From the moment Moshiri arrived at Everton you always sensed he wanted a standout marquee signing to signify Everton’s emergence at the big time. In truth, there have been a number of moments that have hinted at such a moment. The appointment of Koeman from Southampton was a strong statement, the recruitment of Wayne Rooney was a big name and big money purchases such as Gylfi Sigurdsson showed a significant intent. The appointment of Ancelotti has undoubtedly given Everton a prestige and pulling power they lacked even under Koeman. However, while each of the above generated clicks and attention, the purchase of 3 players- namely Doucoure, James and Allan all likely to be confirmed in quick succession is perhaps the best example yet of the “Robinho moment” that Moshiri has been striving for.
Looking back over the last 4 years, to me it seems increasingly clear that Ancelotti reflects the profile and pull of manager he had hoped to get with Ronald Koeman. A “Hollywood name” who could act as a pull to some of the leading players in Europe but also a man with a degree of experience and managerial capability that he would inject a much needed winning spirit into the playing side of the club. Where Moshiri ultimately misjudged both Koeman’s pull and managerial abilities, early evidence seems to suggest that Ancelotti can deliver both for Everton. He improved performance levels by over 50% in his time at the club (when compared to the previous manager) and now looks to have rooted through his contact book to bring in 2 big names to the club.
I’ve always been sightly wary of the “Robinho moment” mantra. As I have said before, Robinho was actually quite a poor buy for Manchester City and underwhelmed. In and around his recruitment it was the signings of Kompany, Silva, Aguero, Zabaleta & Toure who would provide the real motor for change. Yet the symbolic value that Robinho represented- himself a fringe player at Real Madrid like James now is that hinted at a change in how the club viewed themselves and ultimately how others within the industry viewed them. The signing of James has prompted much discussion in the upper echelons of the game- with players openly discussing the merits of James leaving Madrid to join Everton. While the initial reaction is to be defensive, what the discussion really hints at is how well Everton have done to get the signing done and how perceptions may be starting to change. When Rivaldo says he could still do a job for Real Madrid, this should be seen as a positive statement for Everton in acquiring something of a coup in getting this transfer over the line.
Each of the signings are different and have different profile specifications and so attempts to lump all through together as older players lacking in resale value should be avoided as it feels a little lazy. James is undoubtedly the highest ceiling of the 3 but probably the biggest risk due to injury difficulties, Allan is the one who has worked with the manager most recently and arguably performed to the highest level over the recent past while Doucoure offers a valuable combination of quality but also an understanding and experience of the league. James is very much a luxury player, Allan feels more of a sitting midfielder while Doucoure is more box to box. If a midfield 3 were adopted, you could quite easily see all 3 being able to play together with a comfortable balance between them.
When analysing the players themselves the most eye catching is certainly James. He is one of an elite band of footballers to have broken the world transfer record. It was Ancelotti at Real Madrid who agreed to part with such a sum, who would then take him to Bayern Munich some years later and by all accounts made him a top transfer target last summer at Napoli. For Ancelotti, who was working with elite teams and players to have continually placed James so centrally on his wish list for players is very indicative of not only the players ability but the faith Ancelotti has in him.
The stats for James are little short startling (though there are some important caveats). The expected goals created stats for him are in the top 5% for the last 3 years as are how progressive passes and key passes (at times closer to the top 1-2% in the league). While at Bayern his touches in the opposition box was in the top 60% then top 80% though this heavily dropped at Madrid last season (to being in the bottom 10% of players in a comparable position). Goals have also come down somewhat, scoring 0.21 per 90 at Madrid last season compared to 0.56 & 0.39 at Bayern. At Bayern he was in the top 20% & 5% of attacking midfielders in this area, whereas at Madrid he is just over half way. Interestingly though, in all 3 seasons he outperforms his expected goals by 20%-50% so he remains a very good finisher. At Madrid last season, he has tended to play a little deeper, get involved in shooting and scoring less, but is still very creative- looking to play considerable forward passes.
This is also shown in more simplistic stats. He is a goal or assist around every 102 minutes following his move from Monaco, so while many feel he hasn’t fully reached his potential the numbers remain exceptional and show the sort of output you would expect from a player who broke the transfer record. While some of the regression in the numbers could be down to age and as a result of some injuries, another contributing factor is likely to be playing for a manager in Zidane who didn’t fancy him him and making more sporadic appearances.
There are caveats to the numbers too. He was playing for the leading team in both the leagues he was playing in (in Madrid and Bayern). He is coming to a side in Everton who finished 12th last season. While the form under Ancelotti was closer to a side 6-7th in the league, it remains a world away from what he was used to at Madrid/Bayern. I would not expect the same sort of return on numbers at Everton- in much the same way if De Bruyne came to Everton you would not anticipate him getting 20+ assists in a season. Struggle though, James has shown he is surprisingly durable without the ball, he makes over 0.5 tackles per game and over 9 pressures. This is the side of the game he will need to do more of, but there are small indications that he is able to do cope with this side of the equation.
There are also concerns about his age and to some degree injury record (though his reduced appearances of late have been down to none selection rather than injury). His record at international level, in a more modest side is also very strong and again a small indication for Everton fans that his output could still remain high in a side without as many star names. His numbers over the last 2-3 seasons are comparable to Kevin De Bruyne (who is also 29 and a little injury prone) and stack up favourably (in fact are a fair bit better) than Bruno Fernandes who has revitalised Manchester United.
While he may start from the right in a midfield 4, I expect he will be given significant license and could be the sort of playmaker from deep we were hoping to get with Gylfi Sigurdsson (who for all the things he does well, simply does not dominate the ball and manipulate the game in that manner). While there is some risk involved, there is also an enormous upside to any transfer and I don’t hesitate in saying that James at even close to his best would be the best player in our squad, and arguably the best player we’ve signed post Kanchelskis (perhaps even post Lineker).
