Well, that escalated quickly, eh?
All I want to do is to go back and wrap myself up tightly with that warm, sweetly satisfactory feeling from this summer when we confirmed deals for Jordan Pickford and Davy Klaassen in the space of about 36 hours. We were finally going to be the bullies. It was like lingerie suddenly popping up where the big underwear had always resided and you were suddenly filled with both newfound lust AND hope all at once.
Just as there’s a pretty limited celling to living in the past, it’s also true that living in an idealized/imagined reality can be fun, but is also ultimately fleeting. And in the case of Everton, living in an idealized world is about as toxic an approach to our present adversity as there could be.
Let’s get this out of the way now. The window was good, but painfully incomplete. Whether you’ve subscribed to the comforting oversimplification that Everton didn’t try hard enough or only started looking for a striker during the final few days of the window, the bottom line is that while the club added quality foundational pieces, they didn’t get the target-man they needed. And if they’d gotten the target-man they needed but hadn’t signed a new long term keeper or center back, I’d be equally as frustrated. The degree to which this thing needed both a roster and philosophical overhaul from seasons past is becoming more painfully obvious by the day—especially when considering a club famously inept in transfer windows past managed to find a way to literally secure five of their six top targets and STILL find a way to fall significantly short of what was needed. It’s hard to wrap your brain around it, but it feels true, doesn’t it?
What’s also objectively true is that this team doesn’t win on the road (a long-term issue) and doesn’t score (a shorter-term, but no less alarming issue). Making it through the Europa qualifying stages and being previously hard to beat at home helped to mitigate the concerns about these a bit, but no more. And that’s fine. Let’s all acknowledge just how bad things are so we can begin to focus on what solutions look like.
In order to do that, let’s be bold and dare to live in both the present AND the real. I live in a country where reality and facts have been largely tossed into a highly disappointing stew of gray area, so I’m doing my best to confront the issues of the day through as comprehensive a lens as I can. And while I could pontificate endlessly on the folly of what happened to America last November, it’s almost a year later and I’m forced to wake up each day in the world as it is and not how I’d like it to be. So it is with football.
So what’s to blame for where we find ourselves at this moment? The manager? The schedule? The roster transition? The window? The players? YES.
And if you think it’s all on Koeman or all on the Board or all on the players or all on Olivier Giroud’s wife, you’re being intellectually dishonest. Most big problems are big largely because they’re also complicated. So it is with ye olde Everton. A bad, BAD run of form that feels longer than it actually is because of how god awful BAD its been has shined a light on every little crack that has threatened to result in a hemorrhage.
But of all the reasons listed above, there are few under anyone’s direct control at this point. The schedule is what it is. The players currently at our disposal can’t be augmented until January and/or when the healing powers of time do their thing. Ultimately, the greatest hope for changing the course of things must come from the single most influential person currently at Everton – the manager.
Ronald Koeman. A man who has never shied away from the legacy of his greatness as a player and who fashions himself a man’s man with a no-nonsense approach and a simple bottom line expectation for his players: Results
So it would seem that based on such a standard that the old platitude about doing the same thing over and over and insanity would force Ronny to consider a fundamental reconsideration of his approach–especially from a tactical perspective. Highly skilled teams CAN (contrary to what you hear so often on Everton Twitter) win without width and pace. Everton, however, are NOT–despite some major talent additions in goal, in defense, and some nice attacking additions elsewhere–a highly skilled team. They are a team with some players that have some unique individual skills that must find creative ways to take advantage of every yard of the pitch to get the most out of said skills. Don’t have blistering pace in the middle of the field? The answer isn’t simply to throw more guys into the center of midfield. The answer comes in taking a chance with players who can add width to expand the field of play in order to create some key opportunities/mismatches–even if their age/lack of experience irks your pragmatic Dutch sensibilities. That may mean taking the uncomfortable calculated risk of playing the likes of Jonjoe Kenny, Vlasic and Lookman in heightened roles–especially if Mirallas is beyond salvation. (Do we actually have the luxury to make such a dramatic determination about Mirallas at a time when Niasse is suddenly back in contention for the first team?). That may mean playing one less holding midfielder. That may mean rotating Rooney around or even to the bench on occasion (a proposition that many of us were just fine with before he scored our only two league goals) to give guys like Sigurdsson and Klaassen the opportunity to thrive in their best positions for the cause of the greater good.
For sure, a healthy Yannick Bolasie would solve a lot of what’s wrong with the current balance. So would Coleman. Hell, having Giroud up top would make things better. But again, there’s no point in lamenting what is presently out of reach. A lot of managers can succeed when things are ideal. In theory, you pay the big money for an elite manager to be able to succeed when conditions are not ideal. The roster isn’t ideal. The schedule isn’t ideal. The sheer number of new players who’ve spent little time playing together compared to their competition across the pitch isn’t ideal. That the manager hasn’t figured out how to fit his new pieces together isn’t ideal. The current injuries aren’t ideal. We can and should accept that all of those things are true AND still expect a highly skilled manager to take a proactive, creative approach toward overcoming the resulting adversity. So if Koeman is the manager we believed he was when we brought him in, it’s time for him to earn that money. Those beer buzzy beach binges aren’t gonna pay for themselves, mind you.
