Whichever way it’s dissected, 2021 has been a year to forget for Everton. One that started with much promise, a team sat comfortably in the top 4 but saw a slide to 10th in the league and just 26 points from the final 19 games of the season, In the following summer, a popular manager left, a unpopular manager was appointed and the club sit in the bottom 6 of the league having picked up just 19 points from 17 games.
There is some mitigation. For both Ancelotti and Benitez injuries have played an enormous part in the loss of form. Ancelotti had to navigate Digne, Pickford and James injured while Benitez has had to cope with absences of Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin and Gray. Both have also lost Allan, Doucoure and Yerry Mina in 2021 with other peripheral players Gbamin and Delph not featuring. There’s little doubt that the prolonged and deep injury crisis suffered has been a burden too far for the club. How far that is an excuse, or merely something that masks deeper problems is a reasonable question to ask.
There are legitimate concerns as to how well Benitez has adapted to the loss of players. He seemed to work to a clear counter attacking system, operating a 4-4-1-1 formation which has 2 players centrally tasked with covering the ground. When this has been Allan and a fully fit Doucoure it has worked, but in lieu of Doucoure we have looked badly outnumbered. For the opening 6 games or so, the system seemed to work well but he has struggled to adapt to having no Doucoure, and no Calvert Lewin to lead the line.
By contrast, Ancelotti did adapt very well, at least for short periods. In his only full season in charge there were in essence 3 teams built by him that proved successful but were ultimately transitioned away from. The initial 4-3-3 with James off the right made way for a more rigid 4-2-3-1 with 4 centre backs covering the defensive shape. At the back end of the season we had some success with a 3-4-3 hybrid formation, with Coleman and Digne alternating as 3rd centre backs. From a tactical viewpoint Ancelotti was fascinating to watch. The set up at games such as Wolves and Anfield last season outfoxed managerial opponents with significant ingenuity and complexity. The frustration with Ancelotti was that he perhaps didn’t give any single system enough time to bed in and as the season began to fizzle out seemed to be running out of ideas.
Benitez himself is known as something of a pragmatist, yet he seems to have diligently stuck to the approach, when in truth all around has seemed to suggest it won’t work. Insisting on going into the derby with just a 2 man midfield and a recently returned Doucoure seemed a very strange decision, especially with Delph fit and available. I suspect privately he may argue that the long term trade off for perfecting a specific way of playing is worth continually going back to the drawing board. It could also be said, he doesn’t have much other alternatives in his armoury, with ultimately not sharing the tactical armoury of systems that Ancelotti had in his locker.
Benitez has spoken of the 2nd half of the season being better. There was a similar pattern when he arrived at Liverpool, and while I haven’t studied his career in copious detail it does seem something of a pattern for him. At Liverpool it took until the 2nd half of the season for any real rhythm to be found. At Chelsea he was disliked for long periods and only really got a consistent run towards the end. With Newcastle, he started with relegation, before promoting the team and guiding them to lower mid table finishes. At Madrid and Inter Milan, his slow start was so slow that he ultimately didn’t get chance to turn it around. I wonder how close he has got to having that fate again here. We will never know how important the win against Arsenal was.
He needs a better 2nd half of the season. 19 from 17 equates to 42.5 points across a 38 game season. This would represent the worst full season for any manager this century (and below even Walter Smith in 1999). Benitez inherited a side that got 59 points, and had no major sales, where Smith inherited a team that had came 17th and survived on goal difference. While it’s always impossible to predict, when players start returning there will be a need to show an uptick in results and appearances.
He has some chance of that. Not just has there been something of a pattern for Benitez’s sides to improve in the 2nd half of seasons, but it looks like some funds will be available in January, while Digne may be sold. A left back perhaps more suitable to his brief may arrive, and other players appear to be being sounded out. This will certainly help Benitez. He also has Calvert Lewin close to fitness, and hopefully Gray, Townsend, Richarlison and hopefully Mina not long behind (though I wonder if Mina may also be sold in January). There has also been a worthwhile break following a credible draw at Chelsea, and you can only hope Benitez has used this time well, to get players back fit and work on aspects that have gone wrong with almost a mini-pre season.
While some tolerance may be given on the 59 points, if we finish substantially below 50 it’s hard to see that being justifiable. I though the 5-4-1 worked surprisingly well at Chelsea, and I wouldn’t be averse to us retaining that approach, at least for some time moving forward.
The other big change has been Marcel Brands leaving, shortly after signing a new contract. In truth it’s hard to avoid the conclusion it is anything other than shambolic to give a board member a 3 year deal and move him on within 6 months. The club certainly needs direction at a footballing level, but I am not sure the club have ever really committed to a DOF model, nor have they ever really tried to implement it’s benefits. It appears successive DOF’s have operated as chief scouts as opposed to people who shape footballing strategy from above.
There will be some talk about not needing a DOF, and if they are utilised in the same (flawed) way this is a wholly reasonable conclusion to draw. However the club needs oversight at a football level. If I had half an hour with owner Moshiri I would state to him;
1) You can’t win an arms race with Manchester City (and perhaps Newcastle). 2) It is going to be extremely costly to try. 3) Even if you could, football regulations will stop you. 4) If you want to maximise returns for yourself and the supporters, you need to spend money in a more farsighted manner, and have someone accountable for this. 5) That process has to involve the concept, we need to overachieve on smaller resources.
While managers will want to have some degree of control, they will now likely to become too caught up in the short term to be able to do the above work. It’s not a criticism of managers, but there is a conflict of interest they have, which tilts them to wanting short term solutions, as opposed to far sighted decisions. That contradiction, that what the club needs in the long term, may be against what a manager narrowly needs in the short term is evidence enough to warrant having some separation between manager and recruitment.
What Walsh and after him Brands failed to do publicly (and likely privately) was lay out a clear vision of what they were trying to achieve. Everton as a support base has copious high quality journalistic operators/fan media outlets who would happily meet, discuss and outline the wider vision. It is astonishing that this is not explained to supporters. Very early into a stint, a DOF should be open about what they are trying to do, and the rational for it. I recently watched an Amazon about Dortmund, where Sporting Director Zorc clearly outlines what they are trying to do from a big picture standpoint. In a lot of ways their challenge is similar to Everton’s challenge. They are having to compete with, and overhaul a much wealthier opponent. Everton have 5 to overcome and far less downside protection (where the Bundesliga has 6-8 teams that operate on budgets substantially lower than Norwich City-comfortably championship standard). It’s hard for Dortmund to finish below all but 3 of them. This really only strengthens the need for more rigid practices for Everton.
While it’s not perfect and can be tinkered with, a set of broad principles, clearly communicated to fans would quell some of the frustrations. Something again to;
1) No attempt to win an arms race thats unwinnable. 2) An acknowledgement for FFP and liquidity purposes, the club has to sell players when an offer above value comes in. 3) The club should aim to sell between 50-100m of players each season. 4) Focus on recruitment needs to be on players under 25, ideally those who have not been flagged by other teams. 5) Income generated by sales should partially fund a higher wage bill, and crucially academy spend. The wage bill needs to remain tight. 6) A coach needs to be able to work under these parameters. Hiring coaches that require solutions to be sought solely by recruitment of older players should be avoided.
There can be more added but as a rough basis it would be a starting point. Unfortunately you saw precious little evidence of this sort of plan being implemented over the last 5 years, and in truth we looked to have more of a long term football plan that was realistic before Moshiri arrived and put a DOF in. This (amongst other aspects) is a big criticism of the owner, who has gone through a number of managers, keen to deliver on a goal that isn’t realistic unless the problem is approached differently.