What to make of Everton this season?
After Everton finished strongly in the latter part of last season and began this new campaign in similar scintillating form at home to Manchester United this week; it begs the question, in the aftermath of the Jack Rodwell sale and their transfer business to date, are they in better shape than last term?
A huge emphasis was placed on clinching the signing of Steven Pienaar this summer, as the club sought to make his loan deal permanent after he had a huge effect in the second half of last season on the club’s form. They fact that they paid £4.5m for a fringe player shows you how important he was to the overall shape of the side, and even manager David Moyes admitted that while they probably overpaid for the South African, that he was well worth it.
Elsewhere, Steven Naismith has been brought in from Rangers after rejecting a contract with the Scottish Third Division Newco side and looks likely to play a key role for the side this season. Having just returned from a nine-month long lay-off after suffering from a cruciate ligament injury last term, his budding relationship with Nikica Jelavic in Scotland bodes well for the future and he’s shown some lively form during pre-season, while he adds some much-needed versatility to the squad further forward.
However, it looked as if the transfer window had taken a turn for the worst when the club sold on Jack Rodwell for £12m rising to £17m to current champions Manchester City. No tears were shed at the midfielders exit, though, who by and large, has failed to kick on like many expected by this point after struggling with injury for the past few seasons, being limited to just 14 league appearances last term.
If truth be told, while the price may initially look a little on the small side for such a highly-rated English player, when the entire first-team squad was fit, he struggled to get into the starting line-up and the likelihood of the club receiving all of the add-ons is high, given how successful City are likely to be over the next few years – they got all the extra £5m add-ons from Manchester United for the Wayne Rooney deal it’s worth remembering.
It was a deal that benefited both parties, and Everton’s financial model, if you can call it as such, dictates that they sell on at least one player at a premium price per summer. With only really John Heitinga and Jack Rodwell considered somewhat expendable assets that you could get a good price for, with Marouane Fellani absolutely essential to this side, it made sense to let the 21 year-old move to the Etihad Stadium.
From Roberto Mancini’s perspective, he’s got cover at centre-back and central midfield for when both Kolo Toure (if he’s still there by then) and Yaya Toure travel to this season’s African Cup of Nations, while also possessing a long-term heir for 31 year-old Gareth Barry, which is particularly important when you consider that Nigel De Jong looks to be edging towards the exit door.
Unlike the Joleon Lescott switch between the two club back in 2009, this was a move very much done on Everton’s terms; there was no reluctance to sell, more of a grudging realisation that they could live without Rodwell and reinvest the money by strengthening other parts of the squad.
The money gleaned from Rodwell’s move was immediately put to good use and Belgian international Kevin Mirallas has arrived from Greek side Olympiacos after winning the league there last season, scoring 20 goals in the process. At just 24 years of age, Mirallas is a sound long-term purchase and at £6m, a relatively fair price, having revealed that he turned to Arsenal to move to Goodison Park in favour of more guaranteed first-team football.
He’s got bags of pace, is versatile, two-footed and can take people on and beat them and it points to a more attackingly-minded Everton this season, who for years have been shackled by a defensive 4-5-1 system – but with Tim Cahill having moved on and Marouane Fellaini flourishing in a more forward-thikning role, it has the potential to transform into a 4-2-3-1 system, which is a slight but important distinction to make looking ahead to the future.
It’s a sensible time to go on the offensive, with each of Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea in a period of transition and with a settled side, complemented by the sprinkling of a few new signings, the club have the potential to crack the top four if they demonstrate their customary second half form right from the start this season, which judging by the evidence of the United victory, it looks like they may just be about to do.
At the back, the sale of Rodwell has allowed them to keep hold of Leighton Baines this summer, arguably, Fellaini aside, the team’s most valuable player and he’s integral to their style of play and how they set themselves up, having been linked with a move away to Old Trafford for a prolonged period. Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin are an excellent partnership in the heart of the back four, while the likes of Heitinga, Neville, Hibbert and Coleman are capable players to have around competing for places.
In midfield, Darron Gibson has been a disciplined and influential figure in the middle of the park since being bought from United back in January for a bargain £500,000, once again proving that Moyes is one of the best around when it comes to getting value for money. While up top, Jelavic was a revelation last term and is ably supported by the aforementioned names as well as the league’s most underrated player, Leon Osman – a man who would have at least 20 England caps by now if he played for the red half of Merseyside as opposed to the blue.
So far, Moyes has done well to address the main areas of weakness within the squad, namely a lack of pace and width; they still look short on depth, and the sight of Leon Osman on the right wing and Phil Neville in central midfield against United, while they both performed well, is far from a long-term solution.
This is an absolutely huge season for Ross Barkley too and he needs to show that a replacement for Rodwell doesn’t need to be brought in before the close of the transfer window, because realistically, he’s the club’s next go-to player from their seemingly constant conveyor belt of local talent that they may need to sell on at a large, inflated price in the future.
Talk of what Everton can realistically achieve is often tempered with a huge ‘what if’, as they often start the season slowly after a summer of little transfer activity, which is always doubly frustrating for the fans when you factor in the inevitable big-name departure, which has played its part in disrupting their rhythm in the past.
However, given the nature of their opening day result, the fact that they have a settled side now and that for once, they appear to have learnt from their past mistakes and got the majority of their business in before it’s too late, they look a much more rounded side this season, even if it’s met with the caveat that they could still do with more bodies just to be on the safe side.
The Rodwell signing was necessary given the context of the club’s ropey finances, but the knock-on effect that it could have on the club going forward could be massive and we may be about to finally see what an Everton at full strength over the course of an entire campaign are capable of achieving, which in itself, is an intriguing sub-plot in what promises to be an exciting league campaign full of engrossing questions.
You can follow me on Twitter @JamesMcManus1