By Ewan Roberts
It is not often that a club sheds their notoriously thrifty approach to transfers dealings and undertakes the biggest summer splurge in their history only to retain a virtually identical squad to the one they had the season before. Yet that is the curious position Everton find themselves in, having spent £32 million and counting simply to restore parity.
In the previous campaign, the Merseysiders’ push for Champions League football owed much to a reliance on loan signings – Manchester City, Chelsea and Barcelona all allowed players to move to Goodison Park, with veteran Gareth Barry anchoring the midfield, Romelu Lukaku leading the attack and Gerard Deulofeu showing enough pace and trickery to earn a place in Luis Enrique’s new-look squad upon his return to Camp Nou.
Two of those three have now made permanent moves to Everton, with Barry joining on a free transfer and Lukaku smashing the club’s previous transfer record, while Ross Barkley, Seamus Coleman and John Stones have committed to new long-term contracts and Bosnia-Herzegovina’s World Cup star, Mohamed Besic, has swapped the Hungarian top flight for the Premier League in a £4m move.
A busy summer, then, but one focused on consolidation rather than improvement. While the rest of the division’s leading clubs have strengthened significantly in the off-season – and are threatening to spend further before the end of the window – Everton have largely stayed the same and, rather than upgrade last season’s squad, they have been working furiously just to keep it intact.
It is often said that standing still is the same as going backwards in football, and there is just a sliver of fear that the Toffees have not significantly pushed on during the off-season but, in this instance, Everton have undoubtedly taken a giant stride forward even if their personnel is virtually unchanged.
While there is likely to be a very familiar look to the club in the upcoming season, that is by no means a bad thing. Those sides on the precipice of breaking into the top four so often see the nucleus of their team broken up just when they are on the verge of achieving something remarkable – Tottenham are unrecognisable now from the team who nabbed a Champions League place, while Southampton have seen their squad ripped apart over the summer.
Everton, though, have fended off interest from the division’s bigger clubs to keep together a predominantly young roster of players who are constantly improving, constantly developing and constantly appreciating in value.
Barkley exploded into the limelight during what might be dubbed his “rookie” season, his powerful, bullish style drawing comparisons with Wayne Rooney; Stones deputised so manfully for Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka that he earned an England call-up while the experienced double act at the heart of Everton’s defence should consider themselves under serious threat; and Lukaku brought his tally of Premier League goals to 31 to mark him out as Europe’s most prolific youngster.
The Toffees’ summer dealings, then, and especially the absence of any notable outgoings, send a very clear message to the rest of the league: Everton mean business and are ready to compete not just in the immediate future, but the long term too.
Such a statement is imperative, both in the context of where the club want to be and where they have come from. Before the Premier League’s conception, only Liverpool and Arsenal had been crowned English champions more often, yet that standing belies the club’s more recent history. Not since they last won the title in 1987 have they finished higher than fourth place and recent windows, especially under David Moyes, have been depressingly uninspiring – if there is a rung bellow the bargain basement, that is what the Scot was forced to rummage through.
That Everton have now managed to snare a striker with the potential to be genuinely world class speaks volumes, especially considering his £28m price tag, and marks a dramatic shift from signing the likes of Apostolos Vellios, Jermain Beckford on a free and Denis Stracqualursi on loan to fill the problematic leading man role. Such purchases hinted at a club going nowhere, simply surviving – often just by the skin of their teeth.
But Lukaku’s arrival changes all that. Here is a player chased by sides in the Champions League and with a goals record that stands up with the best in the world – and he chose to join Everton. “We are ambitious, we want to be successful, and he represents a lot more than just a player,” explained Roberto Martinez. “I think it’s one of those days that isn’t just important for the season but a very, very significant day in the history of our football club.”
Now the buzzword around Goodison is ambition and the ceiling that they had been banging their head against has been pierced. Players ultimately want to join clubs where they can fulfil their own goals and targets, namely winning silverware, and, especially under Martinez, Everton are now infused with that very same sense of purpose, while the money spent on Lukaku has almost instantly altered the DNA of a club previously more noted for selling than buying.
Martinez’s first words to chairman Bill Kenwright when interviewed for the Everton job were “I will get you into the Champions League” – a marked difference from Moyes’s “You will not be relegated” gambit back in 2002 – but the departure of Maroune Fellaini, regardless of how much of a dud he has been at Manchester United, suggested the club had not quite embraced Martinez’s enthusiasm and drive.
Not so any more. This is a squad who genuinely believe they can gate-crash the Premier League’s top-of-the-table oligarchy, all while playing a thoroughly appetising brand of football. Martinez has been backed in the transfer market and further aesthetic tweaks can be expected across a squad still transitioning away from Moyes’s melancholy pragmatism. This young side, full of flair, will only get better, individually and as a collective.
Everton’s dependence on loan signings last season had the potential to hamstring them in the long term, with a sense that this summer could be wasted simply trying to piece back together a squad who couldn’t quite capitalise on the transitional seasons endured by the league’s underperforming behemoths. But having tied down the players that flourished last season they are looking healthier than ever.
The faces may be the same, but the quality could be unrecognisable if they continue their rapid development. Off the pitch the Toffees have finally shed their feeder club tag and allowed fans to dream rather than temper expectations as has previously been the norm, and the task now will be to fulfil that ambition on the pitch too.