Years of mismanagement and irresponsibility have made Ancelotti’s job that much harder
Everton’s humiliating 3-0 loss to Wolves last weekend was one that many Everton fans are familiar with. That same feeling of “one step forward, two steps back” has encapsulated the Evertonian experience over the last several seasons. The loss also demonstrated that, despite all of the great work Carlo Ancelotti has done since taking over at Goodison Park, there is still a long journey ahead of the Italian in his hopes to revive the fallen blue giant on Merseyside. Ancelotti has walked into a situation where he inherits a flawed team, somewhat restricted finances, and not much room for flexibility or error. Despite some strong performances when he arrived, it is now clear that he merely got the team performing above their level, something which is hard to duplicate repeatedly for a long stretch. Everton were flirting with a relegation fight earlier in the season, and while the squad was seemingly too good to go down, they are also not good enough to contend for a European place, as it looked like they could have done at the end of this season. There are significant problems that Ancelotti must solve, and the unfortunate thing for Evertonians is that these problems are deep-rooted, substantial, and date back several years, all pointing to one simple conclusion:
in a sporting sense, Everton are not a well-ran football club.
The fact that Everton are not in any better position years after Farhad Moshiri’s takeover and after hundreds of millions of pounds spent in the transfer window is a massive failure and a reflection on the poor leadership and disorder within the club. Let us look at their opponents last week as a comparison point. Wolves and Everton both received financial takeovers in 2016, Everton by Moshiri and Wolves by Chinese investment group Fosun International. At the end of the 2015-16 season, Everton finished 11th in the Premier League, while Wolves finished 14th in the Championship. In the four years that followed, Everton finished seventh, eighth, and eighth in the Premier League, and they look on course to finish comfortably mid-table this season. Wolves won promotion to the Premier League two years after their takeover, being remembered as arguably one of the best sides the Championship had ever seen. In their two years in the Premier League, they finished above Everton twice, finishing seventh in 2018-19 and looking like they will finish in the top six this season. Both clubs received their financial backing at the same time, but Wolves have grown exponentially more than Everton, and this reflects the operating of each club. Wolves had a clear vision for their club progression, tabbed Nuno Espírito Santo from the beginning as the man to create that image, and progressed from the Championship to the Premier League using a smart financial strategy on club operation and transfers. Everton have not done any of those things, for several reasons, and they are well behind in their rebuilding process because of it.
Financially, Everton seem to be in the best position they have been in for decades. Moshiri coming into the club hierarchy in 2016 injected new financial life into a struggling football club, helping them clear debt, invest in club infrastructure, and finally establish a solid plan for life after Goodison Park, with a stadium at the Bramley-Moore Docks currently under construction. Everton also got a refresh in the transfer market, having one of the highest transfer net spends in the league over the last five years, but that does not mean they are moving in the right direction on the pitch. It is somewhat of a misconception to think that you need to spend barrels of money on transfers to break into the top four. While financial backing in the transfer market, especially in the post-“Neymar to PSG” market, is important in securing talent, spending money alone is not a guarantee of impending success. A team must spend money in a smart way, making signings that improve the team and build into an overall idea of how the team should look and play. A player coming with a high transfer fee does not guarantee they will be good, and if a team invests less in transfers than their rivals but make more intelligent signings, then they will still likely be better than their rivals. Leicester City, Wolves, and Tottenham are examples of teams that do not spend at the level Everton and do not have a wage bill at the level of Everton, but have turned smart investments into success and Top Four/Top Six finishes. The best example of this, however, is that team on the other side of Stanley Park. Liverpool have indulged in the transfer market, especially in recent seasons, but their relatively low net spend shows how well the club invested their money. Liverpool sold Fernando Torres, Luis Suárez, Raheem Sterling, and Philippe Coutinho, arguably four of the best players in the world at the time of their departure, and seemed to upgrade their team every time.
