By Mark Finnegan (@LowerGwaldysLad)
We are six months and 25 games into the 2016/17 Premier League season and with Everton not in action for a fortnight as Ronald Koeman takes his players, and his flip-flops, off to a warm-weather training camp in Dubai, I thought this might be a good opportunity to assess what we’ve witnessed under the Dutchman so far.
Looking at our current points haul – 41 (after 25 games) – compared to our final points totals – 47 (after 38 games) – in both of our two most recent campaigns (2014-15 & 2015-16), it is already evident from the statistics that after consecutive disappointing 11th placed finishes we have progressed and risen back up the table and look set to more than surpass our final standings of the past two campaigns in terms of points and League position. We’ve started looking up again, begun to believe again, but in reality that’s the least we would have expected following the end of Roberto Martinez’ disappointing and brief stay in L4, the negativity needed to be forgotten.
Ronald Koeman’s maiden season at Goodison Park is still far from finished, but to date it is easy to divide his side’s results into three sections; the first chunk of our season was a fruitful one – earning 13 points from the first 15 available – meanwhile the second run of games was a more frustrating one – earning just 7 points from the next 30 available – and the third and most recent group of games has seen Everton put an unbeaten run together since early January – amassing 21 points from a possible 30 along the way.
Initially the Blues took off well from August to mid-September with our opening six fixtures setting an exciting, early-season mood amongst our fan base. Wins over West Brom, Stoke, Boro, Sunderland, a cup victory and a decent point against Spurs saw Koeman’s side make a solid and impressive start to the season. Following on from that the second segment of our campaign brought about a more inconsistent looking Toffees, who went five games without a win and crashed out of the League Cup at the hands of Norwich City. Defeats at Bournemouth and Burnley were hard to take, and we could only manage a draw at home against lowly Crystal Palace, but we did earn a moral boosting point at Man City and eventually ended our dip in form with a win over West Ham at Goodison Park. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before our erratic form developed again though and a heavy defeat at Chelsea, a poor draw with Swansea and 1-0 reverse at Koeman’s old stomping ground Southampton saw many Evertonians voicing their concerns. A 1-1 draw with United in early December showed signs of promise but a shocking 3-2 defeat at Watford saw us approach the Festive fixtures in much need of a win and a change in fortunes.
We needed to see a reaction and I do feel that since the game at Vicarage Road we have witnessed just that and I’m hopeful we can carry this through until the end of the season. Trying out a different formation, removing certain players from the side and a change in mentality have all contributed to this. Fortunately since that frustrating defeat against the Hornets, albeit with a couple of bumps in the road along the way (The Derby loss and FA Cup defeat to Leicester) in the main Everton have bounced back from an inconsistent phase, showed good form and echoes of our start to the campaign with 6 victories and three draws in total. We are now unbeaten in 8 games, and from our last 11 fixtures we’ve seen points gained against Hull, Stoke and Boro on the road, together with a memorable victory over Arsenal, comfortable wins over Leicester, Southampton, Manchester City, as well as a nine-goal thriller v Bournemouth and a gritty last-gasp win at Palace.
The mood at Everton is largely a positive one; we are in a comfortable position in the table and January saw many unwanted players departing Goodison Park, with two new exciting signings arriving through the door. There is a fresher, more vibrant and hungry feel about Everton, it’s like the cobwebs have been blown away, the shackles have come off, and even though we are still changing and growing as a Team and Squad, and the fact that we still need to add quality in the summer to continue to build, I cannot help but feel excited and optimistic about the remainder of the season ahead and the future of my Club.
In terms of personnel I was pleased with the business we did in January and for once I was satisfied by the departures as much as I was of the arrivals. To see the likes of Oviedo, Cleverley, Gibson and Niasse amongst others move out on loan or permanent deals is what needed to happen. For too long now there’s been lads at Everton hanging around like a bad smell, either not good enough, always injured, not making a positive contribution or any sort of difference, or not really that arsed about playing regular football – and they are slowly being phased out of this Football Club. Too many have picked up a fantastic wage but never justified it, but times are now changing and this type of player who will be moved on. January and last summer are the two transfer windows that this has really begun to happen, and this will happen again and again until Koeman is finally happy with who he has got within his ranks. It’s the same with incoming players, in the summer we bought well and I believe in January we’ve done the same. We’ve identified targets and signed them, and spent a fair few quid in doing so. Although in terms of numbers we may be down one or two, and our squad depth is slightly concerning, it results in the players who remain all fighting for positions and places in the Team. This instils hunger, a demand and an ambitious attitude, togetherness, there’s no room for passengers or players making up the numbers (which ironically was the title of my last hugely critical article written after the Watford game) those who are there need to fight for their right to play. In the summer we will build again and bolster the ranks but nowadays we bolster with quality, and bring through promising youngsters, we are not just adding bodies for the sake of it anymore, Koeman and Walsh will again be given the financial tools by Moshiri to further strengthen in the right areas and I’m optimistic they won’t disappoint – our recruitment set-up looks bright and our youth development set-up even brighter.
On the two signings we made in January we couldn’t have asked for two players to come in and fit in more immediately than Ademola Lookman and Morgan Schneiderlin have done. Both look well settled already, like they’ve been at Everton a lot longer than just four weeks, and it proves how much faith Koeman has in the pair by the way he has utilised them so far. Lookman really looks a class above, the kid has assurance, confidence, an eye for goal plus the tricks and flicks that get the Evertonian pulses racing. On the face of it a certain Mr Walsh appears to have unearthed another big talent and although he, like many of our other youngsters, is still developing, Lookman certainly has a bright future ahead and he’s the type of player we love to see in royal blue, an exciting offensive talent that creates a buzz on the terraces. Schneiderlin on the other hand has also slotted in incredibly well and his energy and presence in the middle of the park was noticeable as soon as he made his first appearance. Keen to do well after stalling at Man Utd, the early signs have been impressive from the Frenchman who can not only win a ball, get around the pitch, he also has the ability to drive the team forward and is a vocal and physical figure in the midfield. An all-rounder who is already making a difference, and to think some baulked at his price tag when we signed him.
