Promising Signs for the Academy
Everton fans have had cause to criticize the lack of prospects emerging from the academy in recent years, with only Tom Davies making any real impact in the first team, though even he is considered no more than a squad option. Jonjoe Kenny had showed some early promise only to fall out of favour, seeing much more game time on loan the past couple of years than he has for his parent club; in any case the full back seems almost certain to depart Merseyside when his contract runs out in the summer. Another grievance is the apparent unwillingness of successive managers to give chances to youngsters.
Few believed that current manager Rafa Benitez would be any different and early season suggested that this would be the case, with full back Niels Nkounkou sent out on loan and Anthony Gordon, though retained, seeing little action. However, injuries to established players have forced the manager’s hand and the 20-year old winger has become a regular over the past couple of months and although lacking end product, he has demonstrated plenty of effort and some ability. On Thursday, an injury-blighted Everton took to the Stamford Bridge turf with a mishmash of regulars, backups and youngsters and for once Gordon was not the junior member, in terms of age or experience.
The Liverpool native put in a mature performance that one would expect of a senior player, one who wanted the ball, took players on, did his bit defensively and put in a great arcing free kick delivery for Everton’s equalizing goal. Gordon has filled out physically and no longer looks like a teenage stripling, but a valid premier league winger and is benefitting enormously from the increased game time and responsibility he is getting. Likewise, Jarrod Branthwaite, hitherto only used in the league cup stepped into the breach midweek and as well as not looking at all out of place, grabbed himself a goal. The 19-year old has an unusual combination of size and pace and is no longer the gangly kid he appeared when given a few opportunities in the Blues first team under Carlo Ancelotti two seasons ago. This was one game, but the teenager showed enormous promise.
Young forwards Ellis Simms and Lewis Dobbin also saw meaningful action for Everton for the first time, a debut start for the former and half an hour off the bench for the latter. The tall Simms, who impressed on loan for Blackpool in league 1 earlier this year had a thankless task, with his team starved of possession but the experience will do him no harm. The striker looked a little overawed and a good quality loan in January would be beneficial. Dobbins, who is more of a wide forward, showed blinding pace and immediately troubled the Chelsea defence with his movement and pressing. Whether he also gains experience on loan, or is given some minutes with the Toffees, he looks one to watch for the future.
Transfer Window Decision Time
The Toffees youngsters that saw action against the reigning European champions emerged with varying amounts of credit and certainly none disgraced themselves, but other members of the team experienced uneven results. Kenny, deployed at right wing back put in a gritty effort and did his best to contain the dangerous Hakim Ziyech, whilst offering little going forward. This was his most solid performance in a Royal Blue shirt for some time, but realistically the decision was made on his future a long time ago and he will be leaving in the summer, likely on a free transfer. Others are more integrated members of the first team than Kenny and the jury may no longer be out on them, but is perhaps arriving at a verdict.
Everton, with its bloated wage bill and need to comply with the Premier League’s profit and sustainability rules can no longer afford to carry highly paid squad members, particularly those brought in as regulars that do not contribute accordingly. On Thursday, we saw 3 of those players in action: Alex Iwobi, Andre Gomes and Jean-Philippe Gbamin. Iwobi, by far the most experienced player in Everton’s 3-man attack, alongside Gordon and Simms, once more failed to convince. He worked diligently, but an forward player needs to impact games - decide them even - and the Nigerian international almost never does this in a Royal Blue shirt. The Toffees offensive forays were extremely limited and the ex-Arsenal man’s inability to put Abdoulaye Doucoure through in on goal was baffling.
Gomes was once more deployed as part of a central midfield duo and whilst, like Iwobi he tried hard, he struggled to convince. He coughed up the ball twice in the early going and was very easy to dribble past, something we have seen often with him. The Portuguese did lead the team in pressing before being withdrawn after 70 minutes but whilst he does have useful attributes, cameos from the bench do not justify his hefty wages and it is clear by now that he needs to be in a midfield 3 to get the best out of him. Such a lack of flexibility reduces Gomes’ usefulness and his future at the club has to be doubt.
As for Gbamin, he’s had a torrid time with serious injuries since arriving at Goodison Park and has rarely been seen since signing in the summer of 2019. It appears he is far down on the depth chart and is struggling for minutes even as Benitez finds himself constantly juggling his midfield options. What his long-term future is at Everton is hard to gauge, but if he isn’t going to be an active part of the first team, then realistically he needs to be sold on, or at least loaned out.
Looking at January and Beyond
Coronavirus permitting, the Blues have only two more fixtures to play until the January transfer window opens and a week or so ago it seemed highly unlikely that Benitez would still be helming the Good Ship Everton entering into what figures to be an active window for the team. Oddly, the Spanish veteran appears to have emerged from the draw at Stamford Bridge in a stronger position than had been anticipated by practically anybody, due entirely to the firm support he enjoys from Blues majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri. The quixotic billionaire appears happy for Benitez to ride out what has become far more than a difficult run of results and has even strengthened his hand with some important internal departures from the club, notably director of football Marcel Brands and senior members of the scouting team.
The manager is now the sole voice directing all facets of football operations at the club: medical, tactical and recruitment. Already he has taken steps to rebuild the squad with the imminent arrival of Ukrainian international left back Vitaly Mykolenko from Dynamo Kyiv, which suggests that the rift with incumbent Lucas Digne is going to end with the Frenchman being sold on. Rumours of other incoming players abound and no doubt there will be outgoings too. There is some room for manoeuvre within the budget, due to a lack of significant spending in the summer, as well as the departure of high-earners such as James Rodriguez and Bernard, in addition to Moise Kean on a loan-to-but back to Juventus.
Everton have long been in the chaotic situation of hiring and firing managers in short order, with none getting close to the almost 3 seasons enjoyed by Roberto Martinez. Each, in turn have brought in new players to fit their particular preferences, before being removed (or in Carlo Ancelotti’s case, voluntarily jumping ship). Often one manager’s signings have proven unsuitable for the next; a case in point being Iwobi, brought in to play in a possession heavy team under Marco Silva, but who has played the vast majority of his games as a Toffee in a defensive or counterattacking setup. There is a strong argument to be made that, in spite of a disappointing half-season under Benitez and a antipathetic view of the manager by most Blues fans, that the club could do with a period of managerial stability and a joined-up approach to squad building.
Chopping and changing has got Everton nowhere since Moshiri arrived more than 5 years ago and despite a ton of money being thrown around, the team has not only failed to progress on the pitch, but has actually gone backwards. Maybe it is time for a change, not of a beleaguered manager, but of how the club operates?