Sam Allardyce’s appointment as manager of Everton was met with much derision from the Goodison faithful. A specialist in avoiding relegation and known for his unattractive, no-nonsense style of football, ‘Big Sam’ seemed to be at odds with the ‘project’ being built by Farhad Moshiri’s investment.
However, before the announcement of Allardyce as manager and a crucial 4-0 victory over West Ham in the final game of David Unsworth’s extended spell as Caretaker Manager, Everton were in a bona-fide relegation battle. An appalling 5-1 home defeat to Atalanta in the Europa League was swiftly followed by a 4-1 loss at Southampton, which left the club languishing in 16th in the Premier League table - a mere two points above the relegation zone.
Despite only ever being relegated twice, most recently in 1951, Everton are no strangers to a relegation battle and spent much of the 1990s flirting with the Second Division. This, however, should be a thing of the past. Since the start of the David Moyes era, the club have consistently finished in the top half of the table and challenged for European qualification.
After slipping into the relegation zone following October’s 5-2 defeat to Arsenal, Ronald Koeman’s dismissal could not have come sooner for most Evertonians. In spite of guiding the club to a solid seventh place finish and Europa League qualification (that went well) last season, the Dutchman’s uninspiring £150 million spending spree and a dismal start to the season lost him the confidence of the players, fans and the board.
As an Everton season ticket holder, I have seen more than my fair share of dreadful football, but it never was as bad as this season under Koeman. His team lacked passion, fight and desire; but most importantly, were very easy to beat. Insipid home defeats to Tottenham, Burnley and Lyon defined the club’s start to the season, as they could not buy a goal, but found it very easy to concede them.
Beyond Koeman’s poor management and lack of tactical nouse, there were many factors for Everton’s nightmare start. Allowing veteran midfielder Gareth Barry to leave for West Brom was a mistake – the Everton midfield have shown very little stability without the former England international.
Most significantly, the sale of Romelu Lukaku, while inevitable, was critical. Considerably the best player I have seen play for the club in my lifetime, the Belgian provided Everton with a serious goal threat and his twenty-six goals last season carried Koeman’s team into a much higher league position than they deserved. His absence is glaringly obvious and apart from the revitalised Wayne Rooney and possibly Oumar Niasse, Everton lack genuine goal scoring options. As long as Kevin Mirallas and Sandro Ramirez are in contention for places, the club will struggle to replace Lukaku’s goals.
The way in which Koeman invested the £90 million transfer fee for Lukaku was as much as a problem as the loss of the player himself. Michael Keane is yet to show any sort of form that would justify his £25 million price tag, Davy Klaassen has not been given a chance to show his true quality, and despite his recent form, the fee of £50 million for Gylfi Sigurðsson still seems ludicrous.
The return of Wayne Rooney and the capture of goalkeeper Jordan Pickford have been the most successful of Everton’s dealings. Rooney’s hattrick against West Ham was crucial, while his vision and calmness on the ball in midfield have been vital for the Blues in recent matches. Frequently let down by his inept defence, that amazingly still includes Ashley Williams, Pickford has conceded a lot of goals this season, but has performed admirably and thoroughly deserved his England call-up.
With the appointment of Allardyce, the Everton board are clearly thinking in the short term. His eighteen-month contract indicates that the priority is to keep Everton in the Premier League this season and his record shows that he is the best man for that job. Things have started well, the West Ham victory on the day of his announcement and a tidy 2-0 win against Huddersfield in Allardyce’s first game in charge sent the club up to tenth in the league table, relieving much of the pressure and proving how tight it is in the bottom half. Nevertheless, after Liverpool (presumably, at the time of going to print) hammer Everton at Anfield in Sunday’s Merseyside derby, things could look rough again for the Blues.
I highly doubt that he will remain Everton manager for any longer than the remainder of the season, but for now, Allardyce and Everton are a marriage of convenience – there’s no love here, merely necessity. Nevertheless, after the nightmare start, if Everton put the problems of the Koeman era to bed and steer clear from the relegation zone, Big Sam will have done his job.
Here’s hoping we don’t start next season with an away trip to Craven Cottage.