Evaluating January

When you begin to evaluate the relative success or failure of Everton’s January transfer window it feels important to locate it within the wider context the window exists within. With each passing year, it appears that supporters of most clubs become increasingly frustrated and angry at their own clubs efforts. Whether it is those at the top such as Chelsea fans, underwhelmed at business (which from the outside looks quite smart), Liverpool fans unhappy at no like for like replacement for Coutinho or a myriad of clubs outside of the top 6 who feel their club have not added enough quality to help them survive, here is a palpable sense of frustration at the January window. I have seen fans of Newcastle, West Ham, Watford and Southampton become increasingly angry at their clubs efforts to bring in players of suitable quality.

It is difficult to pin exactly what is underpinning this frustration. In part I think it’s because we have seen an erosion of the “middle tier” of Premier league teams who would both expect to steer well clear of the relegation zone and also stand a chance of qualifying for Europe in a good season. The expansion over the last decade of the “top tier” from 4 to 6 teams has effectively sown up the top places while the increase in TV revenue has ensured most teams who come up can become more competitive more quickly meaning there is a pressure from below as well as limitations as to what can be achieved at the top end of performance. In short I think it has led to a series of expectations that are for the most part unrealistic for supporters of sides outside the top 6, who haven’t adjusted to their side being part of a group of sides that can be relegated and see January recruitment as the solution to these problems.

There is also an immediacy around English football these days. It has led in no small part to the idea that recruitment is the answer. Whereas even 5 years ago there still seemed to be a consensus held that continuity was the key to success in order to root your team in the league it now feels like this approach is beleaguered. Whether this is an inevitable consequence of the quantities of money that has come into the game and the subsequent raised expectations or part of a wider trend of impatience and delusion that impacts upon football supporters is in itself an interesting debate, but for the purposes of the article it has led to the January window being a chaotic and difficult one to recruit in.

Disciples of the free market doctrine (of which I am certainly not!) will tell you that freedom of trade ultimately allows for improvement of performance. It’s critics may say the reduction in trading times helps protect smaller teams from those who have the most money (and who stand to benefit most from trade). Yet whatever the goals of the January window, it doesn’t feel as if it achieves these goals. When it was introduced there was much rhetoric around it allowing coaches to have a full season with the players, not be dogged by speculation and the consequence is a managers ability to coach his team would take precedence over the immediacy of just buying the best players. It was a noble intention, but at least in the cash rich Premier League it feels very at odds with supporters expectations who see solutions in recruitment of new assets rather than retention of existing ones. It always felt a dictat imposed by European teams working to a slightly different model and that feeling has only increased with each passing year.

Everton supporters, and indeed myself are not immune from this process. With new investment from Farhad Moshiri (FM) and words of encouragement around finance it has led to expectations going into each window being raised when perhaps the most worthwhile strategy may have been to temper expectations in a manner more akin to Moyes. With the context above in mind, it would be unfair to describe the window as a failure, yet the failure to acquire a specialist left back will mean I am hard pressed to call it a success.

Going into the window there is some agreement we needed a new Centre Forward and a left back, anything else would have been seen as a bonus. We also needed to move players out and in selling Barkley and Lennon, as well as getting loan fees/deals for Sandro/Besic/Lookman the club has done a reasonable job in moving players on. There is little doubt that we acquired a Centre Forward, turning to Turkish striker Cenk Tosun and though he has had a mixed start he has shown some nice link up play in his two starts. I cannot say with any certainty he will either be a failure or a success though this is very much in the hands of the first team management sphere now not the recruitment team. We needed a striker and we brought one in.

The signing of Theo Walcott could end up being an astute buy. He has a very decent goal record in the Premier League (his league goals/appearance stats are very similar to Sadio Mane’s) and while the figure of 20 million is far from cheap it looks as if he is a big upgrade in terms of quality on the man he has replaced (Aaron Lennon). Mangala is the signing who has caused most anger, yet I have no problems with this signing. There is some suggestion we should be moving beyond this sort of deal, yet it is the sort of signing Everton have profited from in the past- namely a talented player who has lost their way at a club and I think the club could do a lot worse than going back to it’s roots a little more in trying to emulate similar types of deals going forward. It is relatively low risk, with no cumplusion to have to buy the player in the summer, and we get 5 months to evaluate the deal. Surely this has to be a more sensible approach than hammering the sorts of fees we saw in the summer on certain players?

While Mangala can fill in at left back he is by no means a specialist. The likelihood is the quality of left back required was either not available in January, or more likely was too expensive to be deemed a viable option. In truth I also think Martina is viewed more positively by the manager than by most of the fanbase. While he is limited, he probably sees a lad who can “do a job” in the short term and is happy to focus his recruitment in areas of the pitch that he feels will make more of an impact. In no small part, this is part of the contradiction of Steve Walsh’s job and the difficulty involved- how far should be overrule a managers decisions for the first team? There remains no clear cut answer to this question with each club varying in it’s approach, but I am of the opinion that a manager has the right to select what players he likes and this should be out of the remit of a Director of Football. The difficulty in this remains, that I disagree with the manager that Martina is a good enough full back for a Premier League side, yet managers have to be given the chance to succeed or fail on their own decisions.

