Everton FC: Forming Foundations After Failure

This season was always going be a transition year for Everton, with the previous summer of bloated spending set to have repercussions for the next few years. In the summer of 2018, Everton started a brand new “project” by bringing Marcel Brands on board as Director of Football, and Marco Silva as manager. The project is still very much in its infancy, experiencing a lot of growing pains this season, with Everton currently lying 11th in the table after a 3-2 defeat at Newcastle United – an indication of how much needs to change.

The fans, however, are restless after last season, when Everton burned through three managers and played some of the worst football this writer has seen in 26 years of fandom. This summer, then, is pivotal for Marcel Brands in terms of recruitment; both incomings and outgoings have to be managed correctly to get Everton on the right course, to ensure that the club is challenging for the Champions League spots in the near future.

What Everton lack

Creativity is one of the main areas of concern; Everton currently rank 11th overall in big chances created, and 12th in open play chances created in the Premier League. People point to a lack of a striker, which is an issue; however, the players behind are either the wrong fit or not creative enough to balance the side.

Defensive organisation is another major issue for the Toffees, with neither Kurt Zouma nor Michael Keane able to truly lead the back four. Everton have conceded the tenth most goals in the Premier League – a lot from set plays, which has been a major issue this season.

Physicality and athleticism is another issue for the side; if you look at games against Watford, Tottenham, and Leicester, Everton were completely outmuscled and outfought in midfield. In recent games, Morgan Schneiderlin has come into great effect and alleviated some of these issues, but he is not a long-term solution.

Couple a lack of creativity with defensive woes, and it’s no wonder that Everton are a mid-table or a bottom-half side.

What Everton need

Right-back has not been an issue for a long time at Everton, thanks to Seamus Coleman, who, at his best, was among the best full-backs in the league. This season, however, despite a few decent performances, Coleman has regressed both defensively and offensively – whether its injuries, age, or the system, he just isn’t the same player anymore. Right-back is such an important position, especially in the Premier League, where full-backs are relied upon to be both creators and defensively reliable one-on-one against quality wingers.

Centre-back, although much improved this season, is also still an issue. Zouma is a loanee, so a decision will need to be made whether to sign him permanently, or to look at other targets. Michael Keane is much better than he was last season – when he was an unmitigated disaster – but remains average. Keane’s issue is that he has come from being successful in a system at Burnley that was favoured towards their centre-backs, to become part of a wider, open one at Everton – and it been a tough adjustment. If you look at Keane’s best games for Everton, they generally come against top six sides. The reason for this is simple – Everton generally play tighter, deeper, and narrower in these games, so Keane’s weaknesses – pace and ability to defend in space – aren’t exposed.

Central midfield is a conundrum, but not for obvious reasons. Currently, Everton boast a lot of options in central midfield. Idrissa Gueye is one of the best in Europe at winning the ball back; however, he falls short when moving it up the field, which really hurts the side in possession. André Gomes, another loanee, is unplayable on his day, but – as seen far too often this season – he plays within himself and doesn’t express himself enough on the pitch. The main issue in midfield is balance, and, as a result, Everton central midfielders currently rank 20th in the league in terms of chances created from open play.

The balance and composition of the front four definitely needs addressing. Richarlison is still developing the creative side of his game; Theo Walcott’s creativity and finishing has been poor this season; Bernard is creative, but doesn’t score a lot of goals; and Ademola Lookman is underused and underappreciated. Then you have the Gylfi Sigurðsson conundrum – he clearly has ability, but his fit in this Everton side has long been a matter of debate. Used correctly – as a goalscoring second striker, he is a valuable player, but only when you balance the side to give it what he doesn’t bring to the table as a number 10. The lack of a true creator like those at other top sides really hurts the team. Sigurðsson is not that creative in open play, and is not involved enough in the build-up of attacking moves, and Bernard, although creative, lacks a cutting edge to his game – though he is still adapting to the league.

