The plan keeps coming up again
And the plan means nothing stays the same
But the plan won’t accomplish anything
If it’s not implemented…
Hit shuffle on my 90’s/2000’s playlist and landed on that Built to Spill classic “The Plan”. Less an omen and more of a nagging reminder of this wretched thing called Everton in 2017/18. And as the pounding guitars rolled into my ears, I further considered 4-0 at Wembley and realized I’m pretty tired today. How about you? But I woke up this morning in no mood to ask the same nagging questions that have been asked thousands of times but that no one really has good answers for regarding our play. Why don’t we have a left back? Why can’t we generate shots on goal? How can it get more boring than this? Are we even good at being boring in a manner that would help us?
I was also too tired to watch the Anfield Martyr Complex take on City today. Heard it was a helluva show. Heard they almost blew it, but didn’t. Who cares? It doesn’t change how shit we are. I’m more interested in the reasons why we’re so shit at the moment. But maybe more importantly, I’m even more interested to understand what we’re doing now—as in today—to not be shit next season. And the season after. And the season after that.
I suppose that I’ve got bigger questions about USM FC than ones concerning the formational merits of never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever deviating from playing two defensive midfielders. Like, who the hell is this team? Who are its leaders? What are we trying to do? Who are we trying to be? What is our style of play? What is the plan when we go out on the pitch? Who is responsible for setting the tone and providing answers to these questions? We’re not hard to beat. We say we’re setting up to counterattack but keep our fastest players on the bench. We’re not open and expansive offensively. We’re not especially good at set pieces. We don’t seem to thrive in direct play. We talk about clean sheets—as if the words alone might magically trigger us to play with a corresponding mindset. How has that worked out?
What is meant when people talk about “salvaging’ this season? There are no more trophies to win. There’s a beyond remote opportunity to make it into Europe. But let’s face it—salvaging this season isn’t finishing 9th. Or 8th. Or even 7th. It OUGHT to be about getting something useful out of an otherwise lost season so that next season doesn’t end up just like this one. And that’s the source of my biggest worry for Everton. If we can agree that other than staying up that there’s nothing left to win, can’t we also agree that there’s a difference between a productive use of the remaining season versus a wasteful one? The opportunity that ought not to be squandered isn’t about anything that can be won this season. It’s about what can be learned FROM this season.
Which brings us back to the ulcer-generating, pit in my stomach suspicion that there is no plan. For example, if we’re going to end up mid-table-ish, why give valuable minutes to guys who aren’t part of the future? We know who these guys are and what they can and can’t give us. This isn’t personal, but there’s nothing new to be learned about Aaron Lennon. Or Leighton Baines. Or Phil Jagielka. Or Ashley Williams. Or dare I say even Wayne Rooney. And if some of these guys are being played ought of sheer necessity, that reflects poor planning on the talent acquisition side of things.
Rooney himself is the perfect microcosm of the mixed messages the club sends about what it’s trying to accomplish when it persists in giving him a seemingly automatic starting role. What have we gained from bringing Rooney back to an Everton in such pronounced transition? A walk down What Might Have Been Lane? Outside of a few YouTube highlights and a handful of feel good moments about “one of our own”, the question is not “What has Wayne Rooney given us?” Yes, he’s given us some goals and had some good games here and there. The question is “What has Wayne Rooney cost us?” Some tough questions worth asking: Has he made others around him better? What has been the domino effect on others in terms of either position or playing time due to the club’s seemingly impenetrable mandate to play him at all costs? Why do some of us continue to argue that there are nuanced reasons that our club record signing shouldn’t start in his ideal position? Some real rhetorical gymnastics there. And how does moving our club record signing to a less than ideal position affect the opportunities of others who would ideally play in that position themselves? How does this affect how effective our team on the pitch can be as a result?
The collective successes and failures of roster-building this current iteration of Everton falls at the feet of Farhad Moshiri, Director of Football Steve Walsh, and the previous full-time manager. The pronounced conflict of interest that has arisen between a new manager who appears primarily concerned about the short-term criteria he understands as key to keeping his job and a club in need of first team player development and a long-term vision? Also on Moshiri and the DoF. But the mixed messaging and selective application of purportedly straightforward principles regarding how playing time is allocated? That falls squarely on the manager, Sam Allardyce.
