Burnley was the first unexpected loss of the season” Farhad Moshiri 1st October 2017.
“In proving foresight may be in vain, the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry”
It has been an eventful two months for Farhad Moshiri. It has also been an eventful 24 hours for him. Perhaps for the first time in his leadership (as we are told he now has complete control of the club) he faces some pressure. This pressure is coming in part due to poor performances off the field, in part due to a lack of competency from his own board and an increasingly frustrated fan base who have until now been broadly supportive of what he is trying to achieve.
Had we scanned back 2 months to the start of August the mood was largely positive. The club had acquired a number of good younger players, sold Lukaku for what at the time seemed a world record and were hoping a to add Olivier Giroud and a central defender to the side. It looked almost certain a replacement for Lukaku would come, given the speed and efficiency of the previous signings. If this is what Moshiri’s Everton would look like most would be fully behind this. There was some talk that we could be dark horses for the top 4, with several of the sides above us struggling to complete the business they needed to be done. Lots what have to go right for that to be the case, and thus far very little has.
You scan forward two months and Everton could be faced with the very real possibility of being out of 2 of the 3 competitions they could have realistically won and be facing a struggle to remain in the division. All of this could be a reality within the next 4-5 weeks. I have seen Everton sides who are playing better than this one flirt with relegation. While this is certainly not the time to push the panic buttons, but it also remains important that complacency is not maintained.
To his credit, Moshiri has come out and made a statement following the Burnley defeat. It is important to say there is much in the statement that is fair and are good points rather than solely focus on the negative. Firstly I would agree with him that managerial projects and need time, very few clubs will succeed on the back of changing managers after a 10 game poor run. Koeman’s Everton last season had a similar run that was turnaround against Arsenal and saw an uplift in performance. Likewise, we have faced a difficult start, in all likelihood the most difficult of all the sides in the league and have been very unfortunate with injuries. Jagielka, Bolasie, Coleman would make a huge difference to this side. The statement that remains most alarming though is when he says “this is the first unexpected loss of the season”.
To me, there are two clear difficulties with this statement. The first is that I don’t think we should ever be expecting to lose a game, particularly at Goodison Park. Secondly and perhaps more importantly as a leader you have to think about your choice of words very carefully and this feels deeply problematic for a club that has ambitions to improve.
Most will get bogged down in the first element. There are arguments either way for this. I can understand we have played 4 sides who are currently well ahead of where we are. 3 of them have turnovers, spend on players wages and transfer fees that go well beyond our own. That for some will be evidence to say they expect Everton to lose to those teams, even at Everton. In truth I have little to say to this, other than to say last season we lost 2 games at home all season, so we have shown we are able to compete with anyone at our own ground, and any defeat to me is unexpected. Likewise Spurs had not won at Everton in the previous 4 visits. If we are now saying defeat is not unexpected what does this say about Moshiri’s first 18 months in charge? That we are expecting worse results than before he arrived? If this is truly his belief it should be causing him enormous concerns.
The second point is far more black and white to me. As a leader or an organization, you have to take enormous care of not just what you say but how you say it. Everything you say, in every detail will be analysed and good leaders are able to use words to transform the mindset of a company. If you were the manager, players or staff reading those words two things would hit me, firstly that it is acceptable to lose against better teams and secondly that this season is going ok we have just been a bit unlucky. I am not sure that is the message that I would be looking to convey to any of the constituency groups following a defeat at home to Burnley leaves us perilously close to the bottom 3.
Such comments are ladened with difficulty. You are always trying to balance the expectations of supporters against the concrete reality of what a club with the 7th highest turnover and wage bill in the league can achieve. I understand that and understand that and also understand that Evertonians and scousers more generally expect the very best from their football teams. That weight of expectation can lift players or swallow them uphole (which looks to be the case for Ashley Williams who looks to be desperately missing South Wales). It is a fine balance and if you demand things that aren’t realistic you will ultimately lose people.
My point would be, that nobody is sacked over losing games against the top 4-5-6 teams. We go into those games underdogs but we should always look to have a plan to get a result. It is only through adopting that attitude that you give yourself a chance to achieve that eventuality. When I was a schoolteacher, though it often seemed counter-intuitive I would start every lesson with the expectation that every child would not only behave appropriately but also would learn. This was a goal that was very difficult, but unless you started from that point children would never be able to learn. In the same way, unless you start from the position you expect to win, it’s unlikely you will win. Currently, at Everton we have 0 wins in 22 years at Chelsea & Arsenal, 0 in 17 years at Liverpool and 1 in 24 years at Old Trafford. We were gifted a golden opportunity to win at the Etihad which was wasted, you could say even choked. It is not unreasonable to suggest there is a connection between the grim records we have at those grounds and acceptance at the top of the club that losing is not unexpected.
