Everton 2022/23 Season Review

When you write most season review, you typically have some idea of what it will look like before the final game of the season, or indeed the final minute of the season. A novelist typically has an idea for a novel, a beginning and an end and will work through the intermediary parts as he goes. While life imitates art, you are acutely aware watching that it is not fiction, that there is no great destiny that we stay up, and a 100th minute equaliser for Bournemouth would be even more devastating than one in the 80th or even 90th minute. One goal, one slip, one moment manifestly changes the tone, outlook and evaluation of the piece and made it difficult to think about how to evaluate the season, never mind begin to do so.

That final point is the key one. While history is written by the winners, and humans then talk about history with different biases that make it sound akin to fiction, when you are in the moment, or within 24 hours of the moment it should be noted nothing felt inevitable about the survival. Whether that was within the final game itself, or the run in more broadly. In short, we got very lucky, and the key take out from this season has to now be an acknowledgement that we were very fortunate again, and banking on continued fortune is not a strategy. That we were even in a situation where one goal, one missed penalty etc would have put us into relegation has to be enough for transformative change at the top end of the club. This has to be at the top end of the board, and quite possible with the owner too. A new CEO and Chairman are now essential.

I cannot underline this point enough. We have changed managers 7 times, Director of football 3 times, medical departments as well as countless players. The only constant of the last 20 years has been the chairman, and the last 4 that have seen us slide from being a top half team to one fortunately escaping relegation has been the CEO alongside him. A CEO who spoke of lifting the team towards the top 4 within 3 years has overseen the opposite process. They will take the club down if they remain. We stand a chance of building a club worthy of competing rather than merely existing in the PL if we make a change. That realisation has set in for most supporters, but is the most important take out from the season for me.

In terms of the season itself, prior to commencement I had forecast a likely difficult challenge. The last day escapes in 94 and 98 were followed by seasons where we seriously floundered the following year. In 1994/5 we had 2 points from 10 games. In 1998/9 we were in the relegation zone with 8 games to go at Easter. Messrs Royle and Campbell arrived in both instances to do the houdini act. But logic, and history told me it was going to be a tough season. I suspect 90% of supporters intuitively felt this too and didn’t need to waste time looking through previous seasons to garner this sense. It was a poor team, and we lost key players.

The one aspect I clung to with some sense of hope, was that it was a side that 2 years earlier got 59 points under Ancelotti and 30 from 20 games under him in the season before. The season before that SIlva had 54 points. Last season felt a bit of an outlier, this season has confirmed that it was optimistic to think in such a way. And again logic underlines this. The two season following that run have seen a negative transfer spend of £30 million while our rivals have all spent heavily. We have seen the departure of Digne, James, Sigurdsson, Allan, Gomes, Gordon & Richarlison. Yerry Mina and Dominic Calvert Lewin have been blighted by injury (as has Ben Godfrey who has gone backwards as a player). The foundations of the team that cemented us as an upper mid table side has been gutted and the cheaper replacements have, as yet, failed to match the same standards. I don’t think in this premier league, you can get away with losing so many key first team players or have a board as rudderless and without a coherent plan as ours. If you combine both it’s extremely serious (see Leicester and Southampton who I will return to later on).

Privately the hope I had was Calvert-Lewin and Mina would stay fit for most of the season. Losing Richarlison in the summer felt enormous, but I felt we would have enough if Calvert Lewin could stay fit, and Gordon could kick on. If you would have said to me in the summer, Gordon would also be sold, having had minimal impact and DCL would only make 15 starts, many of them only partially fit, that alone would have had serious alarm bells ringing for me. This sense would have been compounded if the single attacking replacement, Neal Maupay would have only scored 1 goal all season, from the usual 7-9 goals he would typically get for Brighton. I wouldn’t have been able to predict a path to safety if given that information, yet somehow we have managed it.

This sense would have been amplified if you had stated to me that 0 promoted teams would have got relegated and 0 teams who were promoted the season before get relegated. To state you have to finish above 3 teams and effectively exclude Brentford, again I’d have said it was too much. I could make a case to finish above 1 or 2, but not 3. I have similar feelings now for next season. If 0 teams from Forest, Bournemouth, Fulham, Luton, Sheffield United and Burnley get relegated, I don’t see us surviving. We have to hope it’s not a secular trend but a little cyclical, and that we return to the mean next season with 2 or (ideally) 3 teams from that list getting relegated, (which statistically at least) is not that unlikely.

