When Ronald Koeman first came to Everton a question fairly high on his radar would have been the fate of Everton’s 4 talented young players, dubbed the “Fab 4”- namely Stones, Deulofeu, Lukaku and Barkley. Now with Deulofeu due to depart it seems a timely moment to reflect on how the composition has changed radically in 12 months.
The concept of the “Fab 4” was coined at the early part of Martinez’s final season at Everton while the concept behind it seems inextricably tied to Everton’s former manager. They say football teams are molded in their manager’s image and this couldn’t be clearer with these 4 young footballers. They matched a natural flair and talent with an optimistic attacking intent in their play leading to a standard and style of football few could bemoan. Yet the reverse of this was a tiring inconsistency and an inability to translate undoubted potential into grinding out consistent enough results to justify the praise.
Shortly after we had beaten Aston Villa 4-0 I posed the question which of the 4 was the best? Or which of the 4 would go on to be the best? Who would achieve the most? Often each question gave a different answer. As a quartet you would say the autumn of 2015 was something of a zenith for them and ultimately proved to be similarly so for Martinez.
Looking back on the season we started with a cautious optimism. The previous season had seen us finish 11th place though there was the positive of a decent European campaign. Our recent history under Moyes had also shown a second season slump could be used to revitalize a longer term success as a young manager learnt on the job.
The summers transfer business re-enforced this sense of optimism. Everton managed to keep both Lukaku and Ross Barkley with no seeming bids. There was a very public and controversial spat between Everton and champions Chelsea over John Stones with Everton rejecting a bid of upwards of 38 million. Deulofeu was also added for a snip at 4 million as well as Mirallas and McCarthy signing long term deals.
While the early fixtures were unkind (we seemed to play all of the top 8 in the first 10 games) we actually got out of those ok. I remember being around 7th or 8th going into what was a favourable run of fixtures and believing a push towards the top 4 was very much on. In our opening fixtures We had scored a convincing win at Southampton followed but a credible draw at White Hart Lane and perhaps the bets performance of the opening weeks was a 3-1 demolition of champions Chelsea. This was to be Stones’s finest hour where he quelled the threat of striker Drogba, even Cruyff turning away from him in his own box. To date this game, where Stones martialled Everton from the back to a fantastic win remains the high point of his career. There is much talk of him being a waste of money, perhaps so, yet I’d advise anybody to watch that game back and see a 21 year old Central Defender putting in a complete performance before being hasty in judgement.
Had it gone to script, the following quarter of the season should have seen a big return of points for Everton. I was firmly of the opinion we would be well in the shakeup for the top 4. Yet the script that followed borrowed perfectly from the Martinez script in that we failed to do this often in the most sublime and ridiculous ways.
The warning signs had been there against Manchester United, who despite being unconvincing had beaten us 3-0 (a game where Schneiderlin and Herrera alerted themselves to Evertonians by running the midfield). Yet in the games that followed it’s hard for me to relay just how dominant we were at times against Sunderland (a 6-2 win) Aston Villa (4-0 win) Bournemouth (a 3-3 draw being 2-0 up after 20 minutes) and Norwich (a 1-1 draw). To date I have never seen an Everton side outplay sides as we did in this period. We declared in the first 2 games and in the second 2 we found a way to draw games that should have been won by 4/5 goals.
If Stones had been immaculate against Chelsea a few games earlier, mistakes had started to creep in. A mistimed dummy against Jermain Defoe had been punished and saw Everton slip from 2-0 to 2-2 and though we recovered that day going forward we wouldn’t. In short it wasn’t a even a dummy, he was trying to mock Defoe and make him look stupid in a way that wasn’t befitting and was punished. It was a theme that developed.
Yet 3 of the fab 4 were flying. Lukaku was towards the top of the scoring charts, Barkley was near the top of the goals and assists charts while Deulofeu had as many assists as anyone. While the goals would continue for all of them as we approached Christmas, we were on the wrong end of thrilling defeats to Leicester (3-2 at home) and Stoke (4-3 at home, conceding 2 in the last 10 minutes). They say the sign of champions is winning playing badly, who knows what this made Everton who were playing well and losing.
