Can Everton ever build a coherent strategy?
Marcel Brands is out. Can a sensible approach replace him?
I truly apologise for this terrible rhyming pun, but Marcel Brands was supposed to be a safe pair of hands. Predecessor Steve Walsh had no experience in a sporting director role, and it was obvious no one in the Everton hierarchy had a clue how to run a modern football club.
This is largely hearsay, but the view tended to be that Brands, majority owner Farhad Moshiri, and chairman Bill Kenwright were never singing from the same hymn sheet. It’s not exactly a shock that Moshiri, the man writing the cheques, won most battles. For all that he wants to invest in Everton and grow the club into a genuine challenger, it’s not exactly been the most coherent strategy.
Moshiri picks the manager. That has been obvious since he arrived, even if I believe that should be the sporting director’s call. After everything fell apart for Ronald Koeman then Sam Allardyce, Everton hired Marco Silva at around the same time as Brands. After Silva showed himself not up to the job, Moshiri bagged the man who almost defines the “Hollywood” concept: Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian was a serial winner, even if he had little experience doing the kind of job Everton needed from him. It was adequate for 18 months before Real Madrid came calling, and here we are with Rafa Benítez.
With that backdrop, it’s been hard to figure out what exactly Brands was doing. He was nominally in charge of recruitment, but certain signings, – think Richarlison under Silva, Allan under Ancelotti and Townsend under Benítez – look manager-driven. Each manager also had a different idea of how to play football and the profile of signing required. That made it near-impossible for Brands to build a coherent plan over the medium term. It left Everton in a position of jolting from one manager to another and throwing out any work that got them there.
Even so, it’s hard to argue Brands was doing good work. If we subtract Richarlison on account of clearly being Silva’s man, only Lucas Digne looks like a clear transfer success. That same Lucas Digne who just fell out with Benítez. The rest have ranged from decent but pricey (Ben Godfrey) contributing virtually nothing (Jean-Philippe Gbamin). It’s a given that this squad wouldn’t look coherent due to the chaos happening all around Brands. But he could’ve at least found some value purchases instead of this mediocre bunch.
Everton will presumably take their time and have Brands’ replacement in the role in time for the summer transfer window. That person needs to be empowered to make high-level football decisions, because it’s obvious Moshiri has no idea what he’s doing calling those shots. If the sporting director has that power, their first big call is the manager situation. Benítez isn’t doing well, but I have a hard time imagining this team won’t finish somewhere in midtable. It’ll be another year of stalling rather than a disaster. There would be, then, a lot to weigh up with Benítez.
When you hire Benítez, you expect certain things. A large number of the Everton supporters are never getting behind him due to everything that happened in his six years at Anfield. The football on the pitch isn’t exactly going to be sparkling, and no neutrals will be seeking out Everton games. That’s the deal, and it’s exactly what’s happened. His side of the bargain is that he’ll make the team compact, tough to beat, and more organised than the vast majority of teams in the league.
Is he doing what he was hired to do? Well…
When I think of the best Benítez football, it’s defensive but not deep block. He’s famously obsessed with vertical compactness, constantly gesturing on the touchline to keep the distances from back to front as short as possible. In big games, that might mean spending a lot of time in their own third, but it would often be higher up the pitch and more proactive. I don’t think that’s really happening now. Everton aren’t really instituting much of a press without the ball. They allow the opponent to make about 15 passes before attempting to win the ball back, third-most in the league and nearly twice as many as the league leaders in this metric, high pressing monsters Leeds.1 They’ve also made just 100 high turnovers (winning the ball back within 40m of the opposition goal), well below average. To be honest, those best Benítez teams were some time ago. His Valencia and Liverpool teams competed in a world where co-ordinated high pressing systems were a million miles from the default. Now, it’s the expectation. The Overton window has shifted, and Benítez football looks pretty low block by today’s standards.
Jordan Pickford remains the number one, and I’d think everyone reading this already has their own opinions on him. In front of him, Everton have favoured a back four, most often consisting of Séamus Coleman, Michael Keane, Ben Godfrey and (until now) Digne. Yerry Mina came in for Digne against Arsenal, and will likely start going forward. Digne hasn’t been covering himself in glory defensively this season, so there’s a chance this actually makes Everton more solid. Considering Coleman’s age and less-than-breathtaking performances, the Toffees might need a new pair of full backs pretty soon.
Allan fits the mould of what Benítez wants from a central midfielder and it’s no surprise he’s been a fixture this season. He’s not quite the complete box-to-box threat of his peak years at Napoli, but he still offers more than enough for this team. He leads Everton in both pressures and progressive passes per 90, showing his value with and without the ball. He’s been good. Abdoulaye Doucouré has generally been partnering him. To be honest, I’ve never been Doucouré’s biggest fan, but he’s been fine here. He’d be better in a midfield three, but Everton don’t really have the squad to suit if Andre Gomes remains injury-prone.
The attacking selections haven’t been nearly as consistent. Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray, the surprise summer signings, have been the most used options. After a very hot early finishing streak, Townsend hasn’t provided a goal or assist since October. I don’t really understand what Benítez expected here. He isn’t producing a lot in terms of progressive passes or carries, isn’t receiving it a ton as an outlet, and doesn’t generate an abundance of goals or assists. He’s a hard worker, but we knew all of this already. Who actually thought Townsend was good enough to improve Everton in the summer?
Gray has been better, to my surprise. He’s currently finishing at double his xG, which won’t last, but there are other positive elements to his game, but he’s looking pretty good in terms of progressive carries and progressive passes received. At age 25, I don’t think he’s going to improve any more than this, but he’s a useful winger at least, which I didn’t expect him to become a year ago.
Richarlison remains the same useful player as ever, great at pressing and getting shots in decent positions, but it does feel like he hasn’t pushed on in his time at Goodison. But needless to say, he’s a guaranteed starter. The big injury loss has been Dominic Calvert-Lewin, and that has been a big blow. A fit Calvert-Lewin is always going to be Everton’s biggest goal threat. But a front four of Gray, Townsend, Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin feels a little one dimensional. Everton are crying out for someone who wants to come short and pick out the pass. James Rodriguez was obviously supposed to be that, but Benítez didn’t like the cut of his jib and now he’s in Qatar.
I’m not saying James was playing well in an Everton shirt. But if Digne follows him out of the door, that’s a lot of talent Benítez has decided to ditch to fit his model. I don’t think they have close to the squad depth for the manager to keep making these choices. He approaches every job with the view that it’s his way or nothing. That’s not always the most holistic way to run a football club.
It is, though, an idea. Everton have a choice of either buying into Benítez methods completely or ditching him. If you’re going to keep him around, you have to give him the leeway to reshape the squad in exactly the ways he wants. If you’re not, just sack him at the end of the season. The absolute worst thing Everton could do is maintain this halfway house, where the manager is fighting for control while Moshiri and the next sporting director are signing players he doesn’t want.
So that, I’d guess, is what they’ll probably do.