This is all probably Jim White’s fault. For about nine months of the year, football vernacular revolves interminably around tat like the true meaning of ‘clear and obvious’, or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s job security. Then, it seems the other quarter or so is reserved for the man in yellow and his ever-ticking clock, as White and his trusted sidekicks of unemployed managers lead us through the looking glass in discussing the ramifications of Player X moving from Club Y to Z.
Never more so is this the case than in January, which Sky Sports News has ingeniously rebranded as a 31-day diet of B-list players leaving B-list clubs for other B-list clubs for B-list fees. Yet the more that clock ticks away, the more we wolf down their ceaseless coverage. We wait on tenterhooks for the money shot of bleary-eyed Harry Redknapp from his car window, for Paul Merson’s musings on whatever footballing nomad has joined whoever is 18th in the Premier League, for that anticlimactic slamming shut (it always has to slam) at midnight on February 1. Every second of it massively mattering to someone, presumably.
What makes the January transfer window such a damp squib is how short-term and short-changed it all feels; how the narrative is driven by how much dough one club can squeeze out of another for disposable talent masked as a sticking plaster. It’s less of a buyer’s market, more an eleventh-hour trolley dash, which is perhaps why activity is dominated by the perennial strugglers, the promotion hopefuls, the dream-chasers - teams with something to shoot for and everything to lose.
Everton have grasped this the hard way in recent years. From the club that brought us such mid-season classics as Aiden McGeady, Oumar Niasse, Morgan Schneiderlin and Cenk Tosun, there has been a sense of lesson learnt in the previous two Januarys - the only so far under director of football Marcel Brands - in which their sole signing was Jarrad Branthwaite, then 17, for a modest million 12 months ago.
Yet really, who could blame them? Not only through their burnt fingers of yesteryear, but also the futility of it all. Everton ended the last two Januarys in mid-table purgatory and out of every cup competition. Why bet the farm on another eight-figure splurge catapulting you to the dizzy heights of seventh? Nothing ventured, nothing gained, they say, but Everton had nothing tangible to gain, so sensibly didn’t bother venturing.
This year, though, feels quite the opposite, in that for once Everton are veering dangerously close to entering February with something still to play for. And while four straight wins and a top four berth with a threadbare squad at the turn of the year underlined the immeasurable progress made under Carlo Ancelotti, they kidded nobody into thinking Everton are already the finished article.
Thanks, then, to David Moyes, whose canny West Ham United side truly Moyesed Everton in their New Year’s Day win at Goodison Park. In some ways, exasperating as it was to suffer through such a grim affair, we may look back on this as a timely reminder, a call to action. Dead on their feet and thin on the ground, Ancelotti’s wearied soldiers mustered a mere two shots on target against a team with one win and clean sheet in their previous six games and without their best goalkeeper. A turgid game all round, in truth, but one which accentuated the shortcomings that still fester.
And tortuous as it is to shop in, it should force Everton’s hand in the window. It’s taken a Herculean effort from all involved to keep them in the conversation about top four hopefuls, particularly when, at various points of the season, Ancelotti has had to do without some or all of Lucas Digne, Richarlison, Allan and James Rodriguez. Yet both the lame performance and result against West Ham rendered reinforcements a necessity, even if only to consolidate progress and underpin the foundations laid for a promising season.
Exactly where Everton need to bolster is patently obvious. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, though industrious as ever throughout, has now failed to add to his 14-goal tally in six games, but it’s hard to justify resting him when his only discernible competition is Tosun. Both full-back areas could do with surgery, given Ancelotti has felt compelled to play central defenders there in Ben Godfrey and Mason Holgate over actual full-backs in the raw Niels Nkounkou and the unfancied Jonjoe Kenny. Another midfielder to complement the excellent Allan and Abdoulaye Doucouré would also help, to keep Ancelotti from playing bingo with the uninspiring trio of Tom Davies, André Gomes or Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Yet Brands and Ancelotti must remain wary of emulating missteps of old. Players lately linked with Everton feel like archetypal Steve Walsh-era signings: take Diego Costa, released by Atletico Madrid this week, who was great at Chelsea five years ago but is now 32 and hasn’t netted double figures in a season since 2016-17. Sami Khedira is another: 34 in April, exiled by Juventus, just 35 appearances in the last two injury-hit campaigns, a star at a World Cup which happened ten-and-a-half years ago. Yes, he would probably get into Ancelotti’s midfield. Yes, he’s worked under Ancelotti before. Yes, Gareth Barry was good in a similar position at a similar age for Everton. But this smacks of the sort of transfer you felt Everton moved on from when Brands replaced Walsh in 2018.
Admittedly, not every mid-to-late-20s Everton signing from a footballing behemoth has been a dud - for every Schneiderlin or Theo Walcott, there’s been a Digne or Rodriguez - but nor should they be the club’s blueprint for success. Two or three are fine for hardening a brittle side with nous, a winning mentality and, above all else, quality. But Everton have enough players in that category now.
Rather, Everton should look for more in Godfrey’s mould - players on an upward trajectory making the logical next career move by joining them. Under Moyes, Everton poached the pick of the Championship bunch like Joleon Lescott and Tim Cahill to great success. Current second-tier stars like Brentford’s free-scoring Ivan Toney or Norwich right-back Max Aarons carry less of a cachet in world football, and would cost more of a premium in the short-term, but would surely make for more astute business long-term.
Either way, this season, more than any other in Everton’s recent history, feels one where nothing is worth leaving to chance. The shattering impact of COVID-19 on the game has not so much shifted the goalposts as melted them down and dissolved them entirely, enabling Everton and the Premier League’s other also-rans to gallivant in formerly uncharted territory. I mean, Everton’s away record is better than Liverpool’s, for goodness’ sake. The glass ceiling has at least been elevated, the door to another stratosphere left ajar.
For even in such a dreary campaign churning out binary scorelines in ghostly grounds, at last there feels something for Everton to hope for. Tedious and hyperinflated as the January window is, Moyes and West Ham reiterated their need to at least spin the wheel and reflect on this campaign with no regrets.