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What Everton can expect from new Director of Football Kevin Thelwell

We chat with former RBM writer and Everton & RBNY fan Adam about the Toffees’ new Director of Football

Kevin Thelwell at RBNY

Everton announced the appointment of Kevin Thelwell as their third Director of Football in a statement late last week. The position has been sitting vacant since the departure of Marcel Brands in November last year, with the Dutchman stating that he was unhappy with his inability to do what he was appointed for, likely after then-manager Rafa Benitez appeared to be heavily involved in player recruitment.

Thelwell shot to fame after his work at the Wolverhampton Wanderers Academy, eventually ending up as the Wolves’ Sporting Director. He was plucked from England to go to the New York Red Bulls as their Director of Football two years ago, and has been widely credited for their turnaround in fortunes.

After the appointment, we spoke with former RBM tactical analysis writer Adam Braun who is not only an Evertonian but also an RBNY fan about Thelwell and what we can expect from him as he takes over all of the Club’s football departments, including the First Team, Academy, coaching, sport science, medical services and analysis.

Hey Adam, good talking to you again! What is it Evertonians should know about Kevin Thelwell?

There’s two key points, I think, as they pertain to a move to Everton. First of all, two important things that Evertonians who don’t know much about RBNY should understand right off the bat are -

  • One - The club is not especially well-funded despite being part of the global Red Bull family of clubs including the much more famous RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg.

Anyone who follows football in Europe but not in the United States could be forgiven for hearing “Red Bull” and immediately thinking of the organization that basically bought its way to the top in Germany and Austria. In New York, this just hasn’t been the case for a decade or more. Red Bull Global simply doesn’t invest in RBNY the way they do their European counterparts, and the upshot was that Thelwell seemed to have very little money to work with in the transfer market.

  • Two - The club exists in Major League Soccer (MLS), which has the most ludicrously convoluted roster and transfer rules you could possibly imagine.

If you Google “MLS roster rules”, you’ll find terms that you won’t hear in basically any other league in the world. Designated player; discovery list; allocation order, etc, it’s a minefield and one that many managers and executives from both Europe and South America have come to MLS and failed to adjust to.

The takeaway point here as it pertains to Everton – I don’t think Thelwell will be particularly overwhelmed by any of the front-office challenges he’s likely to face. Farhad Moshiri from what we have seen so far is not likely to be stingier than Thelwell’s former bosses were, nor are the Financial Fair Play or Premier League Profit & Sustainability regulations more cumbersome than the archaic MLS regulations Thelwell found himself burdened by. In short, I don’t think he’ll be undone by the logistical obstacles to come at Everton – at least no more than any other incoming director would.

So without much funding and the tough rules around recruitment, it sounds like he was still able to bring in some young talent?

The upshot of the first point above is that the vast majority of players brought into RBNY during his time there were quite young. MLS play starts this week and the Red Bulls are set to enter the season with an average age floating around 22 years old. The club’s only player older than 30 is its backup goalkeeper.

Last season, budgetary and COVID-related constraints limited his additions to largely loan moves, several of whom did well. Tom Edwards of Stoke City was particularly impressive, and Thelwell managed to negotiate another loan term for this season before his departure. Carlos Coronel of RB Salzburg was another loanee who shined – probably the team’s MVP last season – and has now moved to RBNY on a permanent basis.

Other permanent additions during his time include Andres Reyes, 22; Wikelman Carmona, 19; Cameron Harper, 20; and Lewis Morgan, 25. I’d love to tell you that all those young players worked out swimmingly, but given their youth and limited time at the club thus far, it’s really hard to nail down exactly how successful Thelwell was.

SOCCER: JUL 25 MLS - New York Red Bulls at DC United
Goalkeeper Carlos Coronel makes a save
Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Much has been made of Thelwell’s identification of young players both at Wolves and RBNY, what are your thoughts on that?

When you look at his time at RBNY along with his tenure at Wolves, I think it’s safe to say that he’s most experienced with recruiting and developing young talent – but exactly how skilled is he? And is there an ability or willingness to identify more experienced players? Tough to say.

Thelwell came to RBNY with the roster in absolute shambles. The club’s greatest all-time goalscorer and goalkeeper were both let go the offseason prior to his arrival, its starting full-backs sold to Anderlecht in Belgium, and essentially all replacement players brought in by his predecessor have already washed out of the league. It’s certainly not as though Thelwell magically fixed all those issues – the club has been essentially league average in both his seasons at the helm – but that he managed to keep the club respectable wasn’t exactly a small feat. Based on that, I have a hard time believing he’ll be intimidated by the magnitude of the task in front of him – which we’ve seen quite clearly is larger than we might have thought 12 months ago.

As for stylistic preferences, I don’t think you’ll learn much about Thelwell from his time at RBNY. The club has spent the better part of the last decade playing what former-manager Jesse Marsch called “energy-drink soccer” – an oft-derided refrain that turned into a badge of honor during the team’s successful years in the early 2010s.

Essentially, the only thing RBNY has been able to count on from its bosses at Red Bull Global is a demand that the club play a high-pressing, ultra-direct style that puts emphasis on winning the ball in the attacking third. The upshot has been a focus on team-play rather than the individual qualities of players – that is, if you don’t fit the system, you’re probably going to find yourself on your way out of the club sooner rather than later. Truthfully though, that’s a practice that predates Thelwell’s time with the club, so I wouldn’t put much stock in it continuing as he moves to Everton.

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet Championship - Molineux
Thelwell at Wolves after lifting the Sky Bet Championship to gain promotion to the Premier League
Photo by Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images

So what’s the overall verdict then on Thelwell at RBNY?

In all, his time at Harrison, NJ can’t really be labeled a success or a failure – he simply wasn’t around long enough to make that determination with any certainty. In two or three years, we’ll have a much better sense of how to grade his time in MLS as the young players he looked to build the club’s foundation around mature and develop.

What I will say with confidence is that he won’t be overwhelmed by the obstacles or magnitude of the task in front of him, based on what he just experienced in the United States. Does that mean he’ll be successful in overcoming them? It’s too early to put an intelligent wager one way or the other. I do have concerns about his lack of experience recruiting players in the prime of their careers – something Everton must be able to do this summer to avoid another season of unpleasantness like this one.

On the balance of those factors, there’s certainly room for cautious optimism, but certainly with caution emphasized.

Thanks for your time Adam!