Will Everton’s failed gamble mean top six disappear over horizon?
The good news for football followers is that the Premier League will shortly be back. The bad news is that, if your club did not finish in the top six last season, it will almost certainly again be among the 14 also-rans this time round. The even worse news, looking at the evidence of the past couple of seasons, is that clubs “knocking on the door” of the top six – that is, showing ambition in trying to move forward and join the big boys – need to be just as careful over relegation worries as those teams who expect to spend most of their time in the bottom half of the table.
Take Everton. Granted they were not relegated last season but they were sufficiently worried to appoint Sam Allardyce, which more or less makes the point. This time last year they were throwing their money around, with a new owner keen to make his mark, a new stadium in the offing and a confident belief that seventh place in the 2016-17 table was a beachhead from where the top six could be attacked. To say it did not quite work out that way would be an understatement.
Ronald Koeman could not survive a dreadful Europa League campaign that impacted badly on league form, Allardyce steadied the ship but clumsily managed to alienate supporters and, though the club now have the replacement they originally wanted in Marco Silva, the optimistic signals and signings of last summer are just a memory.
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They are not a particularly happy one either. One of the reasons Everton have yet to bring anyone in is because they are conscious of the need to move people out. Supporters were shocked to discover that two of the players who have taken less than a year to prove they are unlikely to have a future at the club – Sandro Ramirez and Davy Klaassen – are both on contracts worth six-figure sums per week.
Everton have not given up on the transfer market: funds will be made available if business can be done for the targets Silva and the new director of football, Marcel Brands, have identified, though it is an open secret that the club is carrying too much dead weight – to use an expression of Wayne Rooney’s – on generous wages that few prospective buyers would be able to match.
While Rooney’s return to Goodison may not have been a complete success, at least he brought it to a neat and honourable conclusion.
Perhaps Everton have only themselves to blame for profligacy, though a year ago they were mainly showing the vision and enterprise supporters usually want to see in their clubs. They had a well-regarded footballing director in Steve Walsh to oversee player recruitment, backed a manager they imagined would be around for the foreseeable future and took a bold financial plunge. Unfortunately only the capture of Jordan Pickford could be described as money well spent and the failure adequately to replace Romelu Lukaku was, it must be admitted, an oversight that had consequences.
Yet it is also possible that Everton became caught up in what might be termed the Leicester effect: the suddenly intoxicating notion that the Premier League’s mid-sized clubs might not have to spend season after season labouring in the shadow of the European elite after all. While even now the Foxes’ unlikely title success of 2016 is regularly cited as proof that almost anyone can win the league – stand by for the odds on Wolves being slashed if the newly promoted side topple Everton on the first weekend – what should not be ignored is that the top six have strengthened massively in the last couple of years to prevent anything similar happening again.
The top six that established itself the season after Leicester’s win was the same one as last season, just in different order. In 2017 the gulf between Manchester United in sixth and Everton in seventh was eight points, last season the gap between sixth-placed Arsenal and seventh-placed Burnley was nine.
Perhaps that differential counts for little when Manchester City won the title by an enormous 19 points over their nearest rivals United, though the fact that 13 Premier League clubs were unable to break through the 50-point barrier suggests the elite are pulling away.
So does Liverpool’s transfer policy. Although Jürgen Klopp once said he would rather pack the game in than become involved in a competition to spend money, his response to finishing 25 points behind City has been to add the world’s most expensive goalkeeper to the world’s most expensive defender, not to mention Naby Keïta, Fabinho and Xherdan Shaqiri.
Liverpool finished eighth the year Leicester won, one place ahead of Stoke, who are now in the Championship. When Everton finished seventh, West Bromwich Albion managed a creditable 10th place, yet they too have dropped out of the picture entirely.
What that means is that Burnley, Everton, Leicester and Newcastle should probably not take too much for granted on the basis of finishing in the top half of the table last time, albeit in the lower positions. There was only a 23-point spread between Burnley in seventh last season and West Brom on the bottom, yet 37 points separated top from sixth.
In these circumstances, while it cannot be said with absolute certainty that the present top six are here to stay, it can surely be acknowledged that breaking through the ceiling might be harder than ever post-Leicester. One can only hope clubs will keep on trying. But, as a chastened Everton know to their cost, the stakes are high in the ambition game and there is very little room for error.