Gana Gueye, James Tarkowski, Neal Maupay, Demarai Gray, Deli Alli, Andros Townsend, Asmir Begovic, Andy Lonergan, Salomón Rondón, Donny van der Beek, Allan, Abdoulaye Doucouré, James Rodríguez, Theo Walcott, Josh King, Alex Iwobi, André Gomes, Jean-Philippe Gbamin, Fabian Delph, Djibril Sidibé, Jonas Lössl, Richarlison, Yerry Mina, Lucas Digne and Bernard.
This is not to criticise any of these players individually, it’s not to say that any are bad players or were individually poor signings, but it is to say that, even if all those players burn with a furious hunger, even if none of them have started to become disillusioned with the game or are creaking with accumulated injuries, signing 25 players at or beyond the peak of their value in such a short period of time is going to create financial issues.
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Belatedly, probably thanks to the influence of the director of football Kevin Thelwell, there does seem to have been an acceptance of that last summer. Amadou Onana, Dwight McNeil and James Garner could all, theoretically, command a higher price in the future. But the problem with plans is that they take time to execute.
It is obvious that Everton need to improve scouting and recruitment, implement a philosophy that informs every decision at the club and start to focus more on the early identification of talent, but there are two major obstacles.
The first may have begun to be resolved by the sense of crisis and that is the club’s self-perception. By league titles won, Everton are the fourth-most successful side in English history and, unlike Sunderland, Newcastle and Sheffield Wednesday, other sides in the top 10, they have won the title in the past half-century. That creates certain expectations and, unlike Aston Villa who fall into a similar category, they have not been tempered by a chastening stint in the third flight, or even, since 1954, the second.
The idea of being a mezzanine club seems somehow objectionable, out of keeping with the grandeur of their history – why should Everton, with their nine league titles, act as a finishing school for players who eventually join Manchester City, Chelsea or Tottenham, who have fewer – but it is also the reality of the modern game with its distinct financial strata.
The danger then is that clubs are lured into signings or appointments that are better for bolstering their self-image than for results in anything beyond the immediate term. Far better to be a stepping-stone club for players and managers on the way up than what Everton have become – a stepping-stone on the way down.
So, what next? Positive results, of course, can change the picture very quickly. At the end of last season, as Everton took 14 points from eight games, culminating in the comeback against Crystal Palace to ensure survival, it was – just about – possible to imagine a better future.
Survival bought time – but it has not been used. A 5-1 defeat at Arsenal the following weekend perhaps gave an indication of the true state of things. It is possible that, the sacrifice made and the gods appeased, there will be enough of an upturn in form for Everton to avoid relegation.
When a club has been in the top flight for all but four years of their existence, it is understandable they should scrap with all their power to stay up. Particularly given how competitive the Championship is – as many as 18 teams probably still have a realistic chance of promotion – it is naïve to think of relegation simply as an opportunity to prune the dead wood.
That may be especially true for Everton, where the sanctions imposed on Alisher Usmanov, allied to significant debt, would have made finances complicated even if they were not building a new stadium, scheduled to open for the start of the 2024-25 season.
But circling the plughole is a miserable existence that makes revolution difficult as medium to long-term goals are complicated by the immediate imperative to stay up. Fulham and Newcastle have both rebounded refreshed after a season in the Championship and a transformed Burnley look like following them.
The easiest way out of the malaise would be to follow the Newcastle path of being taken over by a sportswashing state with essentially unlimited resources – and Qatar are looking. Failing that, whether Farhad Moshiri stays or sells up, a successful future for Everton has to begin with a realistic assessment of their present.