So near, yet so far.
Right through from Big Dunc to Big Sam, those five words have rung so painfully true at Goodison Park for so many years.
5th. 6th. 7th. Even all the way down to 11th. Everton seem to be well and truly stuck in the mid-table mire.
In recent years though, things have changed – even if their Premier League positions haven’t. Gone seem the days of miserly markets and bargain hunting. With their new owner and his new ethos, Everton look, for once, to have a financial driving force.
Last year’s pre-season was the spending blast-off, where the club splashed over £120 million on players – a window the likes of which the Merseysiders had never seen before. Yet, like the mirage of an oasis that glimmers in the despairing eyes of a desert wanderer, the top 4 remained tantalisingly out of touch. They hopped, skipped and jumped to the water source, starry-eyed, dreaming of Champions League hydration, only to grasp at thin air and fall flat in the sand.
Undeterred though, the Blues look hellbent to launch another offensive. The signing of Richarlison on Tuesday brought Everton’s outlay to almost £250 million in the last two years. Yes, the departures of Stones, Barkley and Lukaku have, admittedly, softened the financial hit, but there can be no denying that such a spending profile can only be one of a seriously ambitious club.
For them, this upcoming campaign is massive. It finally looks as if they have their groundwork laid, particularly after the capture of Marco Silva, following an extensive saga that included accusations of an “illegal approach” from the managers former club, Watford. People have waited a long time for this appointment. They expect big things.
And on paper at least, they should get their wish. Silva has proved himself, albeit sporadically, as one of the more astute tacticians in the Premier League. He almost steered Hull City to a miraculous escape in his first taste of English football, masterminding the hapless Tigers to four points from two games against Liverpool and Manchester United at the peak of his powers. At Watford too, he brought slick and organised football to Vicarage Road, implementing a solid 4-2-3-1 system that we could well see at Everton next season too.
His new £50 million man, Richarlison, was, and will be, a vital part of Silva’s plans, no matter what shape he decides to operate with this year. At Watford, the Brazilian was used on the left side of the attacking three, where he was encouraged to make a nuisance of himself. In an attacking sense at least, he was given complete freedom to drift wide or stay central, pulling the opposition fullback in and out of position with his insatiable desire to run. Even still, that Brazilian flair comes hand in hand with his tenacity, as Adam Smith of Bournemouth soon found out, after the ball was chipped over his head then put through his legs by the winger on his Watford debut.
Yes, his price tag has caused uproar. £50 million for a player with just 5 Premier League goals to his name is, undeniably, extortionate. But, he’s exactly the type of player Everton have lacked. He had 95 shots on goal in the league last season – Everton’s highest by a single player during the same spell was 45. He also racked up 199 touches in the opposition box. Everton’s most? Niasse with 88.
He’s a busy player. Positive, ambitious and determined. His first touch, his balance and his finishing have let him down on occasion, but at 21, there is plenty of time for Richarlison to blossom once more under the manager who gave him his first shot.
Alongside him, Everton have quite a few players with a point to prove. Gylfi Sigurdsson has yet to produce his best after his £45 million move last summer – he will operate in the middle of the three, sided by the electric Theo Walcott, also yet to find his feet. Cenk Tosun started his Toffees career promisingly and will look to continue in the same goal-scoring vein up top, and Idrissa Gueye, off the back of an impressive World Cup with Senegal, will no doubt continue to be one of the most underrated holding midfielders in the league.
Everton conceded far too many goals last season – more, in fact, than bottom side West Brom did -and so Silva will certainly prioritise tightening up at the back. Michael Keane has already voiced his happiness at the defensive emphasis that Silva has placed in his training sessions at the Merseyside club, instilling a high-pressing mentality into his new players. The manager has been said to obsess over the minute details of closing down space and cutting passing lines, so we can be sure to see a very well-drilled and well-covered Everton defence next season, alongside a fresh, exciting attack.
All that being said, the squad and the manager will need time, something that Everton haven’t been all too happy to give in recent years. The whole Sam Allardyce fiasco of last season, where the relegation-avoiding specialist was hastily appointed to stop the Everton free-fall, highlights the recent turbulence at Goodison. Everton are desperate for some stability, so they SHOULD give Marco Silva the chance to express himself.
And that should lead to improvement. 49 points last season, for the quality of the squad, was, all being said and done, disappointing. It must be said though, it is very difficult to quantify “success” for Everton given their sticky situation. England’s top 6 super-clubs do seem to have broken away from the pack somewhat. A gargantuan season would be needed if Everton are to join the VIP party.
Nonetheless, there is reason to be optimistic. Everton are doing all they can to keep in touch with the big six, and I personally wouldn’t bet against them edging that bit closer to them this season. Whether you count that as a success or not, depends on how idealistic you are, I suppose.
By: Thom Harris