That is the story of this season too more broadly. In the end a bottom 4 of teams who, over the last 10 years have at different moments been heralded as success stories, but where it has gone completely wrong. While we rightly bemoan our own decline, the stories of specifically Leicester and Southampton underline the structural nature of the challenge that now exists. You simply cannot afford to coast in the Premier League any longer, and assume you have an immunity to relegation. Mistakes will cost you. As stated above, unless we improve and make radical changes, it’s a case of when, not if, we get relegated.

Southampton 7 years ago finished 6th and were heralded in the same manner that Brighton and Brentford are now (rightly heralded). They were a club that sold at the right time, and recruited younger, cheaper players who would be developed. They were a success story in their own right. They had a combination of Pochettino and Van Dijk, but also players such as Sadio Mane, all smartly recruited. It would seem unfathomable they would be relegated moving forwards (as it seems that way for Brighton and Brentford currently). It becomes harder to keep going back to the well though, competitors take your backroom staff and approach, and if you slacken off the fall can be a lot more severe than the rise.

Prior to the final game of the season, I did some loose calculations that they had spent circa £100m on forwards, Mara, Sulemana, Alcaraz, Onuachu, Edozie and Armstrong. The majority of these tick the boxes of what “good recruitment” is meant to look like, younger players, from unknown/lower leagues, yet the end result was 2 goals in 84 combined appearances (I appreciate this is likely slightly higher after the goal bonanza on the final game of the season). This is the equivalent of signing 3 Neal Maupays, playing them most of the season and all 3 having the same end result as him. It is a disaster and underlines why they have struggled, and the fine lines between recruiting and developing players successfully, and what happens if you are slightly out in your calculations.

For Leicester the drop off is more dramatic. They were first when Southampton finished 6th, albeit this was seen as something of an outlier. But like Southampton, they would sell their top players, and re-recruit, they lost Kante, Maguire, Mahrez and Chilwell for good money but always seemed to spend smartly. Two years ago they had 67 points and last season they finished 8th. To fall from that point to 34 points and relegation is another red flag. It is akin to saying everyone from Tottenham down could get relegated next season and everyone from Liverpool down could be relegated within 2. It is an astonishing turn of events.

Of the 3 teams (and Everton) the one where it is most predictable is Leeds, who have ultimately gone down in their third season. But Leeds, like Everton got 59 points in their first season back. They have spent an enormous amount of money since then, around £200m gross and just under £100m net since that summer. If you take into account the first season spend it is over £300m gross and over £200m net spent. In terms of net figures, this is more than Everton have done in the 7 years of Moshiri’s tenure, compressed into a much shorter period on the back of a 9th place finish. Logically you would not expect to get relegated with such an approach. It will likely have sent shockwaves through 10+ teams in the league.

In all 3 cases the mistake appears to be chasing the mythical “new manager bounce” and sacking good managers who suited their respective systems. Rodgers, Hassanhuttl and Bielsa were all replaced by inferior managers in the misguided belief that just changing your managers gets you better results in the short term (it often doesn’t).

I don’t highlight all 3 to gloat, or to let our board off the hook, but to point out that the problem is structural and give further evidence that just being Everton, or winning the league 35 years ago is not an insulation. Teams who have spent a lot more money than us have been relegated, and we cannot continue to tread water.

In terms of specifically Everton, and with the caveat being that given the aforementioned headwinds I am surprised we somehow managed to survive, there has to be enormous credit given to Sean Dyche. Not so much for keeping us up, but frankly for making us competitive, and avoiding doing what Southampton did (falling with a whimper). In the lead up to the Bournemouth game, I had to resign myself to the belief that Dyche had done well to give us a chance going into a one off game, and had in effect done his job, and to a lesser or greater degree it was down to fortune. It’s a wonder goal that keeps us up, but likewise it’s the width of a post in the Leicester game that may have cemented that place. I thought Dyche was very honest in his after match comments, where he essentially stated a final game survival is a bit of a lottery and there’s not an enormous amount you can do as a manager. If you are in that situation, you have effectively failed. For Dyche, to get Everton to have a chance of playing the roulette wheel for survival was his optimal case for the inaction of the board in both recruiting players in January and failing to sack a manager out of his depth early enough.