Any Everton fan will also tell you that the club have not properly replaced Romelu Lukaku, and lack a true top-end striker to change games. Cenk Tosun works hard, but does not score enough goals to warrant a place in the side, while Dominic Calvert-Lewin has a lot of the attributes needed, but, at 21, still lacks composure in front of goal to be a consistent threat.

Right profile?

The profile of player Everton bring to the club is extremely important in addressing certain issues – whether these be ambition, mentality, leadership, or value.

Age is important – last summer, Brands wisely did not sign a player over the age of 25. Why? Firstly, Everton need to be a smart club and make the most of their money. Why spend £30 million on a 30-year old who could decline within a year, when you can sign an already quality 25-year old who is beginning their peak performance seasons? Age is important in terms of sell-on value as well; after all, it’s hard to recoup big fees on 30-year olds. Look at Richarlison as an example: £40 million may have been a lot for a relatively unproven 21-year old, but he has probably added £15 million or so on to his value since.

Mentality is also key. When Everton spent £150 million in the summer of 2017, did they really buy players of the right character and ambition? It is all well and good signing players for their quality, but their mentality is very important as well. Realistically, after his spell at Tottenham, Gylfi Sigurdsson knows Everton is the best club he can hope to play for. Wouldn’t Everton be better off with hungry players either playing for a move or trying to get Everton into the Champions League, where they all long to play? Romelu Lukaku, as an example, used Everton as a stepping stone, but it did not stop him going out there in every game to prove he belonged to a higher level.

This Everton team really lacks leadership, with many questioning Phil Jagielka’s appointment as captain. As a player, he is the best centre-back Everton have had since Dave Watson’s peak, but Jagielka is not an out-and-out winner that demands respect and desire from the rest of the side. A natural leader who hold players accountable for their actions is required if this Everton team is to progress. To buy an established leader or to buy multiple players who could develop into leaders is the conundrum Brands faces – of course, not many players are natural leaders at age 24 or 25, and some grow into that role, as with Jan Vertonghen or Vincent Kompany.

Realistic targets

I have identified some realistic players who would address Everton’s issues – potentially open to a move, won’t cost more than £40 million, and would suit Everton’s style of play (4-2-3-1).

Pol Lirola (right-back, age 21)

Club: Sassuolo

Key stats: 1 goal, 3 assists, 1.1 successful tackle completed per 90 (dribbled past 0.3 times per 90), 1 interception per 90, 31 key passes from open play, and 1.3 successful dribbles per 90 (75% success rate)

Originally thought to be the long-term successor to Dani Alves at Juventus, Lirola was sold to Sassuolo when Juventus changed direction. That may prove to be a poor decision – the Spaniard has become one of the best full-backs Serie A has to offer. Lirola is a truly modern full-back – a good defender, incisive passer, and crosser that gets up and down the pitch really well. He would be an upgrade on the current version of Seamus Coleman, providing some of the creativity Everton have missed all season –  Coleman has only provided 14 key passes in 22 appearances.

Other potential targets: Joakim Maehle (Genk), William (Wolfsburg), Reece James on loan (Chelsea), Robert Gumny (Lech Poznan), and Fabricio Bustos (Independiente)

Jamaal Lascelles (centre-back, age 25)

Club: Newcastle United

Key stats:  1.1 successful tackles per 90 (dribbled past 0.1 times per 90), 1.3 interceptions per 90, and 3.1 aerials won per 90 (4.7 aerials attempted per 90)

A 24/25 year old who is a natural leader is rare to come by, but that’s exactly what Jamaal Lascelles is. Rafa Benitez recognised this very early in his regime and made him captain, which speaks volumes. That’s not the only reason to sign him, though – Lascelles is an excellent defender, especially in one vs one situations, and would be an upgrade on Michael Keane. Lascelles offers pace, strength, and great instincts – all the tools required to be a top defender, and it’s hard to understand why he hasn’t had international recognition yet.

