Losing your best player is an unfortunate, inconvenient reality for the vast majority of soccer teams around the world. Players’ ambitions typically override whatever loyalty they may feel to a club, and when that ambition is met with interest by a bigger club, management has virtually no choice but to sell.
Even the most successful clubs in the world are forced to part with world-class players. Not even Barcelona is safe—while the Catalan club has been on the buying side of seismic transfers countless times, Neymar’s desire for spotlight coupled with PSG’s willingness to splurge was the perfect elixir to induce a sale.
Romelu Lukaku’s move from Everton to Manchester United is an archetypal modern transfer. Over the past three seasons, the Belgian forward developed into one of the Premier League’s most dependable goal scorers, which piqued the interest of the biggest clubs in England. And while Lukaku gave Everton four years of terrific service, the 24-year-old felt the time was right to make the move to a more high-profile club. Manchester United eventually offered up $105 million, and just a month later Lukaku was celebrating league goals with buddy/teammate Paul Pogba at Old Trafford.
The Ross Barkley situation follows a similar pattern. A young player (Barkley is 23) blossoms into a star prompting the big clubs to come calling. Any persuasion tactic employed to convince him to stay—a more featured role, or loyalty to the fans—will more than likely prove futile if the interest from Tottenham or Manchester City is monetized.
Transfers like Lukaku’s—and Barkley’s, if it does indeed happen—can be crushing to a fan base’s morale and can initially seem crippling to a club’s on-field performance. Losing your top player serves as a crude reminder of the ceiling of your club; it’s a reluctant admission that there is a point at which a player becomes “too good” for the team, and it won’t be long until he moves on to brighter and better things.
But these exorbitant transfer fees also afford clubs like Everton the chance to improve by subtraction-then-addition, so to speak. Everton manager Ronald Koeman likely knew right after last season— in which Lukaku scored 25 league goals—that a Lukaku sale was a matter of when, and for how much, rather than if. Thus, he knew the club would eventually receive the tens and tens (and tens) of millions of dollars that the young striker (and perhaps Barkley, too) would fetch. With that knowledge, Everton has been active in the summer transfer market and may well have improved by that subtraction-then-addition model.
Davy Klaassen, a 24-year-old attacking midfielder from Ajax, was the first of Everton’s four crucial summer additions. Everton is deep in the center of midfield—Tom Davies is a bright young player, Morgan Schneiderlin is experienced and steady, and new signing Gylfi Sigurdsson is all but a shoe-in to start—but the roughly $32 million the club paid for Klaassen suggests that Koeman foresees the Dutch international as having a key role.
Next came Jordan Pickford, one of the best young goalkeepers in the Premier League. Everton paid Sunderland around $34 million to secure the 23-year-old’s services, and Pickford has shown his quality in the short time he’s been at Goodison Park. Everton has surrendered just a single goal on the young season, and it wouldn’t be terribly shocking if Pickford challenges Joe Hart to start for England at the World Cup in 2018. Maarten Stekelenburg and Joel Robles, who were brought in to replace Tim Howard, had their moments last season, but Pickford conveys the type of reliability and confidence a true No. 1 goalie must. Pickford should be a mainstay at Everton for years to come and, still just 23, he could develop into one of the world’s best keepers.
Further strengthening Everton’s central defensive system is the arrival of 24-year-old center back Michael Keane from Burnley. Koeman has been using a 3-5-2 system similar to the one last year’s Juventus side used, featuring three center backs by trade and two wingbacks who drop significantly when the other side has possession. Keane, Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka have formed the back three in both of Everton’s Premier League games so far, and Keane was particularly solid in Monday’s 1-1 draw with Manchester City. He looks to be another $34 million well spent.
Klaassen, Pickford and Keane combined to cost about the same amount of money as Everton received for Lukaku. Yet the Merseyside club wasn't finished spending, probably because the pragmatist within Koeman told him that Barkley could well depart.
With another lucrative sale possibly on the horizon, Everton shattered its previous transfer record by shelling out $58 million for Icelandic attacking midfielder Glyfi Sigurdsson. The 27-year-old’s set-piece precision is world-class, and his 13 assists last season were third-most in the Premier League–for a Swansea team that finished 15th in the table. He provides the type of creative and incisive passing that can rip defenses apart.
If Barkley, whose recent injury has complicated matters, does indeed leave, Everton will have signed four starters with essentially negligible net spending. And if he stays, Everton boasts a center midfield that can hold its own with any in England.
What is clear is that Everton has done exactly what a club should do when it loses its talisman: use the money to significantly improve the foundation of the team. Lukaku’s sheer goal production will be difficult to replace—though a resurgent Wayne Rooney looks up for the task, and Koeman might not be done spending—but Everton has shown in the young season that if the side hasn’t improved, it hasn’t slipped much. Challenging for a top-six place again isn't out of the question.
With a win over Stoke and an impressive 1-1 draw earned at Man City to start the league season, as well as Europa League qualification all but secured, Everton is in prime position to show that losing a star (or two) need not be crippling. Not if you simply improve by subtraction-then-addition.