The hardest thing in life is getting back into the saddle. Whether it’s work, love or life when you have been bitterly disappointed it requires courage to trust again. You can only ever grow, succeed and become fulfilled if you do so. Football for many is an odd cocktail of work, love and life so the allegory makes some sense to me. Last season most of the fans expected an awful lot and were given very little. We are rightly more cautious about believing things could improve 12 months on. We are all infected with that sense of nervous realism yet we need to be pushing it’s parameters if not looking to re-orientate the narrative.
Without pondering too much on last season I wrote an equivalent piece where I felt Everton would do a fair bit better than what they imagined. I did not think they would get or challenge for the top 4 places and was concerned that the loss of Lukaku’s goals would hit Everton hard. I had speculated Sigurdsson, Klaassen, Sandro, Rooney & Ross Barkley could help fill the void that was left and if they did so then Everton could ideally get to 60 points in the table while enjoying a good Europa League run. Outside of Rooney all other players failed to deliver (some more dramatically than others) and defensively injuries to Baines, Jagielka (and Coleman) alongside Williams falling off a cliff and Keane losing all form after an early injury made this initially modest assessment seem wildly optimistic. Last season just about everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. This was always going to be extremely difficult to foresee and it’s the exception not the norm. Contrary to folk law very few Evertonians predicted the top 4 challenge (this was the work of media pundits and Kopite falsification theory) though few also predicted the sort of nightmare we would have. It’s rare you get a 6 months where everything goes wrong.
Out of the ashes a small shoot of recovery began to form at the start of 2018. Post Allardyce coming in Everton finished 7th in the league (albeit with favourable fixtures). When Coleman, Baines and Jagielka got back to full fitness, Sigurdsson put the lack of a pre-season behind him and Walcott, Tosun (and to a lesser degree Bolasie) came into the squad in January we put together a set of solid results against sides in and around us. It was small mercies, but still a long way from the horror-show that has protruded the nightmare of the first 5 months of the season.
It was within that context I entered the new season. The loss of Rooney on paper is significant though oddly his form went the opposite way to the rest of the teams, with him excelling early on but struggling to hit his best in the 2nd half of the season. Everton under Allardyce were a fairly secure and comfortable top 10 team and few of the outgoings impact upon that.
In the summer appointing Brands and Silva was a statement of a sharp change of direction. As has been written about in previous articles the willingness, propensity and ability to work with younger players was at the foremost thoughts of the club in appointing the duo. Both seem to share the desire to give younger players an opportunity and pre-season has seen over a dozen players under 22 being given an opportunity. While it would be unrealistic to think they can all become solid first team players there is a pool of talent to bolster not just the depth of the squad but also in certain cases the quality of the first team.
Of the 7 players who were involved last season I would say 5 improved significantly (Kenny, Calvert Lewin, Holgate, Banningime & Lookman) while 2 players flat lined/regressed (Davies & Vlasic). This was within a season where we had 3 managers, 2 of them not known for the copious time they would dedicate to the training pitch and players improvement. It goes without saying that under a younger manager, who pays more attention to training and hopefully at a club where there is more stability and planning the ratio may be better. However a 5:2 ratio is by no means a bad one. It means of the younger players currently involved the majority of them should kick on. It is difficult to predict who will or won’t though all who are around the club have a good opportunity if they can improve another level to put themselves firmly into the thoughts of the manager.
We have also added to their ranks. I like the recruitment in that the players range from 21-25. They all look as if their best years lay in front of them, but are also of a standard of ability that they can be reliable members of the first team squad. At 21 Richarlison already looks as if he could be a superstar in the making, and a player who faded through fatigue as opposed to lack of ability last season.
The transfer window and specifically the deadline day has opened up new possibilities and ambitions for the club. To have kept the key members of last season’s squad together while adding half a dozen talented internationals is a major triumph for Silva and Brands. Where before deadline day an ambition of consolidating in the top 10 while reducing the age profile of the squad would have been a valid expectation the objective for him ought to be a little more stringent in lieu of the resources he has been provided. I think the objective has to be to look to be the “best of the rest” and also look to close the gap on the top 6 teams. If one of them falls away this season then the potential to overtake them may be there, and this would be a terrific fillip for the club moving forward though it wouldn’t be the objective I would place on Silva this early on. If we can finish 7th and get close to the top 6 he will have made an impressive start to his Everton career.
The opening week of the season has given Everton much to be optimistic about. Our own performance at Wolves showed more commitment and organization that I had seen from most Everton sides after Moyes left. The 2nd half showed a resilience and mental togetherness that frankly this group of players (who were hammered by 3+ more last season than in any other) didn’t have last season. It is a very quick transformation and is solid grounds for optimism, which will be doubly so when he works with some of the new signings. Likewise, many of our competitors outside of the top 6 looked very ordinary, West Ham, Wolves, Fulham & Burnley all underwhelmed on the opening day of the season (albeit in different ways).
If these objectives can be met, or hopefully exceeded is going to depend upon how quickly Silva can integrate and shape what is now a young squad, alongside how quickly he can develop and improve young players. While we are unable to buy players of the ability required to be leading players for top 6 teams, we are able to buy players who have that potential (which I believe we now have in abundance). My suspicion is it may take at least a season before we are serious contenders in that group but the performance at Wolves has left me more not less optimistic.
Needless to say, patience is crucial this season, and while I understand we are a fan base who are justifiably loathed to allow for such time having waited long enough for a team to be developed to compete at the top end of the league, however it would be an act of great sabotage to hinder a process just as it begins. We have appointed a young manager who seems to have some of the positive aspects of a young David Moyes and Roberto Martinez in him. Both managers had flaws though both had enormous upsides. For Moyes his sides were always well organized, discipline and generally outperformed expectations due to this, while Martinez’s Everton at times with an attacking flair that threatened to break them into the top end of the league. At 40 Silva has potential to develop into a well rounded manager though he and his squad need space to be able to do so. If all goes to plan, the squad has ever opportunity to improve year on year and within the medium term challenge for the top 4. When you have such a young manager and squad it is likely progress will come in time, but it may not be a simple linear progression and it’s important to see the wider context in the dips and hope as a club they can learn from them.