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What exactly is Everton’s transfer strategy?

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Plenty of names have come up, but they largely don’t make sense

Everton v Manchester United - Premier League - Goodison Park Photo by Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images

The January transfer window is finally upon us, and Everton’s in a bit of a weird place.

After a slow start, the club is up to 9th in the Premier League, well within striking distance of seventh place — the highest realistic target the Toffees could have hoped for at the start of the season. They’re out of the League Cup and may well be out of the FA Cup soon, with a trip to Anfield on the horizon.

The summer transfer window was an exciting one, but hasn’t quite panned out as hoped. Davy Klaassen has been a total bust, with Sandro Ramirez fairing only slightly better. Michael Keane has been up and down, though Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson have both begun to show their class in recent months.

There are still substantial holes in Everton’s squad — the same holes then-manager Ronald Koeman failed to fill. There’s no cover at left-back, Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams aren’t getting any younger at center-back, and Yannick Bolasie remains the team’s only particularly dangerous out-and-out winger.

Oh, and there’s the small matter of replacing that Romelu Lukaku fellow yet to be sorted.

And all these holes need to be filled by a manager and director of football who may well not be at Everton Football Club come next season.

There is some good news — Sam Allardyce and Steve Walsh seem to be on the cusp of signing their Lukaku replacement, Cenk Tosun of Besiktas. Whether or not he proves to be the right player is yet to be seen, but at least there is an attempt to address a clear need.

So, that means that the Toffees are now pursuing reinforcements on the wings and at the back, right?

Well...uh...

Not quite.

Everton’s other primary targets appear to be (in no particular order):

By my count, that’s one true winger, one central midfielder/winger, a whole bunch of central midfielders, and zero defenders.

Lozano is the most sensible candidate of the bunch — and he’s not exactly perfect either. The young Mexican has spent precisely half a season in Europe, plying his trade with PSV in Holland after moving from Pachuca in Mexico over the summer. But, let’s just accept that this would be a reasonable move, because he at least would fill a need in theory.

Let’s go position by position in the midfield to consider how any of the remaining moves could possibly make any sense (spoiler: they don’t).

Holding Midfielder

Just two months ago, I might have taken a different stance on this, as Morgan Schneiderlin was in poor form, not to mention a less than ideal attitude.

Fast forward to now though, and Schneiderlin has returned to his role as a regular at the base of midfield. He hasn’t been perfect, but he’s shown regular signs of being the player who helped to right the ship for Everton in the second half of last season.

Most importantly, he seems to be content at Everton — there are no indications he’s looking for a move out of Goodison Park. So, any new player who plays a role similar to Schneiderlin would have to either rotate with him as a single holding midfielder or play alongside him, rather than outright replacing him.

There were times last season that Schneiderlin played alongside Gareth Barry — a similar player — to reasonable effect, so playing Schneiderlin with one of N’Zonzi or Carvalho isn’t completely out of the question. A fully healthy Everton lineup with one of those players might look like the following.

A Schneiderlin-N’Zonzi pairing would be among the best distributing midfields in the Premier League, but the lack of pace and athleticism in the group, particularly with Rooney at the 10, would be troubling against big, pacey strikers.

It would be a good option against lower-table teams when Everton needed an extra boost to break down deep-lying opponents, but not much else. That added benefit wouldn’t outweigh the morale effects of keeping one of the pair off the pitch for stretches at a time.

Even if one of Schneiderlin or N’Zonzi was willing to take a reduced role, it would completely eliminate any space for Beni Baningime, who has proven he’s ready to take the next step at the senior level.

Box-to-Box Midfielder

The issue at this position is essentially the same as above — Everton already has a perfectly capable player here, and playing him alongside a similar player is tactically incoherent.

Idrissa Gana Gueye has the box-to-box midfield position on lockdown at Everton, with Tom Davies deputizing as needed. I could spend another 1,000 words on Davies and his future at Everton, but the reality is that even if you Everton adds another player to knock him down a spot on the depth chart, there’d still be little to do with him.

Imagine a health Everton lineup with a player like Seri added to play alongside Gueye.

This setup has the inverse problem as the one above. There’s plenty of pace and steel in this midfield, but it puts all of the distributive workload on Wayne Rooney — not exactly ideal.

Of course, Gueye and Seri could be rotated as well, but they don’t seem any more likely to be happy about a reduced role than Schneiderlin or N’Zonzi would be.

Attacking Midfield

Things get slightly more interesting, though no less nonsensical, when we move up the pitch.

Everton already has a No. 10 problem. Gylfi Sigurdsson has been a trooper and played hard wherever his manager has put him, but he’s a central attacking midfielder by trade. Wayne Rooney appears to be best as a No. 10 at this stage of his career as well.

Of course, there’s the impending potential return of Ross Barkley as well, who could stake a claim to minutes at the position too. And all of that is before even taking into consideration the forgotten one, Davy Klaassen.

So, there’s already a logjam at this spot.

The solution that Big Sam has settled on, and had reasonable success with, is putting Sigurdsson on the left of a 4-3-3, a true winger (such as Aaron Lennon or Yannick Bolasie) on the right, and Wayne Rooney as the most advanced of the midfield three. Gylfi drifts to the inside to interchange with Rooney, while Lennon/Bolasie stretch the field on the right side.

Squad rotation and illness have limited Allardyce’s ability to use this setup in recent weeks, but Everton’s got a +5 goal differential in 4.5 matches when Sigurdsson and Rooney feature in this alignment.

Everton v Sevilla - Pre Season Friendly Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Theoretically, one of the rumored attacking midfielders could replace Rooney in a like-for-like swap, leaving Sigurdsson on the left and Bolasie/Lennon on the right — and I suppose it would be sensible, leaving Rooney as a super-sub who could come in as an 8, 10, or out-and-out striker depending on the need.

Do I see Big Sam making a move that permanently relegates Wayne Rooney to the bench though? Probably not.

One move that definitely would not make sense would be the addition of Arda Turan to play out wide. Turan is a winger in the same sense Sigurdsson is one — defensively responsible, technically gifted, good at finding space, and slower than Andrea Pirlo in a molasses bath.

Having one of those players out wide creates an attack with a level of unpredictability and skill. Having two of those players out wide grinds your attack to a halt — and you need only look back at Koeman’s experiments with simultaneous wingers Sigurdsson and Rooney to see it in action.

So, this long look at Everton’s transfer rumors thus far has given us:

  • Two player at two different positions where adding probably makes sense, though the player himself is somewhat unproven.
  • Two players at a position that might make marginal sense, but would require Wayne Rooney to accept a demotion and Sam Allardyce to hand him one.
  • A bunch of players at positions that make absolutely no sense.
  • Zero players on defense, where reinforcements are most needed.

Which leads us to the question of the month — what exactly is Everton’s transfer strategy?