And part of a reconsidered approach also may mean sitting players who simply aren’t delivering enough right now. (Insert joke about how all the players are pretty much shit at the moment here). And this includes–painfully for me personally to admit–sitting French lothario Morgan Schneiderlin for a while. If there’s anyone who needs a carrot dangled in front of him at the moment, it’s him. Outside of getting married over the summer, there’s simply no explanation in terms of circumstantial change for his regression. He’s at his peak age physically, we’ve all SEEN him play really well for us not that long ago, and he’s getting plenty of playing time. What ails him must be between the ears. I won’t speculate on what the issue could be, but the answer for Everton may have to come in the form of–my lord I can’t believe I’m about to utter these words–James McCarthy. I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. Yes, the bane of my existence is–according to Koeman–a distinct possibility for next weekend. And while he doesn’t have the skill of Morgan Schneiderlin, it doesn’t appear that Morgan Schneiderlin has it either at the moment. So maybe we ought to take advantage of McCarthy’s running and pressing and tackling abilities for that period of time before the next inevitable hamstring strain to see if he can inject some much needed guile to this thing.
But of course, the issues run deeper than that. Koeman, in general, needs to consider how he can remove some of the ambiguity from his day to day approach both tactically and from a personnel standpoint. Some key questions/issues for Koeman to consider:
Koeman must understand that his preferred system and the system that is best for the players he currently has may be two different things right now and accept that. He’s allegedly a pragmatist, right? So what is that system? Who fits in? Start by managing that.
Can Koeman take advantage of the (relatively) softer part of the upcoming schedule and blood the young talent in positions of weakness? The growing pains are a requisite part of development. So either endure the pain now or stick with what isn’t working and be forced to endure it long after the season is lost. (Cliché alert) There are no easy games in this league, but the upcoming stretch is objectively easier than both the current stretch and later stretches of the season. Might as well spend this time building an identity and providing players with defined roles that can help them all to focus and perform more effectively.
What is Tom Davies’ role in this team?
Jonjoe Kenny may in reality not be ready for the first team. But if that’s the case, why didn’t he go out on loan? He’s not getting better playing for the U-23’s. So logic dictates that he’s been kept around for some reason. Surely an England U-21 coming off playing a key role in an U-20 World Cup title had options. And what exactly is the upside of playing Martina over him? They both have decent pace and can put a cross in, but we know Martina can’t defend and essentially is what he is. Could the play of the team really get worse having Kenny in the lineup?
Domino effect: What is the upside of continuing to play Holgate out of position? Could Holgate not at least play some games in the center of defense in Europe?
What formation best suits the abilities of Sandro and Klaassen? They seem to have been at their best when they’ve had width. Guys like this who aren’t slick and sophisticated passers yet ARE smart players who move well, link up well, and have proven in previous years that they can finish well seem to benefit when the attack is a bit more expansive. You paid a cost in terms of money and effort to get these guys in, so why not put them in more ideal positions to succeed?
What is Koeman’s philosophy on squad rotation? When you’re playing in Europe—especially in the punishing Thursday/Sunday format of the Europa league, squad rotation is a necessary balancing act to be sure. But if the goal is to keep players fresh, what is the logic behind resting young players and playing older players for heavy minutes—namely Rooney—both during the week and at the weekend? When I’ve broached this issue, the typical response is that Rooney has been one of our best players. This starts to feel like when you question the logic of a war and someone responds asking why you don’t support the troops? It’s conflating two very different issues. Wayne Rooney HAS performed well and he is STILL about to turn 32. Is starting and playing 90 minutes on a weekly basis not “regular” enough football for him? Doesn’t logic suggest that to get the best out of him for a longer season that his minutes must be managed strategically when possible? And if Koeman thinks Rooney’s minutes don’t need to be managed, why does he think players who are 10 years his junior need to have theirs managed? Surely, a more logically consistent approach couldn’t hurt.
Other random thoughts:
If you’re tired of Koeman have no fear. Only one more season before he leaves for that Barcelona gig, right?
Handsome Stek may be a painfully average keeper, but admit it—he looks like he smells fantastic. I’d keep him away from my wife.
I like Vlasic. He’s young, but he appears to possess some pace, as well as both strength on and for the ball considering his age.
One of the best parts about getting to know so many of you has been getting acquainted with your specific and creative uses of the English language. So to borrow a bit of that for a moment, any of you using sentences lately with “at least under Martinez/Moyes” can get to fuck. Like get right to fuck.
Everton have too many players who’ve held leadership roles for club and country for there to be any excuses for a lack of leadership. Rooney. Williams. Klaassen. Keane. Sigurdsson. Real leaders shouldn’t need an armband to step up. Yell and scream. Throw shit. Take the boys out for a bonding excursion to the strip club. Do karaoke together. Just do SOMETHING. As we’ve learned over the years, if you’re waiting for strong, vocal leadership from Phil Jagielka, you’re gonna be waiting for a while. Jagielka has been a fine player for a long, long time. But he’s been more a captain by default than anything. The club can’t continue to scream for a new mentality and expect it to come from the same leaders who are part of the old mentality. I’m not sure who that should be. But picking from the old guard seems counterintuitive. More importantly, a leader needs to emerge as opposed to being coronated.
Chin up, Blues. When you’re in the middle of the storm, it all feels pretty hopeless. And Sunday doesn’t offer much hope for a respite. But it can’t get much worse than what we’ve seen the last few weeks, right? The real question is: Can Everton begin the process of making things right? Sure. But it starts with a long, hard, honest look in the mirror. The only destination Everton will ultimately reach at the end of this present tempest is the one they earn. Not the one they think ought to be.