In truth it was never really the same again for them after this moment. It became apparent that first Deulofeu and Barkley were brutally lacking the fitness required to make an impact across the season and Lukaku didn’t score a goal beyond March. Stones continued to make mistakes and frustrate Evertonians in equal measure. I always felt with Stones that the price tag of being a 40 million pound defender weighed heavily on him. He started trying to be the start attraction as opposed to doing the simple things that had won him so many plaudits the season before. A better manager may have spelt that out to him, but this may be unduly harsh on Martinez, as many fantastic managers wouldn’t have had the foresight to try a 19 year old right back at Centre Half in the Premier League.
If a large part of the success of Koeman depended in part on getting the fab 4 right he has never really treated it as such, nor has he achieved his aim. The first issue emerged with Stones who he ultimately couldn’t convince to stay. Barkley has had a mixed season while Deulofeu was bombed out. The only 1 of the 4 that perhaps took their game on a level was Lukaku.
While there will be sadness at what became of the quartet (and all 4 may be gone from Everton by September) perhaps the clinical and ruthless outlook employed by Koeman has been just what the club needed if not the players themselves? By the end we had perhaps relegated ourselves to be a training school for the top clubs while players didn’t take either their responsibility or general fitness levels seriously. We had became too scared to tell the talented young players what was or wasn’t acceptable for fear they would leave. Again much of the fault lies with Martinez though he would rightly counter that without the funding we now have did we have much alternative than to be beholden to star players? Taking the top sides best young talents was clearly a strategy of shortcut to the top, yet nothing is ever simple or straightforward and perhaps now we can only see the drawbacks of such an approach?
What is curious with Everton is we have produced so many talented teenagers yet so few have developed into top stars. I think there is something in the psyche of Evertonian’s that has contributed to this. Perhaps more than any club we have reveled in young players being given the spotlight and not allowed a realism and strength of character to be embedded in them to allow them to prosper in different environments? Collectively we remember and celebrate the good, not the bad. People remember the best of Young, Mckenzie, Limpar or Kanchelskis and they are ranked as cult heroes by most Evertonians yet all 4 were fiendishly inconsistent.
What has happened this summer in particular, but also the wider work of the last 12 months under Koeman is a dragging of Everton into the mindset of a big club. That players perform or go. That fragility will not be tolerated never mind celebrated. That we will shape our own destiny and story and not be beholden to events occurring to us.
Curiously this summer England won the under 20’s championship with a squad that contained 5 Everton players (who all started games) and should have had a 6th involved had it not been for injury to Liam Walsh. In the circle of life, when one crop of talented 19 year olds leave another arrives. Everton as a club is firmly routed in the city in England that has produced more England players per head than any other. There will be no slowing of the conveyor belt.
When Jeffers left my dad told me “not to worry, there is another cab off the rank in a lad called Wayne Rooney, he’ll take over from Jeffers” such was the normalized expectancy that jars with Evertonians. We have Davies, Calvert Lewin, Lookman and Holgate who all made first team appearances last season. While it’s doubtful they have the same quality as the previous Fab 4 under the guidance of this manager I wouldn’t rule out as a collective they will produce better results.
Alongside them, you have lads like Kenny who looks set to start at right back for Everton and talent such as Walsh and Dowell who have ability beyond the names mentioned above in many ways. We are also adding more talent at an impressive rate. Sandro, Klaasen, Keane and Pickford are all now between the ages of the Fab 4 now and the Fab 4 were when Martinez joined the club. Perhaps the most prescient question for Ronald Koeman is not how to get the best out of any individual player but has become how do we ensure as a group our young players learn the right habits. As he said on his first day here “I am not about philosophies what is important is winning” sums this up and perhaps shows he is aware of this change in direction more than anyone.