Each season is different and in truth there is never a simple, straightforward season. The closest we have perhaps seen to this in recent times was a period under David Moyes, that increasingly feels a long way away. A form of relative mundanity, with finishes between 8th to 5th most seasons but little being done to seriously challenge at the very top end. In his defence, he lacked the funds to ever make that a serious option. Everton under Moyes were never going to go down or even look likely to go down, but were also never going to challenge at the top end. To some it was boring, particularly for Evertonians older than me who had seen the club win everything there was to win. To me I enjoyed the boredom, such was the trauma that had followed from the crystalising experience of initially watching Everton in the 90’s amongst acute relegation dogfights.
They were bad, but this season was worse. I watched the 90’s through a child’s eyes, and this through an adult’s lens. I had no great faith that Everton would somehow stay up. I am now not really a man of superstition or faith but of numbers and outcomes. At times this season, towards the back end, it felt we had over a 50% chance of being relegated. That does enormous damage to one’s ability to sleep, or even to concentrate. In truth, my own belief in numbers may have even helped. At times, where others perhaps felt we were destined to go down, I always felt we had a degree of equity in survival, and probably a larger share of equity than most felt. I don’t think we were ever more than 60% likely to go down. The worst it got was a slightly loaded coin flip. That provided some comfort, when the anxiety kicked in.
The season itself fits in no small part into a large section of mis-management and mistakes that have compounded Everton over the last 12 months, and in truth the last 6 years, or the last 25 years, depending on which guise you want to take. It may not be the point of the article, but those who have overseen this-namely senior figures on the board should take accountability and be leaving their posts. If they don’t, we surely have to ask at what point will they? Will it take the club to be relegated and/or to go bankrupt for someone to make the brave but correct call. I don’t see that happening, but that would be the first, obvious conclusion. The CEO and Chairman need upgrading.
Ancelotti walks a year ago. You can see from him taking a good but unspectacular Real Madrid side to bossing La Liga and defeating Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City to eventually win the champions league what a great manager he was. We were punching well above our weight with him. We were very fortunate. There’s lots of talk about Klopp and Pep being great managers, but honestly Ancelotti-with 4 Champions Leagues- name has to be put amongst theirs, which it isn’t. I digress. For Everton he papers over cracks. We don’t win many at home with him, but this season has shown, without overwhelming fan support, we don’t win many full stop. With fans in the ground, the points we lose at home last season are probably gained and we get top 4. That’s the genius of the manager. He leaves and the club doesn’t recover.
I have sympathy for the board to some degree. It’s a sudden departure. We can’t attract a manager of his calibre. We can’t even get close. Where my sympathy is limited is that it’ clear that there is no contingency plan whatsoever. Good businesses plan for all eventualities. They also don’t leave themselves entirely dependent on 1 man. It’s obvious the club had no idea what to do.
They waste a lot of time appointing the next manager, which doesn’t help the club or indeed help him. And the next manager will need all the help he can get, and honestly I don’t think the club give him a lot. There’s 5 interviews and a lot of wasted time. It probably doesn’t make a difference but you’re not giving the manager every chance.
We can’t review the season without talking a lot about Benitez really. He’s an unpopular choice. I don’t mind that Moshiri plumps for a choice nobody else does. Generally the most successful business people are contrarians. Warren Buffet is a contrarian. He is greedy when everyone else is fearful. But crucially he gets big calls right. Apple, Coke, American Express all bought when nobody else wanted them, all paid off in spades. Moshiri and his credibility in the fanbase was taking a huge risk with Benitez. It’s fine to make big calls if you get them right, but if you get them wrong, you lose even bigger. I’d say for most fans, his credibility is shot.
The first initial point, is where is the Chairman in this? A strong chairman is able to articulate the point that it’s a bad idea. I have no idea if he said that, but if he did it was not done in a way to have any influence on the majority shareholder. If that’s the case, we have a chairman who the owner doesn’t respect. If he ducked the issue he is a coward, or also has bad judgement. Whichever it is, we need better.
I actually felt Benitez was an ok choice. Brands had not really shown indication to build the club from the ground up (as Thelwell appears to at least be trying) and we were ok under Ancelotti. We were 31 points above the drop zone. We had a stable structure. Benitez is an experienced manager, and has often followed Ancelotti. He is a pragmatist and I felt he would not change too much and build upon what Ancelotti did. It felt a logical decision. It turned out to be way off.
Benitez is unlucky. He starts well. We get a good win against Brighton away, blitz Burnley at home and grind out some other results. After 7 games, we draw at 3rd place United to go to 4th place in the league. It’s one of my moments of the season, but given how both United and Everton fall off, it shows how little can be garnered from the result in hindsight. We play really well and are inches away from winning it (with Mina not keeping himself onside). After that game we win 1 from 14. We lose Richarlison, Calvert Lewin, Mina and Doucoure as well as alienating Lucas Digne. There is some bad luck for Benitez.
