Ronald Koeman’s summer looked to be well on track in July. Impressively so, in fact.
Not only had he completed the signings of a host of exciting young players, but he’d done it early in time for a full pre-season, and coming towards the end of the window the savage inflation in prices made the speed with which Everton worked all the more impressive.
And yet here we are, almost a fifth of the way through the Premier League season, with the Toffees languishing two points above the relegation zone with the second-worst goal difference in the league. Only Swansea and goalless Crystal Palace have scored fewer.
It’s hard to believe the transformation from initial excitement that Everton could challenge the top six cabal in the Premier League to sitting so far down the table, even if we are only seven games in.
Having to play Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United in successive Premier League fixtures was, in some ways, the problem. Unable to allow his new signings the chance to bed in at a leisurely pace against weaker opposition, Everton faced a baptism of fire. That meant going four games without a win, and although Oumar Niasse saved the Toffees against Bournemouth, they succumbed to Burnley again last weekend. That makes it one win from six in the Premier League: just because the games got easier didn’t mean Everton managed to actually win them.
There was a certain degree of sympathy for Ronald Koeman during the run of defeats to the league’s top sides. A draw away to Manchester City was to be credited, despite the home side dominating possession and chances with only ten men, whilst the other defeats could be put down to games Everton didn’t necessarily expect to win anyway. It was the 3-0 defeat away to Atalanta that seemed to really start the idea that the Merseysiders were on a severe downward trajectory.
The question has to be why, and the answer will probably go back to a summer that seemed so promising intially and then turned into a disaster.
Two failures in the summer stand out.
One was the sale of Romelu Lukaku. Or not exactly his sale as such, but rather the fact that Everton let the rest of the summer pass without actually replacing their main striker. It’s a sad fact that Koeman surely knew that both Lukaku and Ross Barkley would play little or no part in his side this season, despite both being his most important players last year.
The reason for that, presumably, was that Koeman was keen to get his side to make the transition from being a counter-attacking team based around the directness of Barkley and the ability to run in behind defences of Lukaku, to a team capable of keeping the ball and picking holes in the opposition.
In order to do that, Gylfi Sigurdsson was the main target all summer. There are many reasons why that deal may not have gone through until later in the window instead of straight away. The money Swansea were asking for was quite high – in the end, so was the eventual transfer fee – and perhaps Everton wanted Tottenham or Chelsea to make a move for Ross Barkley before buying.
Whatever the reason, Koeman ended up buying a similar player in Davy Klaassen before splurging on Sigurdsson later in the summer. The result left Everton with plenty of players capable of playing in the attacking midfield positions but no one who is anywhere near good enough in the striker’s role to fill the boots of Romelu Lukaku, currently filling his own boots in a Manchester United team who, along with rivals Manchester City, are creating quite the gap between themselves and the rest of the Premier League.
Everton drew praise in the summer for their quick business, but at the time it was seen as smart business, too. That was probable predicated on the – erroneous – thought that after selling Lukaku, Koeman and the board would have gone out to sign a replacement striker. Instead, they signed extra attacking midfielders, turning was was a genuinely impressive start to the summer into an abject end.
Had they ended it as well as they started it, they may well have been looking up towards the Champions League places. It’s surely a missed opportunity.