With squad and formation changes we’ve seen the youthful Mason Holgate and Tom Davies getting more and more game time and they’ve both hugely impressed in their own ways. Still learning and developing, plenty more involvement from now until the end of the season can only help the aforementioned duo and it is brilliant to see two youngsters getting a chance at the Club. Holgate plays ahead of his years and has huge potential, and the same can be said about the popular Davies who oozes confidence. Davies and Holgate aren’t the only two young lads to catch the eye – Dominic Calvert-Lewin has obviously impressed Koeman too and was unlucky to pick up a knock just after New Year shortly after breaking into the First Team. David Unsworth’s fantastic work with our table-topping Under 23’s will only help to further contribute to players coming through, catching the eye and getting an opportunity. Again, with the dead-wood getting shipped aside at Everton, the younger lads will see their path into the Team, work hard and you’ll get a chance, you’ll get a game – this is something which Koeman is proving with his methods.
In terms of the rest of the side and individual performances of late, Joel Robles has impressed me in recent weeks and is more than justifying his place in the Team. Joel is a big presence in goal and although Maarten Stekelenburg began the season between the sticks he hasn’t had a look in after getting injured earlier in the campaign. Joel has come in and made some superb saves but also instilled confidence in his defenders and us the fans with some confident displays. In central defence Ramiro Funes Mori has divided opinion amongst supporters and I’ve got to say I’m not overly convinced. I do feel Koeman will see centre half as a position to strengthen and with Jagielka being phased out, Funes Mori not the most consistent player and Ashley Williams not always having the best of times then he will probably look to freshen this area up come the summer. Ashley Williams brings great qualities to the side but I think even the most loyal Evertonian couldn’t argue that he hasn’t looked as consistent or solid as we may have liked at times this season and people will always point the finger at his age.
Elsewhere and the middle of the park is a position where I’m most excited about, we have a wealth of options in there now and McCarthy, Barry and Besic would do well to get a look in with Gana, Davies, Schneiderlin and Ross Barkley all looking like they’ll take some dislodging. It’s a position of strength and one which Koeman has focused on, and with a number of players all vying for positions it makes for a solid, competitive core of the side.
Speaking of the midfield I’ve been really pleased to see Ross Barkley play with a new lease of life since the turn of the year and I do believe having other young lads like Davies and Lookman in the side will take some of the pressure off him. Barkley plays best when he plays like he’s having a kick about with his mates and in recent weeks we’ve seen that, we’ve seen him confident, assisting and scoring goals and showing a bit of arrogance and if you are to be a success in this League then you need all of that and more. Ross Barkley is a big talent, he’s had his doubters and probably always will have them too, but he just needs to focus on his game, pay no attention to what people say and enjoy his football because he can certainly be a joy to watch on his day and he has the creative tools to make us tick.
Up front Romelu Lukaku is on 16 League goals for the season and up to 78 goals since joining the Club and I can’t speak highly enough of the lad. Yes at times he doesn’t help himself with his body language and he can frustrate (what player doesn’t frustrate you) but to those Evertonians who criticise him – and unbelievably some have said things like ‘apart from scoring he offers nothing’ – what other 23 year old can perform consistently at the top level and score as many goals as he has done? Don’t forget Everton have been a poor side for 2 years before this season but he still did the business in front of goal, his record speaks for itself and I just hope we can tie him down to that new contract and he remains with us for the foreseeable future because he is a massive asset to have and I honestly believe some Blues will only realise just how vital he is until he leaves. Only then will they see. That old cliche.
In terms of our most recent results I was left slightly frustrated that we couldn’t overcome Boro last Saturday at the Riverside. I felt the same after the Stoke game and although I see the point that we are still unbeaten and a point away from home isn’t bad, I do feel we should be winning this type of game and we have the players to do so. Unfortunately I don’t like to just settle for a draw, against anyone in the League, and being realistic I feel we should be at least getting 4 points from the Stoke/Boro games but unfortunately we’ve ended up with 2 and that gap to Man Utd has increased again.
But there are still plenty of games left, if you would have offered me 7th place when we kicked off in August then I’d have been glad with that, especially after what had went before, and we do still have a chance to finish higher up in the table and there isn’t much risk of us falling any lower than 8th place. With Sunderland, Hull and West Brom the next three visitors to Goodison I’m confident our good home form can continue and as well as our unbeaten stretch, but there’s no denying each game will be tough and we have to go to White Hart Lane and Anfield in the coming weeks also.
Overall I’ve been impressed with Koeman’s technical ability this season, his willingness to change things and his ambitious approach. His additions have been smart, he’s trimmed down the dead wood, utilised youth, he has made us a formidable force at Goodison and although we’ve had a few wobbles along the way, we are finding our feet gradually and with every transfer window comes change, opportunity and a chance to keep making this team and squad better. For the moment I’m happy where we are but there’s no denying I want to see us much further up that table and fighting at the top end of the League. Whilst I’m ambitious and I want success for Everton again I am realistic, I know this won’t happen overnight and we are working to towards it but with Moshiri outlining his plans for the Club off the pitch and Koeman putting his plans into action on it then I have every faith we are on our way to becoming a force once more because we now have the right materials to allow us to do so.
There’s still a long way to go with this Everton side, the hard work has only just begun and we need to keep improving, but after witnessing what I have so far this season I definitely do believe we are on the right track.
Here’s to what we all hope will be a positive end to the season and a continuation of good form.