Other potential targets: Evan Ndicka (Eintracht Frankfurt), Timo Baumgartl (Stuttgart), Mario Hermoso (Espanyol), and Ruben Dias (Benfica)

brahim Sangare (centre midfielder, age 21)

Club: Toulouse

Key stats: 1 goal, 3 assists, 15 key passes in open play, 3.9 successful tackles per 90, 0.9 interceptions per 90, and 2 successful dribbles per 90

If you want to replace Idrissa Gueye, you need to get a player who can do 70% of what he can do off the ball, but someone who is quality on it – and Ibrahim Sangare is exactly that player. Tall, strong, athletic, and intelligent, the Ivorian would add much needed power and guile to the Everton midfield. His ability to progress the ball – whether passing it or dribbling it – would be a new weapon for Everton, who do not have many press-resistant players. At 21, Sangare offers great potential, and would be an excellent long-term investment.

Other potential targets: Pierre Kunde (Mainz), Stanislav Lobotka (Celta Vigo), Philip Billing (Huddersfield), Mady Camara (Olympiakos), and Sander Berge (Genk)

Andre Gomes (centre midfielder, age 25)

Club: Barcelona (currently on loan at Everton)

Key stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, 4 key passes, 1.7 successful dribbles per 90, and 1 interception per 90

First and foremost, Andre Gomes is a class act, whether it’s controlling the midfield on the pitch, or off the pitch, where he really has embraced Everton and its fans. There have been a lot of positives about his loan spell, but we have also seen him struggle to cope consistently with the physical demands of Premier League. My belief is that this is a season of adaptation, and next year, with a full preseason, we will see a much more consistent player who takes over more games. If the fee is right, then Andre Gomes should be signed.

Other potential targets: Florian Grillitsch (Hoffenheim), Maxime Lopez (Marseille), Teun Koopmeiners (Twente), and Maycon (Shakhtar Donetsk)

Ismaila Sarr (right winger, age 21)

Club: Rennes

Key stats: 5 goals, 6 assists, 2.2 successful dribbles per 90, and 27 key passes in open play.

Right wing has been a problem position this season for Everton, with Theo Walcott getting the majority of the minutes there simply by being the only naturally right-sided winger in the squad. Ismaila Sarr would definitely give Everton something they’re currently missing; when it comes to dynamism on the ball, not many Everton players have the speed and trickery to go past a player and cause panic at will in the way that Sarr does. The Rennes man is by no means the finished article and can look quite raw at times, but by the time he is in his prime, he could be a superstar.

Other potential targets: Samuel Chukwueze (Villarreal), Malcom on loan (Barcelona), Christian Kouame (Genoa), and Robert Skov (FC Kobenhavn)

Sebastien Haller (centre forward, age 24)

Club: Eintracht Frankfurt

Key stats: 14 goals and 9 assists.

Haller hasn’t got as many plaudits as he should have this season, due to the presence of Luka Jovic in the same side. 6’3 but agile, quick, and intelligent, Haller is the full package as a striker, scoring goals and setting up his teammates – with Gylfi Sigurdsson and Richarlison needing someone to feed off, a player like Haller would be useful to have. Haller would also give Lucas Digne, an excellent crosser of the ball, a target to consistently aim for.

Other potential targets: Joelinton (Hoffenheim), Maxi Gomez (Celta Vigo), and Andre Silva on loan (Milan)

All the above players fit the profile of what Everton need and are players who will only go up in value. Other solutions to Everton’s issues may come in the form of loan returnees Nikola Vlasic and Henry Onyekuru, who have both impressed while out on loan. Morgan Feeney – if he doesn’t go out on loan – may also be involved in the first team next season.

This summer’s recruitment will not propel Everton into the top six. Most likely, it’ll be a few transfer windows before that’s a consistent possibility, but at this stage, it is key is that Marcel Brands lays the foundations for success.

By Andrew McGregor