What was poignant on Saturday was there was a remembrance of Alan Ball. Many years ago I asked my dad to tell me about the sort of player Alan Ball was. I was expecting him to wax lyrical which he didn’t, but what he said was far more poignant. His remark was that Ball was “a short*rse narky git who would not accept defeat”. It tallies with stories that Ball would cry in the changing rooms when Everton lost. Brian Labone the Everton captain at the time would remark he was part of the only 3 man team to win the league (alongside his other 2 midfield partners Colin Harvey and Howard Kendall). Colin Harvey attributed Everton’s success down centrally to Alan Ball remarking “that we lost 1-0 to (champions) Liverpool in the Charity Shield, we signed Ball and within a few weeks we beat them 3-1 which was down to him. He gave everyone the confidence that we could do it.” The idea that Ball would accept there was an expectation any side he’d be involved with was expected to lose is unthinkable and that mentality seeped through to the team who ultimately win the league.
I recently read Alex Fergusan’s book about business (I would recommend it to every reader) and one of the key insights is that he expected Manchester United to win every game. A Silicon Valley investor who he became friends with noted in the afterword that this became an effective Mission Objective (MO) in an era where people waste tonnes of money coming up with MO’s that are too complicated to work. It was simple and was a standard he held all players too and would influence how he would set his teams up game to game, all the way through to big strategic decisions around recruitment. Everything led from and too the belief he expected Manchester to win every game of football. It’s unthinkable to believe he would have publically made the comments Moshiri did having lost at home to a side he was expecting to beat. Blame the ref. Blame the league. Blame your players. Blame the opposition. Blame the opposition fans. But never accept the premise you don’t expect to win.
There will be reasonable counter points to this that the Manchester United he inherited and more specifically built as well as the Everton Alan Ball played for are far and away better than the current Everton team. Without doubt, had Everton had Ball, Royle, Kendall, Labone, Wright, Harvey & Morrissey playing for them, they would all massively improve this playing team and it is therefore understandable Ball expected the best from them. Yet how do you ever propose to get to the pinnacle of football if that isn’t your aim? Or how will Everton ever improve on 7th is we won’t start from a position of needing to beat teams ahead of us?
Likewise there is a legitimate question about whether something may be lost in translation in what is Moshiri’s second language. This to me raises far wider points around communication from the board. Why is there no communications officer? Why are we not proactive in communications? Why are Elstone and Kenwright never out defending their choices and decisions? If I am bluntly honest, why have attempts not been made to get somebody of the calibre of Jim White to work for the club full time? While he’s not everyone’s cup of tea (I can’t stand the man) he is the biggest advocate of Everton Football Club in the media without being on the pay role. He is also an industry leader in his role and possesses the sort of excellence the club misses in these moments. If you want a football club that expects to win, such an appointment fits within that broader strategic approach.
We then get left with the substance of the debate, that Moshiri is looking to give Koeman time. I can understand that. You can’t be successful if you sack managers every time they have a two month tricky spell. However the acute feeling with Koeman is that outside of a 3 month spell last season the results have remained patchy. He also feels an uneasy fit, with him viewing Everton very much as a stepping stone, which will be tolerated all the time he fills his side of the bargain (to continue to improve players and results) but if this stops you do wonder how much patience he ought to be afforded. While Martinez and Moyes were afforded time, they had both earned the period of good grace with far more limited funds than Koeman.
Carlo Ancelotti and Thomas Tuchel are currently without a club (though it does look as if Tuchel will be going to Bayern). The reality is Tuchel fits more easily into what the club look to be trying to do, with a heavy focus on youth recruitment. He looks a better fit than Koeman. Ancelotti looks a more uneasy fit, being a manager who organizes elite players to win trophies. We remain some way off that level so there is a question as to how transferable his skillset is (much like the criticism leveled at Koeman). What cannot be doubted though is he is a big upgrade on Koeman, with over 20 titles to his name he is rightly bracketed alongside Guardiola and Mourinho as one of the very best managers in the world.
To me it would be remiss if a discussion wasn’t being opened with either of the above. They both may knock us back and we may talk to them and feel they wouldn’t be right for Everton. However if the club want to get back to being the best, if an opportunity to upgrade a manager comes this is an avenue that needs to be looked at. This is a long way for calling for Koeman’s head, and replacing him with no idea of who comes in would be foolhardy but an upgrade would be no bad thing at this moment.
This is now the biggest challenge of Moshiri’s regime. It is in moments such as this we will get a glimpse as to which direction the club really wants to head in. I hope that the current scenario we see, with the same figures running Everton in largely the same way as occurred pre Moshiri is a long term vision for the club. I hope that it is a transitional agreement before Moshiri acquires all the shares. 2 months ago I would have said that was inevitable though with my faith shaken somewhat in him I don’t think we can rule anything in or out currently. However, whatever Moshiri’s aims are, whether they be to take full control himself, move the club on to a wealthier investor, bring a figure like Usmanov on board or continue as the financial weight for Kenwright to run the club we now need clear direction from him. The next few weeks will provide that test and we will begin to get the answers we crave.