However there is also some plain bad management. He changes the set pieces too quickly and ultimately moves too far away from Ancelotti’s more cautious game plan into one that is both too aggressive and not defensive enough. We surrender possession but lose the players we need to counter quickly. We are not good enough to keep teams out defensively, and with set pieces botched (we are the worst in the league) we also concede a fair smattering from them. He looks lost through this run. Players return, but the rot is now deeply embedded. Essentially what should have been a pragmatic choice turned out to be quite a high risk one and all of the proposed upside is lost.
I’ve seen a lot about Lampard and 16th to 16th, which is sort of indicative of the sort of inane reporting that has driven supporters away from major media outlets. Not just does Lampards points per game show a dramatic increase on what went before (1.11 v 0.95) around a 17% increase. However the run of 1 win from 14 games, cannot be underestimated. The team had collapsed. Given Newcastle and Burnley end up picking up a lot more points, it’s very likely had we have maintained manager, we get relegated.
The hope is Lampard gives us the sort of bounce Ancelotti did. Unfortunately he doesn’t. Its not helped by FA Cup games giving us wins but we win just 1 of the first 5. Ancelotti picks up 10 points from his first 5 games and 17 from his first 8. It’s the sort of run we dreamed of again. If you factor in Fergusons performance too, post the Silva sacking we pick up 22 points from 11 available. An equivalent run under Lampard would have seen us on 40 points from 30 games and sitting very comfortably. But the levels of manager between Ancelotti and Lampard are shown up, as well as perhaps the level of mess we were in following the sacking of Silva V Benitez.
It hits home a bit against Newcastle that there is no quick fix, a game where we fluke a lead but don’t ever look like holding on, even for a draw. But honestly, the terror moment for me came against Wolves. It’s a flat performance, Watford win, I think Burnley win and it begins to feel real. We are going to go deep into the season. It’s a strange game, as it’s kind of the last game between the initial Lampard euphoria of big home wins, and before the latter desperation of fan support that came to symbolise the end to the season. At that moment, it felt a real possibility.
Somewhere around this point (I believe Spurs away to be precise) Lampard changes his approach, having accepted we can’t play his way, and we go to plan b, which is one small part of saving us down the line. I think positives were taken out of the Wolves game.
The Burnley game is really bad. I can’t watch the last 10 minutes. I got the sense if we won we were safe, and if we drew we were a long way there, We bodge it. Their win against Watford away puts enormous pressure on the Chelsea game, which is as big a relief as I’ve had as an Everton fan. Leicester away also feels as big a win as I’ve celebrated. There’s also honorable mentions for United, Newcastle and Palace at home. These were all as big a wins as I’ve felt for a decade or more.
Perhaps more than any individual game and at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, the club feels like it has rediscovered it’s connection to the supporters and its soul over this season. There was a misplaced passivity that bred in, after years of stability under Moyes and the promise of millions under Moshiri. There’s no happy ending here without the supporters. The board aren’t competent enough and FFP won’t allow Moshiri to buy his way out of it.
There has always been a lot of talk about Wimbledon 94 being a rebirth of the club, which to a degree it was in the longer term but that comes with some complications. In the years after 94 and 98, we seriously struggle with relegation, before eventually beginning to move away from such strife. Next season has to be a concern, especially with a summer where we cannot buy our way out of trouble (as we sort of tried in 1999, with a new manager and big signings). There are some unique factors last season (namely the injuries) that shouldn’t happen to the same extent this season, and a manager who ultimately averaged around 42 points per season should theoretically get better with a full pre-season under his belt. 14 points from the final 9 games show there was incremental progress. I think he’s a decent fit for where we are at, and on paper should dovetail well with the new DOF. But complacency cannot be allowed to set in.
We can and should talk about players (which I will briefly below) but to me the big take out, is that the people who led us into the mess of nearly being relegated cannot be trusted to continue to run the club. The DOF has gone, and the CEO/Chairman should follow. We have been warned.
In terms of overall performances, there were some positives even in amongst the difficulties. Anthony Gordon looks a terrific find and a real bonus on where he was 12 months prior. Pickford has developed into the goalkeeper we hoped he can be. Mykolenko looks a solid if unspectacular left back. Richarlison had a great end to the season and Calvert Lewin’s cameo against Crystal Palace showed what we have been missing for most of the season. How many of the above we can keep must be an open question.
We probably have to lose at least 1 big player, and the recruitment needs to be right. The club should benefit from having a continuity of manager and coaching staff, and a manager who will likely benefit from time on the training pitch with the players. We have to hope tat this is enough to avoid the calamity of the 2021/22 season as we move forward.