Everton’s January

Everton’s January – much like most of the league sauntered slowly for the most part and ended with something of a bang at the end. It’s clear to see the plan was to move players on, ideally for cash permanently before any incomings were considered. The fiscal frugality that had been suggested, allied to Brands reticence to operate within January were ultimately validated when looking at January as a whole. Yet I think the window can be chalked up as success given the business Everton did.

I had wondered going into January, if the owner may have gambled more. The club as a business has no money to spend, but in truth that has been the case in at least the last 2, and in all likelihood the last 3 summer windows, where substantial spend was made. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that owner Moshiri’s benevolence was a central part in this. It did seem a surprise to me that this January didn’t fit into this criteria. When all games are equalled up, Everton went into January sitting between 2nd to 4th and likely sit anywhere between 3rd-5th when all games are played by the end of the month. They are within a handful of points of the league leaders. It is the best positioned the team has been not just in Moshiri’s tenure but in some years before that.

He will have his reasons for not doing so. Not all of them need to be negative either. Of course it may be that he simply won’t invest anymore (I doubt this) or that FFP concerns dominate (again I am doubtful) but perhaps more likely is that January is a difficult window, Brands is nervous about it and they want to limit upheaval in the first team squad when things look to be going smoothly. Ultimately, why risk that?

What is positive, is in the 2 previous years Brands has been here, form has picked up after January, despite no real signings being made. In 2019 a horrendous winter for Silva was followed by a positive spring, and Dominic Calvert Lewin was able to emerge as a viable striking option. It wasn’t the goal machine that would later develop into 2020, but he was a feared target man who truly nailed down a starting birth and was instrumental in a string of impressive home victories. In 2020 there was the emergence of Anthony Gordon and to a degree Jarrad Branthwaite who both got game time. While it’s hard to put values on players, Calvert Lewin will surely be worth well in excess of £100m now, while the hope will be Gordon and Branthwaite are taking 1 step back for 2 forward next season and can become prime assets. These things may not have happened had the club spent on short term success (as it did in 207 signing Walcott and Cenk Tosun who would later clog the system). This is the playing out of Marcel Brands strategy of creating spaces for younger player to come through, and trying to remove the hardest obstacle that faces them-a workable pathway.

One other consideration has to be around the question of Brands contract, which remains alarmingly unsigned. While there will be some speculation whether it is the club- or Brands himself who is reticent to re-sign to a longer deal- it is a very workable assumption that funds that may have been available to spend, may not have been available to a DOF who may be leaving in 6 months. If that is the case, it is prudent management from the owner. The Brands question probably deserves a column of it’s own, but essentially my take would be that while the 1st 18 months were underwhelming, the last 12 have been very good, and now we appear to be going in the right direction, I would be keen to maintain what continuity we can, and hope Brands stays.

As for the window itself, I suspect there will be some underwhelming sentiment on the sales side. No permanent outs and a deal for Bernard to leave breaking down at the last minute. The issue Everton have, is that even before the pandemic they had a group of players who essentially held very little value. The wages were too high, the players were then too old and the value to a European team would be little more than the difference between what they would want to pay them, and what they currently receive. The pandemic, in drastically reducing the flow of money being spent has just amplified those problems.

It is understandable that Everton look at top 6 clubs, who can sell unwanted players and envy that (though even for them it is proving more difficult) but buying aplayer, who has been around a club who wins regularly and plays in European competition regularly is vastly different from signing a player for a team who have played once in European competition in 5 years. Taking a 2nd hand Mercedes is a very different proposition to taking a 2nd hand Fiat. To a degree, that underpins the difficulties in selling Jonjoe Kenny, who has talent and is an honest pro. Burnley felt a natural fit, but the more one reads into their new owners, the more alarming it gets and the idea they are going to have untold wealth to spend becomes more unlikely by the day.

There is also a question of common sense in this. Why would Burnley pay £7m for a player they can likely loan, with a nominal fee, and buy for a much knocked down price in the summer with 12 months left on the deal? Everton have had numerous windows to commit to Kenny and give him a proper run at right back, and successive managers have opted against it, and as mentioned above, nobody is paying lots of money for an Everton back up player who is nearly 24. I hope he does well in Scotland, but I won;t be holding my breath on any major fee emerging.

The loans for Branthwaite, and Gordon are the bright spots of the window. While in general I am nervous about the loan paradigm- which states that all teams have to do is loan players and they magically improve and become first team ready (and that it doesn’t matter what level this is at) alongside the belief that there unlimited clubs happy to provide this service for you, in certain situations loans can make some sense. For Branthwaite, who has been awarded 2 MOTM awards in his first 4 games fo Blackburn this looks a case in point. Blackburn have also taken Harvey Elliot from Liverpool and Taylor Harwood from Manchester City, who are both local and highly rated, yet it appears to be Branthwaite who is stealing the show as the most promising youngster of the bunch. It is smart and sensible from Blackburn as a strategy, and may well see them sneak promotion this season. For Branthwaite, it is likely to be a strong finishing school for a player who will surely be close to first team contention next season.

