Everton Season Preview
This is a big season for Everton. And make or break for manager Roberto Martinez. After an excellent – and progressive – 5th place in his first season, last season’s 11th was not in the script. The Spaniard has so far avoided criticism inside or out of Goodison Park. But you suspect a bottom half finish for a club the size and scope of Everton would’ve attracted much more flack had another, less amiable manager been responsible. David Moyes, for example.
After steady PL progression of 8th, 7th, 7th, 6th then 5th place finishes, last years’ pre-season talk was about the – perhaps optimistic – possibility of Champions League football. Much of this season’s has been about resisting the advances of other clubs for prized assets Ross Barkley, John Stones and James McCarthy. Martinez insists that Everton are no longer a ‘selling’ club having balanced the books. That remains to be seen, but to regain some of the momentum from the previous five PL seasons Everton need to offer a bit more than that.
One step forward…
Much – possibly too much – of their attacking threat is dependent on Romelu Lukaku. The £28 million signing from Chelsea returned ten PL goals, five less than the season before (on loan). And seven less than the previous season with West Brom. Whether his depreciation is reflective of a misfiring team or the reason for it is open to debate. The fact that Everton lack firepower isn’t. After Samuel Eto’o’s January departure, Kevin Mirallas and Steven Naismith’s provided the only other goal threat, hitting 13 between them. Not enough to effectively supplement of offer an alternative to Lukaku. Everton’s next highest scorer was center-back Phil Jagielka. Arouna Kone has contributed just seven starts and a single goal in two seasons and now he has turned 31, hope for a return on his £6m fee is faint. Elsewhere, the lauded but too often ineffectual talents of James McCarthy and Ross Barkley – just four goals and three assists between them in 49 matches – were symptomatic of Everton’s problems last season. They float a butterfly, but sting like one too.
Two steps back…
Last season’s total of 48 goals was 13 down on season 2013/14. But as disturbing – for Martinez and FL managers alike – is the fact they conceded ten more than in any of the last three seasons. Their ten clean sheets was five down on the previous year and their worst showing in five. The reliability of Everton’s defenders, particularly at home, has been an FL bedrock over the last few years. Normal service might be resumed this season if John Stones continues to develop. And remains an Everton player, of course.
The 21-year-old is a Rolls Royce of a player – all pace, grace and at ease on the ball. Chelsea’s willingness to invest upwards of £25m underlines his potential. But potential doesn’t keep clean sheets. Premier League puberty tends to take a little longer at center-back than in other positions. Mistakes are more readily punished, weaknesses preyed upon, form more fragile. And 21-year-old heads can turned by big money offers. Whatever happens Everton require cover in this area but it is surely in Everton’s, England’s and John Stones’ best interests that he is on the pitch next season rather than Chelsea’s bench.
Ins and outs…
The hoopla around John Stones has provided a relatively speculation-free summer for full-backs Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines. Both have been courted by Manchester United and others in recent seasons and they remain Everton’s most attractive options for Fantasy League managers too. Baines’ left foot is one of the most reliable wands in the PL, matching Eden Hazard for assists (nine) last time. Coleman too offers assists (three) and goals (three) and neither miss many matches.
The summer acquisitions (so far) of Tom Cleverley and Gerard Deulofeu look sound business, rather than ‘marquee’. Cleverley has had his share of flak in the last couple of years, but a portion of that can be put down to scapegoating for an underperforming England team in 2013/14 and his association with Manchester United (which magnifies everything). Cleverley finished the season well at Villa and should respond to linking up again with Martinez (he scored four times in 19 matches on loan at Wigan in 2010/11). The £4.2m Deulofeu enjoyed a successful loan spell in 2013/14 (three goals from nine starts), his ability and imagination quickly making him a crowd favorite. Still only 21, he will be bigger, stronger and better equipped for the PL this time around and pushing for a first team place from the start. So let’s take a look at how Everton might set up come August 8th…
Likely line up…
Goalkeeper Tim Howard has been generally excellent since his arrival from Manchester United in 2007. But last season was probably the most skittish. It would be premature to predict his demise, at 36 he is still at the peak of his powers. Plus, his inconsistency can be put down to a number of things: his (heroic) World Cup excursions, a drop of standards in front of him and the lack or real competition for his place. Joel Robles looked an adequate replacement when called upon (in his seven appearances) but Howard has always been immediately restored. An enquiry was made for Burnley’s Tim Heaton at the end of last season, but for now at least Howard remains number one.