Everton, meanwhile, have massively struggled in this capacity. Romelu Lukaku leaving in 2017 left a massive hole in the Everton attack, and they have yet to fully replace the goals that left the side when the Belgian departed for Man United. They have spent a significant amount of money on transfers, but they have spent mostly on signings that have not consistently worked out in a blue shirt. Richarlison, Lucas Digne, and Idrissa Gueye are the ones that clearly worked, and while the jury is still out on some, there are others that clearly did not work. Jordan Pickford, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Michael Keane showed flashes of good performance, but have since stagnated or gotten stuck in a rut of bad form. Davy Klaassen, Alex Iwobi, Sandro Ramírez, Theo Walcott, and Cenk Tosun have all fallen or are starting to fall by the wayside, being unable to reach the level that Everton need them to. The list of poor signings is much more extensive than this, and this shows that there needs to be a significant change in how Everton scout and identify transfers. While you could defend some of the moves as having made sense at the time, some of the other ones seem to not have made much sense, with Alex Iwobi’s £35 million move from Arsenal being chief among them. They have spent significantly more on transfers and wages than teams above them in the league table. Their inability to use this money in an intelligent way, bringing in signings that improve the side and build toward an overall idea and picture of what the team should look like, has left them in this mid-table quagmire.
A substantial part of why their transfer spending has been ineffective has been their manager turnover over the last several years, which has impeded the creation of an ideal team. Everyone likes to talk about the succession of managers that have taken over at Manchester United since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. David Moyes took over from Ferguson going into the 2013-14 season, signing a six-year contract and being tabbed as Ferguson’s hand-picked successor. Within that six year contract window, United would hire four more managers: Ryan Giggs (interim), Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, and Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Five managers in around six to seven years. What is not talked about, however, is the significantly worse spell of instability on the other side of the Moyes departure. Since David Moyes left Goodison Park, Everton have made eight managerial changes: Roberto Martínez, David Unsworth and Joe Royle (interim co-managers), Ronald Koeman, David Unsworth again (interim), Sam Allardyce, Marco Silva, Duncan Ferguson (interim), and Carlo Ancelotti. In that time span, Everton finished no higher than seventh, reached one FA Cup semifinal, and found themselves in or near the relegation zone on multiple occasions. Martínez, Koeman, Allardyce, and Silva, the four main non-interim managers that preceded Ancelotti, each lasted no more than two to three seasons, with things turning quite sour at the end of each of their tenures. All four of them also had at least one transfer window to start building their team. Their short tenures in charge, however, halted their project and restarted the team with a new manager with new ideas. This has left Everton with a group of different players able to fill different roles and ideally fitting into different systems. A player identified by Marco Silva as fitting into his ideal 4-3-3 system may not be able to fit into Ancelotti’s 4-4-2, and so on and so forth for different players and different managers. This has left Everton with an aging, unbalanced squad that lacks in quality, does not necessarily fit the system of their current manager, and contains players on high wages that are very difficult to offload.
The managers have also had differing relationships with club hierarchy, namely within the director of football structure that Everton have tried to establish. In 2016, Everton appointed former Leicester City chief scout Steve Walsh as their director of football. Being the one responsible for bringing Jamie Vardy, N’Golo Kanté, and Riyad Mahrez to Leicester, Walsh was seen as someone who could bring similar hidden gem talents to Everton. His time on Merseyside, however, was reportedly plagued by a poor relationship between himself, manager Ronald Koeman, and the higher-ups at the club. It does not change the bedrock conclusion that Walsh was not cut out for a director of football role, but the speculation around certain signings being the doing of certain people in that relationship did not help the idea that Everton were a well-functioning club. The move for Wayne Rooney, for example, largely came from the influence of then-chairman Bill Kenwright, rather than being something heavily pushed for by Walsh or Koeman. Walsh claimed after the fact that he had moves lined up for Erling Håland, Andrew Robertson, and Harry Maguire, but the moves were shut down by club hierarchy. While I question the validity of these claims, as they did seem like Walsh trying to manipulate the narrative to get his next job, it does highlight the flawed relationship within the Everton hierarchy at the time. Marcel Brands arrived from PSV to replace Walsh, and while he did make some solid signings, the relationship between him and Marco Silva was not entirely perfect. Sure, it was not as turbulent as the Walsh-Koeman issues, but there was some pickiness on Silva’s side that seemed to impact deals. Silva’s desire to bring in a “Premier League proven” center back, for example, left them stuck trying to build a deal for Chelsea’s Kurt Zouma instead of looking at other targets when it was clear that a Zouma deal was not going to happen. The Iwobi deal is also a head-scratcher, though I am honestly not sure if that was influenced by Silva. This high-manager turnover and troubled sporting director relationship has massively screwed with Everton’s transfer strategy, leaving them with several players who do not fit the current system, are seemingly fairly apathetic about remaining at Everton, and are very difficult to offload due to poor performances and high wages. This has been very apparent in Everton’s last few matches, as it is clear some players recognize that their time on Merseyside is numbered and are resigned to their fate.