While James is perhaps the showpiece, it’s Allan who may play the most integral role. He has performed the role of midfield all-rounder for a Napoli side who peaked at consecutive 2nd places in Serie A- one of which had them finish on 90 points. I watched Allan perform admirably against Liverpool, where he gave as good as he got in games and helped play a central role in maintaining their unbeaten record against them. The impression I had was of a player who was a very strong all-rounder- and capable of fulfilling different roles in midfield. He could tackle, pass, carry the ball as well as being relatively creative.
When I looked at the numbers for Allan, the base line numbers seemed quite positive. He is regularly around the 2.5 tackles per game mark, creates 1 chance per game and makes 50+ passes per match (at better than a 90% accuracy). In truth most of our current midfield struggle to do one of those things, never mind all 3. His stats show a midfielder who is as good at breaking up play as Schneiderlin, creates as much from open play as Iwobi/Bernard and makes as many passes as Delph. What is most striking with Allan, is within the champions league- in games where Napoli come under more pressure (and perhaps more akin to what he will initially experience at Everton) his tackling stats go through the roof, to making well over 5 tackles per match. This is peak Gana Gueye/Kante levels of performance, from a player who is more comfortable on the ball than Gana was.
The more intricate numbers reflect well on Allan. While last season was a bit of a disappointment for him (losing manager Ancelotti and Napoli’s form dipping) he was still in the top 5% for tackles made and around that marker for the pressures he made. He is top 35% for long balls made and their accuracy and just over half way on distance carried. The information on his passing is a little more mixed, he’s only around 35-40% mark for progressive passes but the distance he masses is just over half way (60%) and he’s in the top 25% for the number made into the final third. So essentially he is just below average for the amount of forward passes, but when he does it is mainly longer distances and more likely to reach the final third. When you factor in his very impressive work off the ball, the player himself is quite unique and ticks a lot of boxes. It is easy to see why PSG wanted him last summer ahead of Gana, but were put off by the £80m asking price, or the £45m asking price in January. It’s also easy to see why Italian champions Juventus made an offer. He’s a player who would not look out of place in one of the top European teams.
As with James there are risks to the transfer. At 29 I don’t think there is much debate to be had that the player is not going to get much better. The likelihood is he begins to decline very quickly. As with James, he is declining from a position of being much better than most of our existing options, but like a new car, the moment he drives off the forecourt he will begin to lose value. The Italian league is also a challenging league to move across from. Where he was physically very capable in Italy, this will be put under more pressure in the Premier League. His midfield partner Jorginho, who himself had similar startling numbers in Serie A has been something of a flop at Chelsea. The hope has to be he can make such an adjustment, that any decline is not immediate and is quite a shallow decline. My gut feeling is that Ancelotti may ask him to play more of a sitting midfield role, rather than a ball chasing role, to help preserve his legs and aid his acclimatization process. Allow him to read the game, intercept and press in his area, and utilise his long passing ability, but not get too worried about bombing around the pitch. Such is the diversity and quality of the player (that even such a role where he plays within himself) there is still value to be had for the team.
Finally and by no means least we have Doucoure. Like Allan he was coveted by a number of top teams over recent years including Arsenal and PSG- who were both a little put off by Watford’s asking price (again believed to be close to £50m). He is relatively unique in that he is in and around the top 10% for pressures of opponents, but much lower down in terms of successful tackles. In essence he helps his team win the ball back but it’s rarely as a result of a tackle himself. People can read into that as a positive or negative depending on their perspective, though playing alongside Allan could prove to be a fruitful partnership. He is also quite a proficient finisher, over the last 3 seasons slightly bettering his XG tally with actual goals (15.24 v 16) which is very positive for midfield players.
Whereas the other two players have a weakness in terms of being a little older and coming from a different league, Doucoure is “safer” and ultimately lower risk option than those 2 players, though the upside feels a little smaller. While his pressing and goal scoring are good (and he is reasonably creative) he struggles a little with passing the ball and is not the most natural on the ball. Though he partially makes up for that with his ability to carry the ball forward.
So overall you see quite a varied package from the 3 players we have bought. The signing of these 3 players, who are more experienced and probably at a higher level than what we are used to does seem to signify a slight shift in strategy to fit in with the new manager we have. Pressure will come from the acquisition of these players for Ancelotti- whose stock is currently very high amongst Everton fans (understandably so). While it would be silly to be insisting on minimum expectations for the next season (we desperately need a period of stability) if the above 3 are finalised then a finish of below 8th in the table is likely to be seen as a disappointment from sections of the fan base.
As the season progressed, it became increasingly clear that midfield was a key area of weakness. While much initial discussion was around getting a central defender in, it looks as if the powers that be have been flexible enough to amend the approach and go heavily into midfield. This looks the right approach to me from afar. There is risk with any signing but each player- in their own right have shown performances that go levels above where we were performing too for most of last season, where it felt the midfield was amongst the worst in the league. Good organisations act radically and quickly to put out fires where they exist.
It’s important to note, we will not be getting a peak Allan or James but the hope will be they can maintain levels close to their peak, alongside Doucoure and Gomes for a while yet. If they can, the Everton team has a very different feel to it and provides a moment of optimism for the onlooking fans. There are not many days as an Everton fan that leave you feeling fully contended, but the recruitment of these 3 players is as close as one can get to that. The hope is, over the coming months and years this is replicated on the pitch as they provide the much needed leadership and quality we have been missing over recent times.