Ronald Koeman spent over £140million bringing fantastic players to Goodison Park during the summer, but he failed to use that wealth, unprecedented by Everton standards, to build a fantastic team. That may seem harsh after an early-season run that has already seen the Toffees face four of last season’s top six and both Manchester giants on the road, but Everton’s performances have been far more concerning than the results, lacking the competitiveness, edge, organisation and fluidity Koeman’s side will need if they’re to improve on last season’s seventh-place finish.
Following the departure of Romelu Lukaku and the postponed-until-January exit of Ross Barkley, there are obvious comparisons to make with Tottenham’s 2013 transfer window in the wake of Gareth Bale’s world-record move to Real Madrid. Much like the Lilywhites four years ago, Everton have looked to spread the quality over the whole the team rather than signing direct replacements for their two most influential attacking outlets last season.
However, there is an intrinsic difference between both cases; while Tottenham targeted quantity over quality as a clear strategy, believing they could create a new team capable of lifting them into the top four, Everton simply failed to diversify the types of signings they made. Sure, a new goalkeeper arrived in Jordan Pickford and a new centre-back in Michael Keane, but Koeman’s other major outlays were Gylfi Sigurdsson, Davy Klaassen and Wayne Rooney – three creative players who like to operate between the forward and midfield lines and look to make up in guile for what they lack in pace, aerial threat and power. Albeit an out-and-out goalscorer, the latter half of that description applies to Sandro Ramirez as well.
The consequence is, quite simply, a lack of natural flow to Everton’s game, something that was particularly evident at Old Trafford on Sunday. Rather than leading the line in the traditional sense, Rooney continually came deep to win and protect the ball in the kinds of spaces Sigurdsson would prefer to exploit. And upon doing so, Rooney found his options limited; there were no dynamic midfielders bursting beyond him, no wing-backs stretching the play laterally and inevitably, the ball nearly always went backwards. If you can’t find a way of hitting a top six side on the break away from home, the chances are that you’ll eventually succumb to a hefty defeat.
At this moment in time, perhaps that’s what stands out most about this Everton team – an all-round absence of pace and dynamism. The Toffees recorded just four dribbles on Sunday, none of which were completed any further up the pitch than Manchester United’s half of the centre circle, and from the starting line-up at Old Trafford, only Cuco Martina struck as the kind of player capable of eating up ground on the counter. The summer signing, though, endured a poor game.
Ironically, however, Koeman already possesses the solution to rectifying Everton’s season. And equally ironically, he didn’t invest in it during the summer because it was already at Goodison Park – the Toffees’ batch of vibrant young talents, starting with Dominic Calvert-Lewin. The Sheffield United product certainly isn’t the finished article, but he embodies everything Everton lacked on Sunday – dynamism in attack, speed on the break, energy off the ball and perhaps most importantly, youthful fearlessness and enthusiasm.
In fact, Koeman’s decision to drop Calvert-Lewin after the first two games of the season is incredibly surprising, not least because he’d already struck up an impressive partnership with Wayne Rooney. Both of Everton goals this season have come from exactly the same route; Calvert-Lewin supplying the former Manchester United skipper. That is despite being fielded in two incredibly different roles – against Stoke, he was Everton’s right wing-back, but against Manchester City in the following fixture, he did an exceptional job of leading the line at the Etihad Stadium.
Perhaps Calvert-Lewin lacks the experience to operate as the lone front-man regularly and throwing him in at the deep end now could significantly affect his confidence. But whether it requires a change in formation back to 4-3-3 or starting him as one of the wing-backs, it’s clear Everton need the youngster’s pace and energy on the pitch – and it’s clear he’s already developed an understanding with Rooney, easily Everton’s most productive asset in terms of goals and performances so far this season.
However, that theory can be extended to other members of Everton’s young cohort, too. Mason Holgate can be culpable for errors but boasts that natural athleticism as well, Ademola Lookman – although perhaps not quite of the standard to be starting weekly – is sensationally quick and has an ambitious eye for goal. And even Luke Garbutt, albeit not exactly a youngster anymore, can relieve the pressure on an ageing Leighton Baines is Koeman chooses his opportunities wisely. All of these players can add energy and athleticism to the side.
Koeman already has the tools in place to turn Everton’s season around, but you have to wonder whether pride will be too much of a factor for him to find that balance between the new signings and the young players who can transform the Toffees into a functional team. After all, the Dutchman invested a lot of money in them during the summer – Transfermarkt value Calvert-Lewin at just £3.15million, less than a tenth of the fee paid for Sigurdsson – and benching some in favour of young players could be interpreted as a tacit admission of erroneous recruitment. The board will likely want some explanation, as will the players who arrived at Goodison expecting to become key parts of the first team, and spending a club-record transfer budget on the wrong talent is a sure-fire way to make sure you’re not handed another one.
Yet, it’s quite clear Everton can’t continue with their current set-up. Injections of speed, energy, athleticism and enthusiasm are essential if the Toffees are to ensure their difficult start against highly-talented sides remains just that. With this weekend’s clash against Bournemouth representing Everton’s easiest fixture of the season thus far by some distance, it’s the perfect opportunity to strike a balance between Everton’s young guns and the expensive arrivals.