So where does this leave Ancelotti and his rebuild? Well, there is a lot of work to do. The foundation needs to be ripped up from this team. Several players who make up the spine of this team need to be shipped on, and the Ancelotti-Brands pairing need to completely rethink Everton’s ideas on player recruitment and the ideal transfer targets for the club. There has been much written about the overhaul of Liverpool’s player scouting department and how it impacted their rise to dominance, and similar root-and-branch changes may have to take place here. Even though it could be argued that Financial Fair Play is now dead due to the Manchester City-CAS ruling, they still might see themselves as hampered financially in the transfer market due to COVID or FFP reasons. This is an ideal time for them to try and find better deals in the market, moving away from the Sigurdsson/Iwobi/Richarlison levels of financial investment into transfers. The recent rumored move for Southampton midfielder Pierre-Emile Højbjerg is more along the right track of the type of deals they should be looking for, moving for players who offer consistent statistical output in their positions and have considerable room for improvement while not sinking tremendous amounts of money into it. The 24-year-old Højbjerg is a player that has been a consistently strong defensive midfielder for Southampton, has put up impressive statistical performances in several defensive stats and in several passing stats, has considerable experience as a first team player, but also still has room to grow due to his young age and would only set the Toffees back, reportedly, around £25 million at most.
The players Everton should go for really depends on how Ancelotti wants to set up his team, formation-wise. Signing midfielders is probably a safe bet, given how weak Everton have been in that area of the pitch this season, but the type of player depends on the formation Ancelotti envisions. A 4-4-2 demands different things from your central midfielders than a 4-3-3 does. A move for a box-to-box midfielder, such as Napoli’s Allan for example, could work in both systems, but trying to utilize a “number 10” role, akin to where Alex Iwobi wants to play, does not work in a 4-4-2. The same idea works for signing wingers. An attack-minded winger like Wilfried Zaha or Cengiz Ünder might work better in a 4-3-3, where they have less responsibility to defend, than in a 4-4-2. A winger with attacking output as well as a high work rate and ability to track back when needed, such as Norwich City’s Emiliano Buendía, might work better in a 4-4-2. Ancelotti has consistently started matches in a 4-4-2 at Everton, but his 4-3-3 approach against Spurs was a curveball, justified by the Italian saying he wants a team able to play multiple styles and formations. That is all well and good, but it does not really answer the question of how this Everton team will shape up going into the transfer window, which does not really give us a full picture of where and how Everton can strengthen. Ancelotti is a significantly smarter man than I am, so I have no doubt he has a clear picture of what he wants, but after years of Everton mixing up the signals in player recruitment, they need to go into this window with a clear vision of what this team will look like.
Ok, this article was quite negative, but Evertonians, I will throw us all a bone here and talk about some positives that Ancelotti is working with. There may not be that many, but there is one major area of positivity, and that is the performance of some of the younger players in this team. Richarlison just turned 23 and looks like he is a budding star. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, while he has struggled since the league season restarted, has shown signs of putting it all together this season when Ancelotti arrived, and it is possible that he is able to improve even more over the next 12 months, and he is also only 23. Mason Holgate has been Everton’s breakout star of the season, turning into a rock at the back and demonstrating flexibility in being able to also play as a fullback or midfielder, and he is also only 23. Anthony Gordon and Jarrad Branthwaite have shown considerable amount of positives since making their way into the first team after the season restart, and both of them are still teenagers. There is something there to build on. They have a budding superstar to build around in Richarlison and one part of a center back partnership in Holgate, and while there is still a considerable amount to build around it, that is still a solid start.
So yeah, what’s wrong with Everton? Quite a bit, but it all really centers around how they got Moshiri’s money and messed it all up. Everton is the rich kid who blew all of their money on stupid things instead of investing it to reap long-term rewards. This also completely ignores the mentality issue at the club, which especially rears its ugly head whenever they play away to a “Big Six” team or play at Wembley Stadium, but that is another article for another time. Everton had the resources they needed to succeed, but mismanagement and poor financial spending led to teams around them making the top six jump that the Toffees had always envisioned. Ancelotti has quite a bit of work to do; the rotting and molded foundations laid in the last five years need to be ripped up and rebuilt. This is going to take several years and several transfer windows. It is going to require a considerable amount of patience from all involved: players, club staff, and supporters. It is going to require every part and department of the club to read from the same hymn sheet, working to develop the image of the football club that Ancelotti and Brands envision. Structurally, at all levels, the club must improve, and they must work to find the one thing they have been unable to find over the last half-decade: stability.