- Everton has endured a shambolic start to the Premier League season, and it has pinned its hopes on remaining in the top flight on Sam Allardyce after an otherwise fruitless manager search to replace Ronald Koeman.
It was back in the 1920s that Everton first attracted the nickname “the school of science” for its intelligent and methodological approach to the game. The phrase fell into abeyance but returned as Harry Catterick led the club to the league title in 1963 and is now emblazoned around Goodison Park. Sam Allardyce was a pioneer of the use of sports science in football management in England, but Everton is likely soon to find out that one person’s idea of science is not necessarily somebody else’s. The club's imminent appointment of the former England manager is a fraught one.
It is one born, most of all, of necessity. Everton is desperate. Last season, everything seemed promising. It finished seventh with a side that featured a number of bright young talents–there were five Everton players in the England side that won the Under-20 World Cup–and in Ronald Koeman they had a coach with experience of major clubs and a history of developing youth. They also had, in Farhad Moshiri, an owner who was willing to spend. After the years of penny-pinching there was at least a chance of bridging the gap to the elite.
Romelu Lukaku left in the summer–not much mourned by many, who felt a £76 million fee was exceptional value for a player who had a (possibly unjustified) reputation for going missing against the best sides–but there was a splurge of spending: £142 million spent on Gylfi Sigurdsson, Michael Keane, Jordan Pickford, Davy Klasssen, Nikola Vlasic and Sandro. Then there was Wayne Rooney, returning to the club where he had made his name on a free transfer. Even if there were those who wondered about the balance of the squad, there was a general sense of excitement.
It didn’t last. A 5-2 defeat to Arsenal on October 22 proved the final straw, and Koeman was sacked after a run of 11 games that had brought just two wins. Sandro hadn’t settled, and the result was an absence of striking power. Why, it began to be asked, had the club signed three slow central attacking midfielders? There was a general lack of pace in the side and the young talent that had excited so many the previous season found it impossible to get game time ahead of the new signings. Central defender Ashley Williams seemed to have lost his nerve completely, and his lack of confidence had afflicted Keane alongside him. Of the new signings, only Pickford thrived, and that was largely because the goalkeeper had a lot to do. And at least he could reflect that it wasn’t as bad as Sunderland last season.
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The assumption was that Moshiri had a plan, but the fact it has taken five weeks to find a replacement suggests not. Watford twice turned down offers of £10 million in compensation to let Marco Silva leave. Burnley manager Sean Dyche was also considered, as, seemingly, were Ireland’s Martin O’Neill and Shakhtar Donetsk's Paulo Fonseca. That range of managers all playing different styles suggests Everton’s hierarchy has no idea what it wants. In the end, Everton has ended up with Allardyce, who probably already recognizes that there is a section of the fans he will never win over.
His reputation is for direct football and, from the 1920s, that has not been part of Everton’s self-image. There will be anger, too, over the appointment of Sammy Lee, who won three league titles and two European Cups with Everton’s great rivals Liverpool in the 1980s, as one of his two assistants alongside Craig Shakespeare, who was sacked by Leicester earlier this season.
Yet for all the 63-year-old Allardyce likes to play on his bluff image, he is no dinosaur. He was one of the first in English football to see the value of statistical analysis and he has used cryogenic chambers to aid recovery for his players. He also–and this is of particular significance after this shambles of a summer–has an excellent record in the transfer market. The problem is that his pragmatic approach doesn’t sit easily with fans of clubs who believe their place is among the elite and caused friction at both Newcastle and West Ham.
A run of one win in 12 games has seen Everton slide to 17th, and the feeling now seems to be that Moshiri is in no position to be choosy. Allardyce quit the Crystal Palace job at the end of last season, ostensibly to retire. He seemingly wanted a two-and-a-half-year contract yet has ended up with 18 months, but it may be he was thinking more of a potential payoff than necessarily seeing the Everton job as a long-term project.
Allardyce has never been relegated from the Premier League, and his last two jobs both ended up with him saving sides who had looked doomed and then leaving at the end of the season. Something similar here would probably suit all parties. This squad should have too much talent to go down, but when the balance and morale are as bad as they are, nothing can be taken for granted.