It’s difficult to think of a season that has been as unanticipated as the one Everton are heading into. Much of that centre’s around the manager, who represented an uninspiring choice having failed in China in his previous role and has a history of ridiculous previous comments about the club. Whether that should be taken into account or not is somewhat incidental, football remains tribalistic and it inevitably will be held against him. There is also context before Benitez, both short and long term and some that has happened in parallel around him that mean he is more a consequence of difficulties we have as opposed to a cause though when people write history they generally do so from the vantage point of wanting sequential events and key protagonists to dominate them.
The more complex truth, which appears to be coming to pass is that the club has underachieved over the last 5 years, and if we are to be a bit more brutal it has often looked a bit of a shambles. Rarely when you underachieve does it look anything other than a shambles but for Everton it is difficult to see or understand any real process behind how decisions are arrived at. There is currently a DOF in situ who doesn’t seem to appoint managers, have final or key say on transfers or even hold central say on the academy. While sympathy can come, there must be a question of what is his role? There is a beleaguered chairman still in post, who looked as if football had left him behind 10 years ago, and a CEO who has been in position for 3 years and in truth doesn’t seem to have effectively raised either standards or commercial performance. There’s an owner who seems to leave these people in charge of the club, but when key decisions come around acts in a singular manner, seeming to ignore those same people below him. What was initially felt would be a temporary compromise now looks a permanent structure. There then seems to be some confusion when signings don’t work, performance stagnates and the additional liquidity provided just ensures the club stands still.
In the shorter term, the final few months of Ancelotti’s tenure are open to criticism. We went from being in the top 4 with 10 games to go, to finishing 10th. Within that period there were home defeats to Sheffield United (already relegated), Newcastle (off the back of a 6 game losing run), Fulham and Aston Villa (who did not have key man Grealish available) (and this is without counting disappointing draws at home to Spurs and Crystal Palace in home games). Even 8 points more from the above games would have had Everton competing for 4th. To some degree, when the season came to an end, with the worst performance of Ancelotti’s tenure (a 5-0 defeat to Manchester City) there was already some mourning going on for what might have been. His subsequent departure and the speed of it seemed to amplify the morose sentiment within the fanbase. Rumours seemed to break in the morning, he was confirmed in the afternoon and announced at 1700. A short tweet at 1659 a minute before announcing he had joined Real Madrid seemed to underline the relative levels of commitment felt. Everton were given all of a minute before he moved on to Real Madrid.
The easy answer is to get very angry with Ancelotti, though like with Benitez I think we are left with the idea of cause and consequence again. Did Ancelotti know the potentially barren nature of a summer was going to follow? That remains the great unanswered question. People felt burned by Ancelotti, as he had spoken so well for most of his time at the club. The truth is, it was all nonsense. 99% of what is said around football is nonsense and in all likelihood in society more generally. When in employment, people tell their clients, colleagues and managers what they need to hear most of the time. The ones who are better at it tend to go to the top. Ancelotti is as charming in this as anyone. He duped Evertonian’s, but that’s partially the game of being a football manager, you are trying to convince 11 young men they are better than what they are. He’s very good at it.
Everton then really didn’t help themselves after this. There was no real statement when Ancelotti went, and no real statement as to what they would try and do. These are moments when fans seek clarity from any of the CEO, Chairman and DOF who all seemed to go into radio silence. Maybe they felt unable to speak, or that all they could as was something akin to “the appointment will be made when Moshiri and/or Usmanov are ready to make one, the one who interviews best will likely get it”. That feels the truthful statement to have shared, but practically it is impossible to say that about your boss. On this alone there are some grounds for sympathy, but even when the chairman ran the club singularly the culture was not to be open and transparent with supporters. Unfortunately that culture seems to have lasted, but we have that synthesised now with an owner making decisions he doesn’t really feel qualified to make.
The result was, the managerial chase seemed to take an age. Then we seemed to settle on Benitez, which then seemed to take an age to finally appoint him. A combination of a poor end to the season, a far superior managers leaving (without so much of a 2nd thought) a delay to appoint, and then finally finishing on not only an objectively quite hateable figure who is a downgrade on the previous manager has killed about any enthusiasm. This is not to kill Benitez either he has had some success in certain places, but you would have to be a very odd individual to have any respect for him on a personal level. He could well do a good job at Everton, but he will never have respect and appreciation in doing so, as like Sam Allardyce before him he seems to trade off annoying people. He is very good at that.
In previous season’s the frustrations bubbling under have been masked by signings. Where Marx once wrote it was religion that was the opium of the masses, and it has been updated in the 20th century to television for football fans it appears transfers are very much the new opiate. Every summer it seems supporters of all teams want lots of new signings. From the rumours on social media, to watching it TV, discussing it amongst friends to eventually gloating about it back on social media there is something of a life cycle of transfers. To a degree we have been on that roundabout every summer and it is an enjoyable one. While Andros Townsend, Demarai Gray and Begovic may be prudent buys they are unlikely to fuel the dopamine hit that comes from an exotic foreign name. When everything else that is factored in, it has gone a long way to reduce any hype or optimism for the coming season.
