The summer of optimism has given way to crushing disappointment.
Around two months before Ronald Koeman was asked to leave, Everton had four points from two games with an away draw against Manchester City to boot. The slightly tricky path of qualifying for the Europa League group stage had been negotiated too.
Gylfi Sigurdsson’s signing had alleviated some of the worries. There was his 50-yard screamer in Croatia. It all seemed fine; a net spend of around £45 million had seen the club break its transfer record thrice over the summer. Koeman was reasonable about his expectations.
"It is still too soon to talk about top four. What we’d like to do is continue what we did last season," he had said. He wanted to push the top six sides some more. Everton had finished eight points behind sixth-placed Manchester United last season; a United team that had chosen to divert focus to the Europa League in the final month of the campaign.
How quickly the wheels came off. Since gaining a point against Manchester City, Everton picked up only four from a possible 21. Europe brought more pain. The Toffees currently sit bottom of their group, with only a point to show for their exertions.
The slide was alarming. But it was evident even during those shiny early days of August. It had become apparent to most observers that Everton lacked pace in the final third. Their ponderous football was not exactly setting hearts racing. Nor was it scaring any opposition.
Two days before Koeman took charge for the final time against Arsenal, the confusion was evident. "What is the best formation? What is the best striker with Wayne (Rooney), Sigurdsson, (Davy) Klaassen? We struggled at the beginning to get the right formation and that makes it difficult. Then not good results and that brings us back to the lack of confidence."
The confidence was not bred by the manager’s constant search for his best side. Many of his substitutions during matches betrayed desperation — a sign of a man merely hoping that everything would be alright. Koeman cut a beleaguered figure, miles away from the man who could joke about not having enough players to train at Southampton.
It did not help the manager that the players who could rejuvenate his side in attack were missing due to injuries. Ross Barkley, Yannick Bolasie and Seamus Coleman have been sorely missed, with pace on the flanks being conspicuous by its absence. Koeman’s tactics acquired strange shapes too.
The Dutch manager went through formations, with a 4-2-2-2 setup against Brighton and Hove Albion in his penultimate league game evoking much mirth and hand-wringing. Koeman forced himself to find a place for both Rooney and Sigurdsson in the starting eleven, with neither allowed to play as the designated playmaker. Width was inexplicably sacrificed and Everton struggled to break opposition teams down.
Not to forget, another central presence in Klassen is now struggling to break into the side. Despite the fanfare around his signing, it seems rather peculiar that the manager would want to have so many players in a similar role without addressing the most obvious issue — goals or the lack thereof.
After the pursuit of Olivier Giroud was called off, Everton curiously did not go for a striker who could in some way compensate for the 25 league goals scored by Romelu Lukaku last season. As goals became difficult to find, out-of-favour Oumar Niasse found himself in contention once again. The Senegalese striker has scored three goals in four Premier League appearances this season but even he could not save a defensively fragile Everton.
It is not that there are gaping holes at the back for the Toffees. Rather, it is the side’s inability to build constant pressure which results in its eventual downfall. One senses the issue will persist, although the signing of goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has addressed a problem area for Everton last season. Despite the bounteous financial resources at the club and a strident transfer strategy, Koeman was unable to replicate the lofty ambitions on the pitch.
Responsibility, though, will have to be accepted collectively. Koeman was insistent that it was not his decision alone to leave the pursuit of a reliable striker. The director of football, Steve Walsh, has not covered himself in glory either. But his position remains secure for now.
By the looks of it, Koeman enjoyed the support of majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri, but the results sealed his fate. However, one wonders whether a new manager will be able to bring the team back to its usual rhythms with the current personnel.
Perhaps, the answer lies within the club. The Everton under-23s lifted the Premier League 2 trophy last term and the heightened recruitment activity has been replicated at the youth levels too. Ademola Lookman and Tom Davies are two young names who have already impressed for the first-team. The future burns bright at Everton, but a swift response in January will be needed to transform the club’s short-term fortunes.
Before the season began, despite the signs that he harboured bigger personal ambitions, Koeman sounded sprightly. "Everybody knows that there was one really big reason for me to sign one year ago for Everton. It was all about this project and I think the club is showing that ambition that everybody likes to have and they are really great, exciting times for Everton Football Club."
No longer. Not for Koeman or Everton. The decision to part ways may seem sudden, but there has been little to get enthused about at the club this season. Considering the money that was spent, Koeman was never going to have a lot of time to justify that the project was on track.
It clearly has gone off the rails.
Updated Date: Oct 24, 2017 13:27:42 IST