Everton Season Preview: change needed?

evertonLast season’s 11th place was not good enough for Everton Football Club. The question therefore, is whether improvements will be made this term. The only summer change is the appointment of Ronald Koeman, who replaces Roberto Martinez. That might have been a necessary switch – but is it enough? The Football Lab spoke to supporter Bryan Salz (@bryansalz) to find out.

When Roberto Martinez first took over, he was a breath of fresh air and fans loved the attacking football on show. What went wrong in his last two seasons?

When Martinez was hired, he excited fans with his optimism and refreshing style of play. Under Moyes, Everton fans were guaranteed of two things: 1) We would be playing a boring defensive style and 2) We would be playing for the tie on the road against the top clubs. Martinez embraced the idea of being a top 4 club, and in his first season, we finished 5th in a year where our point total ordinarily would have been enough to crack the top 4. Over the next two years, however, it became apparent the reason he was so successful in year 1 was the team was still playing Moyes defensive system. As they picked up more and more of Martinez’s system, which seemingly didn’t require any sort of cohesion at all on defense, the defense got worse and worse. The tiki taka style of passing the ball around began to fail as well, as we would dominate possession but never get any clean looks on goal. He was also very loyal to certain players, and his optimism became very annoying once the losses piled up. It was time for him to go.

New manager Ronald Koeman gets teams playing good football at times, but he seems tactically savvier than Martinez. Could he combine the best elements of the Moyes and Martinez regimes?

I think so. Koeman has a reputation has a good tactician whose teams play solid on both sides of the ball. I was always impressed with how disciplined Southampton played. At the same time, they were never boring like a Tony Pulis club, for example. I think we are going to see dramatic improvement from a tactical standpoint. Martinez NEVER made adjustments and his substitutions or lack thereof were extremely baffling at best.

Are you surprised that Koeman was willing to leave Southampton? Based on the performances of the respective teams over the last two years it’s hard to say that Everton is a step up…

On paper, you’re right. Southampton, after all, have finished higher in the table than Everton the last two years and Koeman was becoming an icon there. However, the acquisition of 50% of the team Farhad Moshiri is a game changer for the club and made it a very enticing choice for managers. Moshiri is a very wealthy man who has promised to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the club. This offseason alone he promised we would have a $150 million budget. We have not spent 150 million because we haven’t landed everyone we’ve desired, but the money is there. Plus, the window doesn’t close for another few weeks anyway! Anyway, Koeman appreciated Everton’s grand history and wants to be the guy who brings them back to that level; he will certainly have the resources to do so.

Almost every Everton fan last season called for Joel Robles to start in goal ahead of Tim Howard. Was that largely down to the latter’s decline, or is Robles of the calibre needed to be number 1 for the years to come?

Tim Howard certainly had to go. He began to decline two years ago and he hit rock bottom last year as he literally cost us several games himself. I have my hesitations about Robles being a #1. At times, he has looked very good, but there are other times where I wonder what he’s doing. He is competing with Fulham import Maarten Stekelenburg for the #1 job right now. Koeman has familiarity with the latter from Southampton, but he hasn’t been very impressive at all. Goalkeeper seems to be a legit concern for this club right now.

Not long ago, Everton’s flying full-backs was a widely-recognized strength, but Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines seemed non-existent last season. Is there potential for right-back Jonjoe Kenny, who impressed on loan at Oxford, or energetic left-back Brendan Galloway, to nail down a first team place?

Not yet. With today’s sale of Stones and the subsequent acquisition of Ashley Williams, you are looking at Baines/Jagielka/Coleman/Williams as the starters on defense. Galloway will have a role for sure, but the defense is getting crowded. He would most likely replace Baines if Baines continues his decline. We are hoping Bainsey will revive himself under a new manager after having a very strained relationship with Martinez. We are also thought to be close to signing Lamine Kone from Sunderland. In addition, Funes Mori is expected to play a big role this year, and of course, there’s always Bryan Oviedo. So I do not think Kenny is in the equation yet.

Every football follower seems to have a strong opinion on the now-departed John Stones, be it that he’s world-class or overrated. Is there a case to say “give the kid a break and see how he develops”?

I believe John Stones is a future captain of England and I wish him the best of luck in Manchester City.

Phil Jagielka and Funes Mori weren’t great in the second half of last season. Are you in need of a no-nonsense centre-back that can lead?