The Everton manager spent a considerable time with the media ahead of the visit to Wembley this past weekend to push the narrative that the financial commitment shown by the club to spend money on players this month was a sign of the Board’s desire to commit to him long term. In reality, the potential money spent on a striker and a left back (surely still, yes?) this month has more to do with correcting glaring, egregious omissions from the last “plan” that the club tried to execute over the summer. Allardyce also threw his hands up over players like Sandro and Klaassen saying effectively that “they select or don’t select” themselves and that when given a handful of chances they haven’t done enough to keep their spots. First off, I’m not sure you can argue that giving a player a few minutes here and there and then freezing them out again for long periods constitutes a real “chance”. Secondly, how does the manager explain his handling of Ademola Lookman? After another prolonged dry spell, Allardyce plucked Lookman off the bench at Anfield, sat Rooney, moved Sigurdsson to his preferred spot and for the briefest of times, the offense looked like an actual, functioning, potentially good attack. Lookman took his chance, played a significant role in the equalizing goal. By the manager’s own plain-spoken, safe hands, back to basics criteria that the national media seems to just eat up, Lookman had fulfilled his part of the social contract to warrant another chance. And yet what happened a week later? Once again, despite his incredibly lackluster form of late, Wayne Rooney was gifted his spot back in his preferred position, the club record signing was moved off of his, and a talented young prospect that we paid a substantial sum of money for who was likely lured to the club because of Everton’s reputation about giving youth a real shot to play, was rewarded for his efforts with zero minutes of time on the pitch.
So again, I ask, WHAT IS THE PLAN? Because this isn’t really about whether you or I think that guys like Lookman or Vlasic or even poor old Sandro are any good. The issue is that nobody really knows because in a season that has turned in favor of trying to answer these questions, nobody—especially the manager—seems bothered with finding these answers. And in a season where despite how underwhelmed we all are by all of this, we aren’t likely to face a real relegation battle. Even if there’s nothing left to win, there’s still SO MUCH to gain. Because if we finish this season and STILL don’t know what we have in guys like Lookman and others that we’ve spent time and finite resources on, what has been the point of this season? If we have no clearer idea of what our philosophy or our playing style is or our identity is or even what we want those things to be, what has been the point of this season?
At last week’s AGM, among a slew of notable things that the major shareholder said (ahem), this one line from Farhad Moshiri stayed with me: “No single setback will derail us. We are on the road and we will get there.” I remember thinking that that was the kind of thing that if the CEO of the company I work for said, I’d feel incredibly reassured. It suggests that failures are part of a larger process, that they can be learned from, but that they ultimately won’t derail the vision and the achievement of success moving forward. But between Moshiri and the manager being good at saying lots of “good-sounding” things, have the actions of either of them in regards to the product we see on the pitch backed up those lofty sentiments? We’re about a year from Moshiri also saying that the club can’t simply be a museum, too. Statements like these suggest a strategy, a plan, and a vision that simply does not seem apparent when you consider what is deployed on the pitch each week. The club does not lack money. The club does not lack men and women in expensive suits with great educations. But money isn’t a strategy. Clever-sounding aspirational statements from the “right” people fit for a poster aren’t a strategy. We’ve heard all the right things and yet seen far too few of them come to fruition.
Maybe the plan is simply to hold on until the summer and try again. This time, we’ll finally find a manager with a plan. And a philosophy. And a vision. One man to save it all. Eggs, meet basket, I guess. But what of the next five months? What does the club do to advance itself by simply just trying to exist/survive when there are clear opportunities to learn, develop, and establish a solid foundation for the next manager to build upon? The mixed messages, the mixed transfer objectives, the lack of guiding footballing principles, etc. All of it serves to undermine the club’s aspirations moving forward. Do we want to go young? Do we want to go more experienced? Do we want a stalwart, defensive, counterattacking side? Do we want to go with a wider, more expansive attack? I don’t know the best answer. But I can assure you that the current middling cocktail of youth, experience, far too many guys well past their prime, and a mish-mash of styles and agendas isn’t a winning combination. It is the symptom of an organizational sickness from years of rudderless, leader-less decay. It is time for someone to step up at Everton. It is also time for others to get the hell out of the way.