We continue our review of the past Everton season, in which each department will be recapped and rated. Next up: the Director of Football, Marcel Brands
Let’s just go ahead and rechristen Marcel Brands as Atlas before we go on. And while we’re there, let’s pen odes to how someone who carries the weight of the (Everton) world on his shoulders walks as tall and proud as the Dutchman does.
Coming back to reality though, Brands had been handed the most unenviable composite task of reducing Everton’s wage bill, the squad’s size and average age while aiming for a berth in the top six. Since the summer of 2018 when he took over, he’s had more successes than not in terms of the transfers in, but when you look at the Toffees’ performance on the pitch especially the 12th place finish last season, has the team really improved? Additionally, and it’s hard to blame him for this, he hasn’t necessarily been able to take off any of the big barnacles that have dug in on the transfer war chest owner Farhad Moshiri has handed him.
While Everton have in the past bought discards off top six sides as well as continental top teams, there are not too many teams who want to buy Everton’s trash, and rightly so when you look at the huge contracts so many of them are on. Still, hope springs eternal that this summer will be the one that the bloated wage bill will finally be reduced and some key players added within the limitations placed upon the club’s finances by Financial Fair Play.
Five players were sold last year, with varying degrees of success. Ademola Lookman and Henry Onyekuru were two youngsters that much was expected of but failed to prove their potential, and both failed miserably at their new homes too.
James McCarthy had been reduced to a bit part role at the Blues but was more of a lynchpin in Crystal Palace’s midfield, making 35 appearances and definitely could have been helpful for a campaign that saw us reduced to relying on Gylfi Sigurdsson and Andre Gomes to play defensive midfielder. Similarly, Nikola Vlasic has bloomed at CSKA Moscow, and even though that remains a couple of steps below the Premier League in terms of standard, he has done enough to show that the Blues could have used his spark in the attacking half.
But by far the biggest missing piece this season was Idrissa Gueye. Not that the Brands or the Blues had much say in it. The player had always dubbed a move to Paris St Germain as a ‘dream’ for him, and the club could not stand in his way when the French giants came calling. Needless to say, his absence was felt very sorely as time and again opponents cruised down the middle of the park as if it were the runway of John Lennon Airport with nary a blue shirt in sight.
On the signings front things were not markedly better. The highly regarded Moise Kean failed to settle in early on and ended the season with two goals in a handful of appearances with mixed reviews. Gana-replacement Jean-Philippe Gbamin was injured early on and saw the pitch just twice thanks to some horrendous fortune. Fabian Delph was brought in for experienced cover and his leadership, but mostly failed to provide either. After a high-profile Wilfried Zaha chase the Blues largely overpaid for Alex Iwobi who mostly disappointed though he was often played out of position.
Of the two loan deals, Djibril Sidibe did well providing backup and sometimes even outplaying club captain Seamus Coleman at right back, while Jonas Lossl was brought in to inspire Jordan Pickford, but was shipped back to Huddersfield on loan in January while the England #1 bumbled his way from one error-strewn game to another.
And then there was the whole Marco Silva debacle. The Portuguese manager found the going especially tough in the beginning of his second season with the Blues and was unable to overcome the shortage of a dynamic midfielder, getting sacked before the first snowflakes of the season floated to the ground. While Silva was clearly a Moshiri appointee, there were some fingers pointed at Brands for his failure to assemble a squad with depth that Silva could utilize.
It is at the Under-23 level though that the really remarkable work has been done with half-a-dozen players who had expiring contracts all being let go, including the captain Morgan Feeney who was at one point expected to make the step up to the first team’s defence.
More and more of the Under-18 side are making the jump up to Unsworth’s side as Everton are looking to understand better who has the potential to make the grade at the Premier League level, and who is destined to be a lower league player well before they turn 23.
With Brands entering the last year of his three-year contract, the overwhelming feeling is that he’s only just getting started and will require another similar term before he can complete the clear out and atonement for the sins of past administrations. Carlo Ancelotti is going to be with the Blues for another four years, so as long as the two remain in lock-step as far as transfers in and out of the club, a three-year extension should be forthcoming.
At least another half a dozen players need to go off the wage bill - Bernard, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Theo Walcott, Yannick Bolasie, Sandro Ramirez - for Everton to truly become a leaner squad and provide Carlo Ancelotti ammunition to make a serious challenge for Europe. Of course, every one of those incoming players is going to have be starting calibre and obtained for reasonable transfer fees and on economical wages. Easy peasy, right?
There have been fewer misses than in past transfer windows since Brands has come in, but he will need to really ace another couple of windows before this grade can turn into anything more positive.
That said, Brands has indicated in the past that he has done his best work with veteran managers like Louis van Gaal and Dick Advocaat, so maybe he is destined to do even greater things with Ancelotti, who himself faces what could be called the biggest challenge of his storied managerial career.