In the case of Gordon, it also appears to be a positive move. He was straight into the starting 11, and again early indications from Preston fans were positive. Some had said he was the best loanee they had seen since David Beckham. It’s difficult to know what has quite happened with Gordon, who was arguably Everton’s brightest spark in lockdown, but has struggled a little bit this season. He seems to be playing too cautiously, and maybe forgotten what got him into the team. A spell scoring goals and winning games for Preston will be advantageous for Everton come the summer.  Ellis Simms has also gone to Blackpool and is scoring goals and Moise Kean also keeps impressing for PSG. While there remain questions about the latter 2 (for differing reasons) they look to be 4 loans that are going to improve the players in question, and while it has left the squad lighter in the short term, there will hopefully be a medium term gain next season of 3-4 new players, or a heftier transfer fee for Kean if we sell him.

In terms of the incomings, as I stated earlier, I had felt Moshiri may have gambled more. Of the signings coming in, I felt it may have been either younger players from France (who are experiencing acute financial difficulties) and/or more experienced players on loan. In truth, neither really materialised, though they kind of snuck King into the latter category. Across the board, French clubs were not massively tested and players looking to make the Euro’s squads didn’t really move. In honesty there wasn’t an awfully big narrative around it, perhaps owing to the worsening Covid situation and questions about whether the games will even go ahead.

It looked like Everton were beaten to the punch on Caicedo by Brighton and by Parma for Zirkzee. While both would have fitted into the younger “Brands” type signings, it is a positive overall that Everton have a figure they work to, and stick to that. It is reverting away from this that has got the club into such difficulty. WIth Parma, sitting at the bottom of Serie A he was always going to get more football and be more important to them. They are where we were in 2017, desperately at the bottom- which led us to overpay for Tosun and Walcott. Everton had a different offer-better players, bigger club, better coach, but 1st team football is also an important counter balance.

The plan then seemed to shift, to Josh King on deadline day. When he was being shopped around at £15m in the summer I was ambivalent on the question. When it was £5m on deadline day I was very much in the King in camp. When I realised it was very little up front, with the option of the total payable being around £2.5m if he signs on in the summer, it is hard not to be enthusiastic about the deal. Everton have very little risk from now until January, and have a substantially below the market value fee payable in the summer if they want to keep him. They also have a useful, experienced and highly motivated player to help with the run in. While we may have lost Tosun & Gordon we will gain the cover they gave in both positions, to likely a higher standard in King.

What is interesting with King, is if you go to the FBref site and look at his stats they do a player comparison tool. In the previous 3 years in the winger position Richarlison has come 4th, 6th and 4th respectively when matching them both as wingers, and 5th and 8th when evaluating them as forwards. Interestingly in the forwards list in 2018/19 2nd is Jota and 3rd is Ings and Jota appears 3rd on the winger list for that season. So he is in pretty decent company (bear in mind the 2018/19 season was the one before Ings went on a crazy scoring spree). The squad has likely been crying out for “another Richarlison”- as someone who can play on the right, but also cover Richarlison on the left and at a push be a 3rd striker option in the middle. Over the last 2 years, King is probably the most matched to Richarlison in both positions. So his versatility is a big plus.

Quality is there too. In terms of goals he has 48 in 161 in the league, Roberto Firmino, who has joined LIverpool the season King got promoted to the PL and is a few months older than King has 63 in 198 (having played ½ a season more in the top flight). There’s no doubt that Firmino has greater creativity, though King carries the ball better and was playing in a poorer team. The idea though, that you could pick someone up, with Firmino’s goal return for up to a couple of million pounds is testament to the great work Brands has done with incomings.

As a player he looks to have great pace, is another strong ball carrier and a really good finisher. He will get more chances at Everton. He is also deceptively good in the air, which hasn’t really been utilised at Bournemouth (due to a wider tactical approach from Howe) but one that there is every chance pragmatist Ancelotti will look to use it. I think he is a really signing and when he gets his match sharpness could prove to be another bargain.

So overall, in a challenging window I would say the club have done well. The difficulty at this point, is it looks the gap between 4-10th is going to be extremely tight, yet one end of that range would see the season likely dubbed as a failure the other as an overwhelming success which can probably shunt the club forward beyond what anyone may have predicted 12 months ago. It’s tantalising and informs some of the fear of the season. If we drop off a bit, the punishment is likely to be quite brutal. Even though just maintain the form we have shown for the first 55% of the season across the remaining 45% would likely see us finish 4th, it would still be a big achievement. That we are discussing it is reality a sign of the progress we have made.

Within the realms of what was done in January, I think we did well. From an accounting standpoint losing Bernard could have been tolerable, but he may still have a part to play. Adding King gives Everton depth and variety. There’s no doubt if he can re-find his best form, which saw sides bidding £25m for him, it will go a long way to allowing Everton to finish at the positive end of 4-10th scale. That has to be the hope that emerges from this window.

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