Less Than Zero

“where are we going?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘just driving.’

‘But this road doesn’t go anywhere,’ I told him.

‘That doesn’t matter.’

‘What does?’ I asked, after a little while.’Just that we’re on it’ ”

The 2019/20 season will probably be remembered as one of the quirkiest and most unusual in living memory. Looking forward it may be seen as the start of a new era of football, where the rigid alignment of seasons, centrality of live spectators and somewhat commodified experience is reduced. Next season is due to start later, there remains a chance of a second lockdown during the winter months (and little understanding of what occurs in such a scenario) and real questions around how European football happens if further travel restrictions come in. The following year we have a winter World Cup. The natural assumption that normality is resumed may well be optimistic, and 3 years of chaotic schedules may force the game to go in a different direction.

For Everton, I do sense the wider problems within the game have probably masked some wider flaws and pacified levels of anger to the season. When the dust settles it is Everton’s lowest league position in 17 years (albeit not their lowest points total). While it is only 1 place below the 11th place (that had occurred on 3 occasions) there does seem a lack of urgency at all levels of the organisation as to what you may expect from a company that had it’s worst results in a generation. Perhaps we have just become immune to the mediocrity that we have seen, or perhaps in a world where fans are unable to attend games and a plethora of wider social and economic problems are mounting- football can rightly take it’s place lower down the priorities of ordinary people?

What is clear is we know who is not to blame for the poor performance. Duncan Ferguson and particularly Carlo Ancelotti deserve a lot of credit. Ancelotti attained 30 points from 20 games, while Ferguson 5 from 3 (very challenging fixtures). Together it was 35 from 23 post Marco Silva. Across a season this would have put Everton right in the mix for a top 6 finish. There is enormous support for Ancelotti (in a twitter poll I conducted he received over 98% favourability) and while a lot of this relates to his reputation some is undoubtedly down to how he steered Everton away from a relegation dogfight and gave some renewed hope for an unlikely dart at European qualification.

His steps to success, as with many great managers and organisers were based around simplicity and common sense. Everton were primarily organized around a rigid 4-4-2, sat deeper to help their centre backs and placed a big emphasis on being hard to score against and defeat. At the top end of the pitch, the focus really became around the two centre forward-messers Calvert Lewin & Richarlison. Goals from them, and the occasional set piece were the flip side to the above plan, and were hoped to keep the team above water (which ultimately they did).

When Calvert Lewin went on something of a scoring splurge Everton moved up the table rapidly, but ultimately no goals for him in the final 9 (post lockdown) fixtures punished detrimentally harmed the team. There are not enough goals or creativity in the midfield and the early momentum was somewhat stalled as players didn’t step in to replace his goals.

There will be inevitable questions as to how quickly we can transition away from this style. My own view would be that Ancelotti, a highly experienced and tactically flexible coach will be loathed to throw his hand in and adopt a radically different approach over the next 12 months. Early indications seem to suggest we will not be able to acquire the quantity of players required to be a bona fide top 6 challenger and some of the players who have ultimately let the club down over the last seasons (and ones before) will remain. Asking them to do things well out of their comfort zone will likely only lead to regression. So my suspicions are, some of the more cagey and fraught displays will continue, with the hope that Calvert Lewin, Richarlison and potentially Kean can add more goals next season and allow us to acquire more points. It will be intriguing to see if Ancelotti can replicate what he did in over half a season across a full 38 game campaign, which is understandably recognised as a more challenging ask.

Where Ancelotti and Ferguson get away with any criticism, the same cannot be said the previous manager Marco Silva. With the same group of players and indeed a more favourable set of fixtures (he did not play Chelsea, Manchester United or Arsenal in his opening 15 games he had left the club in the bottom 3 with just 14 points from 15 games. While my instinct is to try to defend managers (for reasons I will outline below) and while there are some positives with Silva it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he was a terrible in game tactician and manager- probably the worst in my time supporting the club.

2 Stats really stood out to me as he left the club, the first being that Everton were 4th in the table for 1st half points and 20th for 2nd half points. This is unforeseen levels of disparity (it is rare for any side in the top 4 in any of the last 10 seasons for first half point to be in the bottom half on 2nd half points, never mind bottom of the league). Alongside this, Everton were in the bottom 3 for both of his seasons where it came to “points won from behind”. It hints at a lack of resilience, fitness and mental strength from the players but also a manager who was out thought within games. Often you would see his Everton teams set up quite well and start games positively, but as soon as either any changes came from an opposing manager, or the team fell behind the manager seemed powerless to act.