Strangely, this may not be the worst thing. I get the sense that Benitez is really not concerned about the wider hype that surrounds the modern game, which is a position I do actually have some respect for. Manager’s job is not to play to the crowd but to find ways to win games. As we have seen with Ancelotti, 99% of the showmanship is disingenuous anyway. Give me a manager who wins over one who entertains any day. He also seems to be very calm about the lack of investment, which is a bit of a departure from his time at Liverpool and Newcastle where he almost singularly brought each club into disrepute. While I think he is extremely grateful to be given another chance to manage a big club (certainly a bigger club than Newcastle) and so will not want to rock the boat on what is a dream job for himself, it is my hope that in the delay to signing the contract there were at least some ground rules established on spending. My sense is, if he has been given the full picture on finances he will be calmer. He certainly seems calm thus far on the lack of incomings. With his experience and outlook we may well find he relishes the underdog tag. As a manager, whenever he has gone to clubs who’s expectations were to compete to win league’s, tends to be where he has flopped most (Madrid, Inter and to a degree Chelsea) whereas he seems to enjoy being an underdog more.
It’s also worth noting, that the squad is not as bad as perhaps some of the hype would have us believe. While in previous season’s there is no doubt the optimism of signings have probably overestimated the squad’s capabilities, there is a chance that we may be underestimating this squad. In simple terms, a squad has an intrinsic value but also a perceived value in the media. When you look at the fundamentals of the squad it would be very hard to argue it has gone backwards since last season. Gbamin may be a new first team player finally available in midfield, while there are now 2 wide options in Gray and Townsend who are better than the wider options we had last season (even if they are not as big an improvement as we might like). To be able to have improved on 2-3 positions, for relatively small amounts of money is a positive.
Losing Bernard (who started 3 games last season) is unlikely to hit the team. Likewise if Kean leaves, he will not be missed in terms of last season’s contribution. As things stand today, even with the departures (and potential departure of Sigurdsson) the squad is in a stronger position. It is also a younger squad, with players such as Holgate, Iwobi, Godfrey, Richarlison and Calvert Lewin all the right side of 25 and potentially still improving, with Keane, MIna, Pickford, Digne all 27 and under so probably in positions to maintain performance levels.
The gaping hole appears to be at right back. Coleman, at 32 is not good enough and is getting worse. Kenny now 24 is a good age but in truth looks a long way off being a 1st team regular. That remains a concern for me and there remains the possibility that lack of recruitment in that area may undo some of the positives that are due elsewhere.
It is fairly new terrain for a Moshiri summer. Whether the lack of spend will last for the entire summer is one question. Whether it will last beyond a summer is another. There are pressures on starting the new ground move and it’s an open ended question as to how far Moshiri would want to keep pouring money into a business that has thus far not shown signs of utilising it. There probably needs to be a more in depth evaluation to be done in September.
Before that my own prediction would be that we will see increasing moves done at the back end, and this will be marked (for the most part) by falling prices. Unless you are selling a prized asset it would look to me we may see something of a frenzied sell off at the back end. For Everton it may mean that opportunities for low fee deals, or even loans may be available. Players like Zappacosta at Chelsea or De Sciglio (both who have just 12 months to run on their deals) or Diogo Dalot (on loan) could be financially tempting options as we approach the end of the month. While none of them would be a number 1 option for right back they would all also be a significant upgrade on what we currently have on far more affordable terms than some other names. If Everton could get some liquidity (a sale of Kean being the optimum solution) there may still be many deals of there for the club to do.
In terms of a predicted finish it becomes difficult to nail down an exact spot, but with a gun to my head I would suggest 8th, with perhaps a lower points total than last year. Of the sides who finished below 11th last season Wolves are the only ones I could see overtaking us, but that still feel a stretch to me. Brighton will probably be better but again not enough to make up the ground. Aston Villa have brought in some excellent players, but without Grealish last season were scoring 0.9 points per game (versus 1.8 points per game with him). It’s certainly possible to make a big jump from 0.9 and they have signed good players, but I sense they may take time to gel. West Ham’s squad looks like it may suffer in the Europa league, and Leeds I think may have a tougher 2nd season when trying to maintain the same intensity levels. My feeling is we will just pip those teams.
Much beyond that it starts to get harder. Arsenal have the advantage of not playing in Europe this season, albeit some of their key players are getting older. Tottenham, if they can get a big fee for Kane may well add enough good players (and I think may be a surprise package under Nuno, who took a similar sized Valencia to 78 points in his 1st season there a few years back) and Leicester will all be favourites to finish above us. There is some hope too, Spurs like Alderweireld and Kane will be big departures, while Leicester losing Fofana will also be important, but hand on heart I can’t see us overtaking them at present.
The top 4 I think will be Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool in that order. City will not be burdened with a very slow start while they were still rebuilding so look good for a 90 point finish. Chelsea under Tuchel were at 2 points per game, and he has had a full pre season with them and Lukaku returning, so they look good to be around the mid 80’s. United signings of Varane and Sancho should add points to their bottom line, though I do worry about their manager in what is a critical season. Liverpool will almost certainly improve on 69 points, but with an ageing squad I am not sure they will add 15+ points required to get into the top 2.
As with any season, you need a bit of luck with injuries and to get off to a good start. But my sense is, an 8th place finish for this season.