Of all the outgoings the one that has caused the most frustration and angst has been that of Ademola Lookman, who has joined RB Leipzig on loan. While I find it highly unlikely we will ever Sandro Ramirez in an Everton shirt again I remain hopeful Lookman will come back to Everton as there remains a very talented player in there who just needs to become more consistent and reliable to fulfil his potential. It may come as some surprise but I am not Lookman’s biggest fan. I think he is too inconsistent and still doesn’t affect the game at the top end of the pitch as much as his talent suggests he ought. I think Vlasic was far more impressive at the start of the season and Davies/Calvert Lewin are still more ready for first team appearances than him. The confusion I have with the loan deal is more with the timing of the deal and the wider approach it signals.

Lookman’s last appearance for Everton was the derby game, where coming off the bench he changed the course of the match with his confidence and direct running. This was particularly true of the goal, where he made a mockery of Liverpool right back Joe Gomez before picking the right pass for Phil Jagielka. It was a small glimpse of the emergence of end product that has been missing from his game. Alongside his brace in the Europa League it looked as if the penny was beginning to drop and yet this is the last we have seen of Lookman. I am not alone in being a little confused with the thought process of the manager in wondering why the performance at Anfield was his last this season and would lead him to being loaned out.

Allardyce’s comments were also equally worrying after the match. He had said he had tried to convince him to stay, but had had no such luck. Allardyce has a way of saying this where I am never fully convinced he’s reflected on his own conduct in these matters and I think it was a contributing factor to Lookman leaving. His own words in recent weeks that we have too many players under 23 playing does nothing but re-enforce my belief that he is the wrong managers to maximise and develop what remains a young squad who need exposure to continue their development. Given how little we now have to play for this season it would also have not been unreasonable to think we would use this season as an opportunity to give game time to all of our young players with half an eye to next season. The big concern with Allardyce’s remarks about not being able to keep him is that I remain skeptical a different outcome can be achieved in the summer.

For Lookman himself it is a wonderful loan. RB Leipzig under the guidance of Ralf Rangnick have implemented a thorough approach of exposing young players to first team football, and shown an uncanny ability to improve them. It is the sort of approach that befits a club with a rich local populace to recruit from at youth level and one that has been adopted under the growing realization that the best (and only) way for them to compete is not to get into an arms race for signing older players but by looking to gear recruitment to younger professionals. It is the sort of approach I feel would benefit Everton and a Director of Football in the mold Rangnick would be a useful acquisition for Everton. The question ought to be not is RB Leipzip a good club for Lookman to go on loan too, but why are we not positioning ourselves to be that club and how does this fit with the significant investment in young players we have seen?

As the summer beckons there will be enormous pressure so find a longer term solution at left back. While Martina remains the immediate problems the longer term question is around Leighton Baines, his injury record and the ability of a 33 year old to be able to fulfill the physical duties of arguably the most demanding position on the pitch. With just over a month between the end of the World Cup and the end of the transfer window I remain concerned we will be able to find a solution. We also run the risk, in a shortened window that prices again will rise as a result of the restriction of trading opportunities.

At present it is very difficult to pinpoint the funds that will be available to do so. Thus far we have seen significant investment from the Majority Shareholder that has allowed us to be net spenders in each of the 4 windows though this has been greatly aided by selling players for a high price (Stones & Lukaku). Whether Moshiri is prepared to continue providing funds is open to question. There is some evidence to suggest he will not expect the club to generate it’s own funds to spend. At the other end, persistent rumours continue that a full takeover will be completed before the summer, that this will likely see not just a continuation of a 20-40 million pound net surplus for spending but that once in full control this figure may increase. There are also some left field suggestions once a full takeover continues a second investor may come on board and allow for even greater resources to invest. Each theory has credence and it’s difficult to fully reflect on how the club moves forward until a full takeover is completed and we see how Moshiri’s Everton (with him in outright control) looks.

The challenge this summer will likely come from the absence of a big sale. In real terms it will mean the club will not have £40/50-75/90 million as a starting point for investment. It will also mean the ability to get around wage regulations of the Premier League will prove more difficult. While Sandro may well go for 9 million pounds, maybe Mirallas for £5 million, Klassen for upwards of £10 million and Jagielka/Williams may be moved on for nominal fees you can see they are not generating anything like the values we have the previous 2 summers. The decision Everton make on their manager will be significant, but there can be little doubt Allardyce will be tempted to look to raise funds by moving on more saleable assets who will be younger players in order to bring in the sort of experience he will covet.

For my own preference I think we need to give the players we’ve brought in time to settle. The January window has been an average one, but to give our players the best chance of success they need time and stability to achieve their most. We would all have wanted more, and serious question remain over Steve Walsh and his aptitude for the post, though in spite of this I look forward to hopefully seeing the best out of our new assets.

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