Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom

As international breaks go this one has come at an opportune moment. Following the Burnley result, there was an acute feeling of antipathy towards Everton. A combination of poor results, performances, a shoddy end to the transfer window allied to the quantity of games we have played has made the break a somewhat welcome one. More importantly, you sense the same is true for the players and the management staff. Sometimes in any job, particularly when it is not going exactly to plan you benefit from having some time and space to escape the pressure that encompasses businesses that are underperforming. In the extended break, manager Ronald Koeman has gone for a short holiday (which now turns out to be his daughter’s wedding) which has incurred the wrath of sections of Evertonians. He also made sympathetic comments about the player’s performance after the Burnley defeat which have not gone down hugely well. It is important that both actions are understood within the specific context of football.

When we firstly think about the holiday, I can fully understand the frustration. The grotesque wealth that is dished out to those at the top of the game will forever be incomprehensible to those of us that follow the team. I am not sure any player, manager or coach can ever do enough to justify the multi-million pound salaries they are given. However, underneath that, you still have human beings. Human’s who get stressed, tired, anxious or confused in the same way we do. Money alone can’t fundamentally alter our nature. At this moment I would suggest a break, for Koeman and the players is probably the best thing that can be done. Hopefully there will be some space away from one another to reflect on what’s going wrong and find some meaningful answers to these problems.

As for the comments after Burnley, I am left with a similar position. We lost the game mainly because the confidence is rock bottom and we couldn’t respond to a setback. Calling players out as lazy, unmotivated or cowardly is unlikely to elicit positives outcomes when they are in that frame of mind. Confidence needs to be rebuilt first before expectations can rise. I am partially taken to Howard Kendalls approach, who when a side was on a bad run would cancel training and reward the team with a Chinese meal though when the team was playing well and winning would sometimes throw in a torturous session of running on a beach. While this seems counter-intuitive lunacy there is a very clear goal in this method of approach. Managers are not merely there to uphold a meritocratic approach to praise and reward, but crucially to impact upon behavioural outcomes. Kendall knew, way before time, that asking more from players, men, people who are struggling to cope would likely make things worse, but when the same players were flying they needed to be kept grounded and prevented from becoming complacency. The simple analogy may be a car, which would be foolish to aggressively rev in early gears but makes sense to hit the gas when you are in top gear.

There are now serious questions about how we can go through the gears and get some wins on the board. This is not unfamiliar territory for Evertonians who have regularly seen slow starts turn into decent finishes under the management of David Moyes. When you look at the methods Moyes employed you see the consistency of selection plays a pivotal role in the revival. Currently, we are changing personnel and formations almost every week, and the few that remain are often being given radically different jobs on a week by week basis. If you are playing well you can get away with these sort of changes, indeed they may even be beneficial. However, if you are struggling for confidence and form asking people to do jobs that are unfamiliar to them is likely to lead to underwhelming performances.

Against Burnley we started with two lads up front (for the first time this season) one who started the season at wing back, one who started the season without a locker for the under 23’s. The formation was then shifted to a diamond which didn’t help either, there are no quick fixes to the predicament we are in. Whatever Koeman deems his best team and preferred way of playing, we do now need 2/3/4 games where they play together, win lose or draw. Hopefully, this consistency of selection can help identify the specifics of what needs to be improved, as opposed to everything.

We are also in desperate need for some of the signings to start delivering. Sandro, Sigurdsson and Klaassen all need to open their accounts. After impressive starts the performances of Pickford and Keane have also been underwhelming and both improve their levels of performance. We have to be hopeful Jagielka can take his place next to Keane, with Williams looking like he needs a break away from the team to regain his confidence. The return of Barkley, Coleman and Bolasie over the forthcoming weeks could also provide a reprieve and a feel-good factor around the club, especially if we can grind out some results.

What is critical at this point though, is we don’t end up throwing away some good recruitment with a desire to turnover staff much too frequently.

While we have recruited a number of talented younger players who could be at the club for 10 years this will only happen if there is a strength of character from those at the top of the club to allow the new signings enough time to bed in. It has been nice to see Coleman pay tribute to Jagielka and Baines who have both completed 10 years with the club. They came as part of a similar process to this summer around 10 years ago, alongside players like Arteta, Lescott, Cahill, Pienaar and Howard who would form a bedrock of the side for a number of years and help the club to outperform its immediate financial rivals in terms of league position. There has to be some hope that Keane, Klaassen, Gueye, Schneiderlin, Sandro and Pickford can all grow together in a similar way.

There is little doubt that in terms of league performance and the overall record we overperformed during the Moyes era, albeit with an inability to win at key moments. For many years this had been put down solely to the role of Moyes, and while his influence shouldn’t be underestimated there are wider values he put into practice that may have been more influential on the performance, and in lieu of them at other clubs have highlighted the weaknesses of Moyes as a manager.

I often compare us to Liverpool not just because they are our local rivals but also because you often see such profound difference between the two clubs over the last 15 years. As a general rule, I would say they have underperformed given what they have spent, though they have won important matches at critical times. Pre Klopp, they had the opposite problem to ourselves and with that in mind, I was always drawn to two separate statements that emerge from the reds. Firstly is the often repeated mantra from football analyst Dan Kennett who when analyzing Liverpool’s transfer policy stated they do well for 1 in 2 to be successful. The second was that up until around 2 years ago, when you compared the two sides in derby matches Everton would often have significantly more players who’d played at the club for 1/2/5/10 year intervals. In short staff, turnover was far higher at Liverpool than Everton.

The two things to me link together- Everton gave players time to settle into new surroundings and were rewarded for this with consistent performances from those players. During the Moyes era, Everton often had one of the longest-serving squads in the division which also allowed them to have a success rate of transfers well above the 1 in 2 that Liverpool aspired too but thought was an achievement. That Everton had more success in transfers was because they allowed players more time to settle and reach peak performance, which psychologists argue takes 3 years in a new workplace. The caveat to this would be that Liverpool fans likely regard “success” at a higher standard to Everton fans, so when a player is a success at Liverpool they can be at a more devastating level and at a level that wins them big games.

The relevance of this to the contemporary debate is that Everton need some patience with players. When we consider Baines and Jagielka, I remember it taking Baines 18 months to get a regular spot in the first team, and Jagielka was much-derided squad player for the first 6 months until he moved back to form a formidable partnership with Lescott. Both players needed time to reach their best, and both were familiar with the Premier League and the surroundings of the North West. These are not advantages lads like Sandro or Klaasen have had and patience will be needed with both. There is a very real chance that Koeman could lose his job over the coming weeks and months. While it’s not something I presently want whoever manages Everton going forward has to work to an approach that sees consistency and patience in selection and recruitment as central. It is a talented squad but one that needs 18 months to grow together.

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