The back four ‘on paper’ is as good as anything outside the top four, perhaps top two. Neither full-backs have serious competition for their places. Tony Hibbert has had a distinguished 242 matches for the club, but at 34-years-old simply provides cover for Seamus Coleman at right-back. Likewise, on the opposite flank Bryan Oviedo and highly rated youngster Luke Garbutt will only see game time when Leighton Baines is injured. At center-back the Phil Jagielka-John Stones partnership similarly picks itself. Mainly because with Sylvain Distin and Antolin Alcaraz released, Martinez has no other senior player to choose from.
Crystal Palace’s Scott Dann was targeted, before signing a new contract. Current and past Manchester United offcuts Jonny Evans and Nemanja Vidic have been speculated over. But all this was before Chelsea tabled £20m for Stones. Losing Stones would leave Everton woefully short at the back and the closer to deadline day it happens, the bigger problem it would cause. So we can expect at least one new face in this area whatever happens.
Everton’s best football last season came from a 4-5-1 (or 4-2-3-1, if you prefer) formation. With Gareth Barry and Muhammed Besic or Leon Osman anchoring a more advanced three of James McCarthy, Ross Barkley and Kevin Mirallas, Aiden McGeady or latterly Aaron Lennon. 22-year-old Besic may well feature in one of the anchor roles more than his ten starts last season, but unlikely to be of any more interest to FL managers than 34-year-old veterans Gareth Barry or Leon Osman.
James McCarthy, Aiden McGeady, Steven Pienaar and Kevin Mirallas all have question marks over them, be it fitness, their intentions next season or their end product last. So we should expect some activity before the window closes. Ross Barkley and Gerard Deufoleu look the most likely starters and most attractive from an FL point of view. Behind Romelu Lukaku, of course. The Belgian will once again be at the sharp end of Everton’s attack and the catalyst of any success. Giving them a likely line-up of:
So what can we expect…?
I started with saying it is going to be a big season for Everton. And make or break for Roberto Martinez. But the same could be said for Tim Howard, John Stones, Ross Barkley, James McCarthy and Romelu Lukaku. Everton must improve on 11th, but a return to the top six, seven or even eight currently looks well beyond them unless they can keep their prize assets Stones and McCarthy. And add center-back cover and attacking bite – Aaron Lennon would be a start, but doesn’t address the chronic lack of goals.
From a Fantasy League point of view, there is an element of gamble associated with Everton this season. Defensively, we are buying on the previous three seasons rather than the last campaign. But it has to get better, so all of the back five are likely to be solid investments (assuming that John Stones doesn’t end up on Chelsea’s bench), with Seamus Coleman and especially Leighton Baines the standouts.
In midfield, Ross Barkley and Gerard Deufoleu are likely to be (over)priced based on potential. James McCarthy and Kevin Mirallas – wherever they end up – are as flaky as they are talented. So the value might be in Tom Cleverley, who outpointed all Everton midfielders in the PL.com game while at a struggling Aston Villa last season. Otherwise the consistent, if unspectacular, Aaron Lennon would be my pick. Should he arrive.
The biggest conundrum remains Romelu Lukaku though. The Belgian powerhouse has flattered to deceive for Chelsea, West Brom and Everton so far, but still looks ready to explode. Perhaps the incentive of Euro 2016 at the end of the season is the incentive he needs, or perhaps it is just one or two better players around him. He was outscored (in PL.com) by Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines last season, despite costing significantly more. But should hit double figures in goals – and the better Everton do, the better Lukaku will do. Or should that be the other way around?
Matt Nesbitt’s unspectacular but joyful playing career has given way to a much more successful but miserable one writing and providing betting advice. Email: Matt Nesbitt
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