For clubs like Everton, frustration mounts in watching foes spend big
In the modern soccer world, where money no longer follows prestige but is essentially a prerequisite for it, being a club that "punches above its weight" is not the full-blooded compliment it used to be. This is the annual situation – with the accompanying pat-on-the-head – in which Everton currently finds itself: once again with an excellent team, once again needing every break to go its way, once again watching as competitors restock by spending more on transfer fees than Everton does on a season's wages.
With eight straight top-eight finishes, including three fifths, Everton is the truest definition of an overachiever in the Premier League, but without the crucial breakthrough into the top four to go with it, the club seems stuck, quality managers and savvy signings notwithstanding.
The irony – or, perhaps, frustration – is that the latest bout of "here we go again?" comes following a summer during which Everton actually did shell out some significant money. The Toffees made a permanent purchase of last season's on-loan striker, Romelu Lukaku, for a club record of more than $50 million, and also made a pretty sneaky addition of Samuel Eto'o to help out the attack.
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Throw in Muhamed Besic for needed defensive midfield backup and Christian Atsu to replace loanee Gerard Deulofeu on the wing, and this may be a modestly improved version of last season's squad (although Ross Barkley's lengthy injury is a definite wrench).
The problem? Everyone else in the mix for the precious and elusive Champions League spots is significantly reinforced, and the team that may have been the most reasonable candidate to catch, local rival Liverpool (or "Liverhampton" after the Reds' raid of the south coast this summer), still looks quite capable in Year 1 A.B. (After Biter).
So, maybe it was due to the recency of Sunday's wild 6-3 home loss to Chelsea, or perhaps it was the sobering macro reality of Everton's margin for error of approximately zero, but many Toffee supporters were immediately put off by a tweet suggesting that the club vastly outperformed expectation last season in Roberto Martinez's debut at the helm and may be poised for some regression. The second half of that sentiment is TBD, but there's no denying the first part.
As the interactive chart in this May piece from The Economist shows, you can make a strong argument that last season's Everton was the biggest success story in Premier League history. No team that has spent the league median or less in wages has ever gained as as many as Everton's 72 points last season, or finished higher than the Toffees' fifth-place standing. It was a tremendous season, but it still wasn't good enough.
That there is even a discussion to be had about Everton's glass ceiling is in itself somewhat notable. The last decade has changed a lot about the perception of the club, at least in terms of its Premier League era existence. Everton was just fading from some mid-1980s glory in the old First Division (aided by the Heysel Disaster that caused UEFA to ban English teams from European competitions for a number of years) when the Premier League came to be, and the club was effectively that next decade's version of today's Sunderland, staying in the league every season but with only two finishes higher than 13th place.
Then, in 2005, modern framing was launched by the club's tremendous one-season jump from 17th place all the way up to fourth, although losing to Celtic in the Champions League playoff round that following August squandered the enormous chance for a breakthrough. Everton hasn't been back in that spot since (and neither has anyone else outside the elite; although Tottenham got hosed a few years ago when sixth-place Chelsea won the Champions League and stole the league's fourth spot for the following season), but it has been more consistently in the mix than anyone else, despite a budget akin more to Sir Alex Ferguson's wine collection than his annual player collections.
For a team like Everton to crack the top four, everything needs to go right, and right now, it isn't. Retaining Lukaku was impactful, but perhaps there were better and/or multiple other options for that huge amount of money. After leaking 10 goals in the first three matches, Everton may also have to quickly turn to John Stones in central defense after Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin more or less have turned into stone. The rampant disorganization that carried from two late goals conceded to Arsenal to two early goals vs. Chelsea was alarming in its amateurish frequency, and Martinez has claimed his team is defending with fear.
And, of course, there's the Barkley issue. Even with his perpetually frustrating decision-making in the final third (lots of dribbling, little end product), he provides an on-ball dynamic that's now in much shorter supply. Plus, you know, he's still only 21, so maybe the quality final decisions were coming. We won't know for a few months now, and by then, it could be too late for him to help salvage this campaign in terms of anything better than the norm.
Yes, Everton worked its way through early sluggishness last season, and there's no way the league's third-stingiest defense last season will remain this bad for much longer. But we also saw last season that Everton's best points total in 27 seasons still wasn't quite enough. When you're staring at the glass ceiling, every opportunity matters. Everton's blown a couple of them already, and there aren't too many more the club can afford to waste. With the added burden of a Europa League campaign further complicating matters, it could be that winning that event – and the newly created UCL spot that goes with it – is Everton's most realistic path to where it really wants to be.