Throughout the season, many blues felt we were down. I am not saying this to be controversial or make out I am some soothsayer, but I never got to a point where I thought we would go down, though I got close. The home defeat to Southampton was a low point, but I always felt we had time, and the appointment of Dyche seemed a perfect fit (re-enforced by a bonus win against Arsenal). I remember thinking if we lost to any of Leicester, Forest or Brighton we would be down, but on each occasion we got the result we needed in the nick of time. I always felt we had to defeat Bournemouth to survive but always felt we would. I also always vocalised that 35 points would be enough, as it tends to be most seasons now, and could always see a path ro 35 points.

When Dyche came in, I looked at his long term average points per game at Burnley (around 1.18) and used that as a useful barometer for the rest of the season. There would likely be an improvement from the lows of Lampard, I felt his squad was slightly better than what he had at Burnley both in an absolute sense, but also relative to the rest of the league (though not by much) and felt this was a realistic starting point. It would have got us to around 35/36 points we ended on, and I felt this would likely be enough.

For the most part, I think we have attacked better and defended worse than I expected under Dyche. I expected us to be tighter defensively, though keeping 5 clean sheets from 18 games was a reasonable return and formed the bedrock of the success. In the post Dyche form tables we finished 15th, with the 11th best goal’s against and tied 17th for goals scored. Crucially we picked up 17 points from the 7 games we took the lead in (around 85%) which was much higher than the 50% we were operating to under Lampard. In the two games we dropped points we still held on for critical draws at Leicester and Forest, while we won the other 5 games. There are questions around in game management, culture and fitness under Lampard that were greatly improved under Dyche, which ultimately proved to be a key difference.

There are frustrations with Dyche. I don’t mind his cautious approach to substitutes, and think his contrarian thinking (of effectively why change what may be working) to be quite refreshing but some selections have irked. I would have liked to have seen more of Ellis Simms at times, but the glaring omission for me has been Yerry Mina. Since returning to the team, Everton have picked up 7 points from 4 games with him in the team, conceding just 5 goals. We conceded 6 in the previous 2 games to him starting. It would be interesting to know the managers rationale for this.

However, there are many positives for Dyche. I like how he communicates, he is honest but also upbeat. He presented a calmness throughout the run in when many others were losing their heads, and it was a stark contrast to managers such as Allardyce who seemed to throw players under the bus and make excuses while Leeds manager. In a sport of fine margins his approach probably helped Everton just get over the line. The players seemed fitter and worked hard under him, and would typically be let down by quality not application where we lost. I want him to succeed, because I want every Everton manager to succeed, but I have warmed to Dyche and his no nonsense, no excuses brand of coaching and feel he could offer some stability for the club which is much needed.

In terms of players performances, unlike other season I think for the most part they have tried, but have been a bit let down on quality. Iwobi has been a favourite of mine, he played in different positions and worked extremely hard throughout. He has also contributed a number of assists and key equalising goal at Leicester. McNeil has been an inspired signing, and when goals were remiss stepped up to get 7, alongside displaying a ferocious work rate. He also seems to have a rare quality of growing when the pressure was on, which is a rare though valuable trait. Tarkowski has been everything I have expected, he is a leader on the pitch and rarely had a poor game, even with some limitations in his game.

However my own player of the season has to go to Jordan Pickford. I was never Pickford’s biggest fan when he first arrived, and was always concerned about his concentration and mindset. Unlike some toffees, I never felt his moment of madness with Virgil Van Dijk was anything to celebrate but seemed indicative of a talented footballer who couldn’t get his focus right. It irked me that his performance’s for England were top draw but for Everton he was erratic. It also frustrated me that, at least for the first couple of years there were little signs of improvement.

However over the last 2 years he has really matured and improved. Last season I thought he was very good and made miracle saves, and this season at times he almost singularly saved us in games. The penalty save versus Leicester being a clear example. At Brighton, he made 3 or 4 unbelievable saves at a critical time in the match to see us home. I was sat amongst the Brighton supporters, who commented on how outstanding he was as a goalkeeper and stated Everton would be relegated already were it not for him. I could only agree. He now seems completely focussed, is a leader in his own right and is undoubtedly the best goalkeeper we have had since Southall. Barring a ludicrous offer, I really hope he stays.

I hope all Evertonians enjoy a wonderful summer.

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