The problems certainly go deeper than just Silva, however if we are to look at the situation singularly then he has to shoulder much of the blame. There are undoubtedly technical, physical and above all mental deficiencies with the squad but at no point you felt they were helped in games by the manager. Where Ancelotti has stripped back an approach and kept things very simple, Silva you felt pitched a way of playing that was far beyond what most were able to deliver. While Everton fought back after he left, they were left hamstrung from his start and that is a central contributing factor in the overall league positioning.

There will undoubtedly be some who will understandably finish the sentence and the analysis at this point. The poor performance was down to a bad manager and now having a good manager means all is rosey. I have some sympathy to that view but there are to my mind underlying factors that also need some scrutiny in this drama who have indirectly contributed. While Everton got lucky with Ancelotti (right place right time) in a way they were unlucky with previous appointments the key would now have to be to avoid Ancelotti going the same route as other managers.

There is some discussion about inconsistency at Everton being a problem. When you evaluate the performance, inconsistent wouldn’t be the first thing that springs out, it is more a case of consistent underperformance. In the last 3 seasons the points total have been tightly grouped at 49, 54 and 49 with a gap of just 5 points (the closest in a 3 seasons stint in a decade). If you factor in the previous 3 seasons, you get 61, 47 & 47. The one anomaly in this is the season where a striker scored 25 goals from open play. 5 of the last 6 seasons have seen a range of 7 points in performance. In a broad sense this is not inconsistent, it is just a level of performance that most supporting the club would see as underachievement.

There is important context here too. There have been 4 managers for the former period and 5 over the 6 years period. That is not to say that a manager can’t singularly turn around fortunes, but that statistically it would seem unlikely. The important caveat is that Ancelotti is a far better manager than any of the above and I happen to believe he has every chance of being the manager that can do this, but it’s a note of caution for supporters. There is no magic wand here that can be waived and make Everton a side that competes at the top end of the table in a short space of time.

Alongside this, further context is critical. Prior to the sample size of 6 seasons, Everton had just achieved their highest points total in the Premier League era (with 72 points) and as late as the New Year had opportunities to win games to get within a couple of points of the team top of the table. It had been a decade since the club finished lower than 8th. There are important caveats again to note (the defensive bedrock were all on the down slope in terms of performance levels and age) but the drop off in performance has been notable. It is an important counter balance to those who place all the blame on Moshiri and state that Kenwright prior to Moshiri was managing a side as best of the rest. This is simply not true- at the point Moshiri walks in Everton are a club who have shown substantial decline over a 2 year period.

The takeover of Moshiri is worth noting too. There have been substantial (though perhaps not transformative) amounts of money made available. Gross Everton have probably spend £450m and net approaching £200m with a sizeable increase in wages to match. With the exception of 1 season the performance level has remained constant. From the outside, especially given you have the same Chairman, and an internal appointment of CEO it would appear that the injection of cash under their leadership has only really managed to stem the downward trend that existed prior to Moshiri’s arrival. There have to be serious questions whether further money (if it is available) can allow the side to move upwards under the current leadership. It appears a gamble Moshiri is willing to take, but it seems that it remains a gamble and not a significantly calculated one. The one exception to the rule, as indicated above was the season Lukaku scored 25 goals from open play. It is worth noting- again for context that a side similar to Everton- Leicester City won the league in the previous season, largely off the back of the goals of Jamie Vardy- who would manage 19 league goals from open play (plus 5 penalties). While it’s an unrelated point, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion Everton underachieved with such a prolific marksman at the helm.

In conclusion it is hard to avoid the reality that 2019/20 was a continuation of underachievement that has plagued the club for some years. The one small positive would be that 2020 had produced an upturn in results. A cursory look at our City rivals shows that 5 years ago, they slumped to a 5-0 half time deficit to Stoke City and a season of 61 points (finishing with just 8 points from the final 9 fixtures). Within 4 years, with the right managerial appointment and a talented recruitment staff ultimately in sync with him they would add 60% to their points total and lift the European cup (and then the Premier League). There is no reason to assume Ancelotti could not be a transformative for Everton (albeit from a lower base) or that the recruitment director is any less capable than Liverpool’s was prior to 2015. As a club if you keep making the right decisions eventually you see positives emerging.

An equivalent uplift over the next 4 years would see Everton go from 49 to 76 points and likely 3rd in the league table. If the club were at that level, they would be a serious player not just in the league but likely in domestic cup competitions (and likely the Europa league). This ought to be the medium term target for all associated to the club moving forward.

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