Thanks to the addition of Ashley Williams, who was one of the best CB’s in the league last year, I think our center defense will be good. Jagielka was actually quite solid last year despite what many said and Funes Mori should improve. We are fine at center even with the loss of Stones.

Gareth Barry was your best midfielder last season in the eyes of many. Given his advancing age, is that concerning in some ways?

I would disagree with anyone who says that Gareth Belly was our best midfielder last year. To me, it was Ross Barkley by a mile. His attacking skills are incredible. He is SO close to being an elite player. After Barkley, James McCarthy is our best midfielder. He took a step back last year, but I think he will regain the solid form he showed in the 2014-2015 season. Lennon and Mirallas have the potential to be better than Barry as well. We picked up Idrissa Gueye, who had an excellent year for Aston last year. He might end up being our best midfielder after Barkley. There are rumors Yannick Bolasie may be on his way too. I thought Barry did a nice job last year, and it’s good that we can probably afford a drop in his performance because others should have an increase in their own performances.

David Unsworth gave teenage midfielders Kieran Dowell and Tom Davies a chance on the final day, the duo playing an energetic role in a 3-0 win. With Darron Gibson injury prone and Leon Osman lacking pace, will there be opportunities for those two?

I like both of them, and if it were up to me, they would be on the roster. Osman has departed and Gibson is literally never fit. We will likely see both of the kids this year and I am very excited for their potential. Dowell currently is one of the few attacking midfielders we have, but he’s only 18 so I’m not sure how much they expect out of him right away.

You often resorted to playing Tom Cleverley on the left side of midfield last season. Is an upgrade needed in that area?

I believe they addressed this need with the Gueye signing, who was one of the leading tacklers in the league last year. I love this move. Cleverley will be Barkley’s backup at center MF, and I think that’ll be a great role for him.

Everton clearly have a lot of attacking potential, evidenced by a return of 82 goals in all competitions last season, five more than Leicester. Are you excited by the quality available in the likes of Ross Barkley?

I am extremely excited by Ross Barkley. This is a guy who is right up there with Mahrez, Coutinho, Payet, and Eriksen as far as attacking skill goes out of MF. I have mentioned already I think he’s going to be elite sooner rather than later. We could use more attacking though. Mirallas has been disappointing for awhile. Will a new manager get him going? We hope so. After Barkley, though, Lukaku is our only attacking force. Kone is nothing special and Gerard Deulofeu was a big disappointment last year. Niasse looked completely lost. That could end up being a flop signing.

It seems like Romelu Lukaku can be mistaken for a complete striker because of his pace and power, when actually his questionable first touch and hold-up play renders him little more than a goalscorer. Is that a fair assessment?

I would say that is a fair assessment. While his first touch and hold-up player are questionable at best, his attacking to the net is often brilliant. Yes, his possession overall and his defense leave much to be desired, but he’s an exciting player and he can finish. He’s a great player. I hope we keep him unless the price is right.

There were flashes from Arouna Kone last season during which it looked like he still had a role to play, but he couldn’t sustain his performance levels. With Oumar Niasse not looking up to scratch, is it important to bring in another forward?

Yes. As I mentioned before, Arouna Kone and Niasse might not even be good backups. We desperately need another forward. If we don’t get one, we better hope Deolofeu is a lot better than he was last year.

What are your thoughts ahead of the Premier League season as a whole? Which teams do you think will be challenging for the top four?

I disagree with the amount of money they spent on their additions, but Manchester City significantly improved in the offseason. To me, they are the favorite. I hate to say it, but Liverpool should be very dangerous with a full year of Klopp at the helm. Man United made some splashy moves, but will their defense hold up? Leicester can’t be forgotten either. Something tells me they are not a one year fluke at all. Arsenal will be there, and the usual suspects Chelsea and Tottenham should be battling for that top 4 spot as well.

Where will you finish?

I think we have a very bright future, but we aren’t quite there yet, especially if Lukaku is sold. This club will finish higher than last year and definitely finish in the top half of the table. We are probably looking at a fight for a Europa place. I am going to say 8th, but I could see us finishing higher if the players respond well to Koeman and certain guys develop like they could and should.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Everton’s players lacked commitment last season and Koeman has been slow to shake up the squad. Until the personnel changes, it is hard to see an improvement. 11th