Sunday’s Merseyside derby match at Anfield was all-important for both teams, but for wildly divergent reasons. Liverpool, chasing Manchester City in a razor tight Premier League title race, could not afford to drop any points in pursuit of an imperious rival. For Everton, the stakes were somewhat humbler, but even more vital, as the threat of relegation from England's top flight looms large, ominously, oppressively so. Entering the game, the Blues had dropped into the bottom three for the first time in what has been an unexpectedly dreadful season, after Burley had secured a 1-0 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers earlier in the day.
At the final whistle, despite a dogged defensive display, a 2-0 defeat doomed the away side to more than a fleeting spell in 18th position in the league. Indeed, the Clarets will play again, a visit to a team with the poorest home record in the division, Watford, the day before the Toffees host a formidable Chelsea on Sunday, so there’s every chance the team could find itself in an even more perilous situation by the conclusion of the weekend. How has it come to this?
The Long Winding Road Downhill
The roots for Everton’s decline are deep. Under the capable hand of David Moyes the team’s status as a bottom-half outfit during the 1990s eventually came to an end and Blues fans enjoyed a long period of stability, finishing between fifth and eighth over his last seven seasons in charge. Once Moyes departed, the transition to Roberto Martinez initially appeared seamless, though this impression proved illusory as the Spaniard failed to build on an impressive debut campaign at the helm. Martinez was fired at the conclusion of the 2015-16 season, as new majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri took effective control of the club and with him came new finance and ambitious plans.
What followed is well documented, involving inflated transfer fees, big player salaries and numerous regime changes and resets, including the hiring and firing of Ronald Koeman, Sam Allardyce, Marco Silva and Carlo Ancelotti, the latter of course not being axed, but utilizing an escape clause in his contract to depart for Real Madrid last summer.
Across this period, Everton have shown a more unstable pattern than had been the case under Moyes, strong seasons such as Koeman’s first, when the team finished seventh with 61 points have been followed by slumps, resulting in a change of manager and a splurge on new signings. However, despite some poor periods of form the team has not genuinely fallen into serious danger of being drawn into a relegation fight and has merely been viewed as a midtable side, albeit one underachieving considering the levels of investment.
In a way, Ancelotti’s team last season mirrored the entire Moshiri reign: a raft of signings, a strong start, flirtation with European qualification and falling away over the second half, ultimately ending up in tenth on 59 points but a minus one goal difference. The Italian’s departure came as a shock, but the Blues entered last summer looking to progress regardless.
An Unsettled Summer
Following the loss of Ancelotti, the club spent four weeks sourcing a replacement, eventually deciding on the appointment of former Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez, to widespread antipathy from most Blues fans. Clearly, nobody at the club anticipated Real Madrid moving for their former manager and it appears they were caught unprepared by this development, leading to such a lengthy search for a new man, one that linked Everton to a variety of candidates, many of whom appeared to share little in common.
That Moshiri elected upon the veteran Benitez as his personal choice to lead the team forward was indeed baffling, given his status across Stanley Park and the inevitable backlash that would come from the fans should results go awry. Almost immediately it became apparent that funding for new players would be limited - if not non-existent - given Everton’s bloated wage bill was causing the club to fall foul of the Premier League’s Profitability and Sustainability regulations.
The Spaniard was left in a sell-to-buy situation and the Toffees found it difficult to offload players and so generate much in the way of funds, with only Bernard leaving for a nominal fee and Moise Kean back to Juventus on a convoluted two year loan with a mandatory purchase included. Ancelotti’s star man, James Rodriguez who had a fractious history with Benitez from their days together at Real Madrid - and a huge salary - was an obvious target for the manager to move out, but this proved impossible until the season was well underway and the transfer window closed. In the end, Everton were only able to bring in a handful of recruits: winger Demarai Gray for a small fee and veterans Andros Townsend and Salomon Rondon on free transfers, whilst the marginalization of playmaker Rodriguez left the team looking at best to be treading water, rather than improving in any real sense.
A Sinking Ship
Benitez had been away from European football for a little while, leading those looking past his connection with the Reds to be concerned that he was possibly over the hill in managerial terms. Such concerns appeared unfounded, with the Blues showing strong form coming out of the blocks, going unbeaten in four league matches, winning three, before succumbing to a sudden collapse against Aston Villa. Injuries to key players piled up and a dearth of quality squad options was exposed, as the club began to seriously flounder by mid-October. As the losses piled up, so the atmosphere turned black, culminating in an embarrassing mauling by Liverpool in the Goodison derby on the first of December and subsequent calls for the manager to be relieved of his duties - along with Everton’s board of directors.
Instead, Director of Football Marcel Brands was the one to fall on his sword, just one victim of the infighting going on between Benitez and those who maybe didn’t see eye-to-eye with him. The team limped on for another six weeks before Moshiri accepted the reality of the situation and finally pulled the trigger on the veteran, who had run out of ideas and goodwill and lost nine of his last twelve league matches, winning only one, as Everton spiralled down the table.
A Muddled Transition
It had been apparent to all that Benitez had been on borrowed time since the 4-1 hammering by Liverpool at the start of December, but unfathomably the decision makers at Everton appeared once again unprepared to find a replacement in timely fashion. Worse than the prevarication during the summer, the change had been made midway through the winter Transfer Window and - amazingly - days after the sale of influential left back Lucas Digne, another who had fallen foul of the manager. A chaotic search for a new boss ensued, leading to a straight choice between Frank Lampard and Vitor Pereira.
The Portuguese was the more experienced, though with the resume of a journeyman, but was heavily favoured by influential figures close to Moshiri and so almost immediately became the target of fan protest, the bulk of supporters preferring the ex-Chelsea man, almost by default. After much public embarrassment for those running the club, including some ugly protests and a ridiculous TV phone-in by Pereira, Lampard was finally announced as new manager on Transfer deadline day. The Digne money had, of course been spent in the weeks prior to the firing of Benitez, so the new Blues boss could only scramble to bring in a couple of high-profile reinforcements for no immediate outlay - Donny van de Beek on loan from Manchester United and Dele Alli on a conditional free transfer from Tottenham Hotspur.
A Final Throw of the Dice
Since Lampard came in, the team has more or less continued its downward trajectory. True, home results have picked up but the away form, which has been pitiful since October, remains so. The early optimism that came from a newfound commitment to playing on the front foot and an exciting coaching staff that the new manager assembled, has evaporated. As it stands, Lampard has won only three of twelve league matches and lost eight, gaining just ten points from 36. Everton sit in 18th position in the table, trailing Burnley by two points with a game in hand, but an inferior goal difference. The Lancastrians are enjoying a serious uptick in form since sacking long-time boss Sean Dyche a few weeks ago, in sharp contrast to the Blues, who continue to tread water; in addition, the Clarets have what most observers consider to be an easier run-in.
Everton are in shocking trouble and may not escape. There is no time to do anything now but hope that Lampard can somehow guide the team to safety. He may not be the ideal man for a relegation fight: the signs are not good and he lacks any experience of such a situation. The team also was not assembled (if one can attribute much in the way of joined-up thinking regarding squad construction) for such a battle. It was built to challenge for European places and may not possess the right qualities to pull itself clear of the drop. In truth, we won’t know until the season concludes. All we, as fans can do is hope that the manager and his players step up to the challenge and show their worth.