After a litany of false dawns and expensive failures at Everton of late, 2019-20 represents their best chance in years of finally breaking down the top six barricade.
With so much expected, and spent, from the reign of owner Farhad Moshiri, the Blues have, to his dismay, become mid-table mainstays. Since finishing fifth in 2013-14, Roberto Martinez’s debut season, Everton have occupied seventh once and both 11th and eighth place twice in the final standings. Regimes which have promised the earth have plunged Evertonians into the depths of despair.
But now – and they really mean it this time – there is genuine cause for optimism. Not only because Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea could all be there for the taking this term, but because the hierarchy seems to have finally learned from its costly mistakes of seasons past.
Under manager Marco Silva, Everton finished the campaign with a settled, encouraging starting XI brimming with talent and an improving work ethic. The results – 18 points from the last 30 on offer, including deserved wins over Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United – certainly suggest as much.
Meanwhile, director of football Marcel Brands continues to operate in a shrewd, composed manner; a far cry from the slapdash, scattergun approach of his predecessor, Steve Walsh. For roughly the same price that Brands secured the signing of Italian prodigy Moise Kean – £27 million – Walsh oversaw the signings of Yannick Bolasie, Davy Klaassen and Cenk Tosun, none of whom have a future in Silva’s blueprint.
And while defensive midfielder and undoubtedly Everton’s most crucial player, Idrissa Gueye, has finally made his expected move to Paris Saint-Germain, that doesn’t seem to have punctured the optimism too much. Kean’s signing was greeted with swathes of excitement from Blues, as was the return of popular Barcelona loanee André Gomes on a permanent basis.
Fabian Delph should also provide a calmer head to a side that at times seriously lacked composure, while the Toffees hope to have a ready-made replacement for Gueye in Mainz’s Jean-Philippe Gbamin. Expect many more deals to be done before Thursday afternoon’s transfer deadline, too.
Certainly, Everton are far from the finished article, though. Their typically wretched away form continues to halt their progress; they won only five league matches on the road last season, and just one of them was against a top ten side.
Silva, meanwhile, is supported, but far from universally adored, and must ensure that he addresses his own shortcomings from last season, particularly the Blues’ penchant for conceding cheap goals from set-pieces.
But with last season’s momentum, a reinvigorated fan base and numerous impressive signings, Everton might not find themselves banging their heads on their glass ceiling this year, for a change.
They’ll have to fend off stiff competition, though, and not only from the three sides they could conceivably displace. Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester, for instance, look a similarly safe bet to break into the top six this campaign.
The Northern Irishman’s February departure from Celtic may have been shrouded in acrimony, but by deciding not to sit on his hands until the summer, Rodgers has already revitalised a slumberous club which was merely passing through during the dreary tenure of his predecessor, Claude Puel.
Sure, Harry Maguire has left for record money, and the Foxes will inevitably have to spend over the odds to replace him, but there are enough reasons for Leicester fans to feel confident of their best season since the miracle of 2015-16.
Youri Tielemans proved an excellent addition to their midfield during his loan spell last season, and has made a permanent move to the King Power Stadium, as has James Justin, one of the most highly-rated full-backs in the EFL during his time with Luton Town.
Striker Ayoze Pérez may begin as deputy to Jamie Vardy, but the £30 million man will at least provide the sort of competition for places which Islam Slimani and Kelechi Iheanacho, for instance, have so far failed to do.
Then, of course, there’s Rodgers himself. And for all of his David Brent-isms and his almost tiresome overenthusiasm, it is difficult to argue against his managerial track record.
Since his appointment in late February, the Foxes took more points from the ten remaining games of last season than Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, while Puel’s dour football was rendered a distant memory, and Jamie Vardy netted half of his 18 goals for the season.
It’s an exciting, if particularly young, squad, so any hopes and dreams among the Foxes faithful should be tempered with patience. But if anyone can harness its talent and potential, it’s probably Rodgers.
There is definitely optimism in both camps, at least. In a survey carried out by football blog Sports Quotes and Facts recently, where a fan of each Premier League club was asked to predict where their team will finish, both Leicester and Everton supporters picked sixth place for their sides.
As for Wolverhampton Wanderers, last season’s closest challengers, their supporter went for an eight-placed finish which, on the face of it, is neither unrealistic nor a disappointing decline from 2018-19.
The newly-promoted side were the surprise package of last campaign with their united, tireless team boasting as much heart as they did ability.
A place in the Europa League was fully merited, but with Real Madrid loanee Jesus Vallejo and AC Milan striker Patrick Cutrone their only major additions this summer to a relatively small squad, such an increase in matches could stymie their domestic progress.
They will no doubt challenge; their squad is full of too much talent and togetherness, and manager Nuno Espirito Santo is too infectious and demanding to expect anything less from his team.
But an extended run in Europe’s secondary competition is rarely an ingredient in the recipe for league success, and with that in mind, it seems the men in royal blue, rather than those in gold, stand a better chance of dining at the Premier League’s top table come May.
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