ROME – One of the Premier League's truisms: Everton will finish strong, part of a double-edged sword that's come to beguile Toffees' supporters. Continuing FOX Soccer's Barclays Premier League previews, Chris Mann looks at whether Everton can avoid the other element of their annual league equation.
The Premier League is an ever-changing landscape - a maelstrom of frantic transfer activity, ceaseless speculation and muscular sporting action. However, even in this most restless of environments, it remains possible for some elements of the division's rich tapestry to endure and defy the pervading turbulence with unerring predictability. Indeed, in recent years one of these elusive constants has been the pattern of Everton's seasons.
Since David Moyes took over at Goodison Park in 2002, his team has had a reputation as poor starters, as a side which rarely hits its stride until the post-Christmas period. This nervous opening to campaigns is often usurped by a remarkable run of form in the New Year and on into the spring; the verdancy of the approaching summer being mirrored in Everton's often thrilling and robust football.
The 2010-11 season was, in many ways, an archetypal one for the blue half of Merseyside. The Toffees failed to win any of their first six games and found themselves in difficulty with just twenty-two points going into the New Year, that before the usual upturn in fortunes arrived in January ultimately carried the team to a more than respectable seventh-place finish. Soon to embark on the 2011-12 campaign, Moyes will surely be looking to remedy the mystery of Everton's cagey beginnings in order to eliminate the erraticism which has dogged his side's progress in recent years.
While elements of the fan base may harbor ambitions of European football for what is both a talented and experienced squad, any optimism been stalked by the murky reality of the club's decidedly difficult financial position. Put up for sale by Chairman Bill Kenwright and yet struggling to find a buyer, Everton's business model - the club is deliberately run at a loss in the hope of funding itself by achieving on-field success, debt steadily increasing all the while - appears to have run its course.
Turning over relatively small sums of money and without any cash available to spend on refreshing the squad, Everton is a club temporarily becalmed by financial impotence. Although the Goodison Park outfit is not in the grip of a catastrophic financial crisis of the type experienced by the likes of Leeds United and Portsmouth, the Toffees are in real danger of being left behind by their rivals as they wait for willing investors to emerge and rescue the club from its frustrating economic limbo.
This lack of spending power has been evident in Everton's minimal transfer activity this summer. Despite many believing that the club lacks a top-class striker (Tim Cahill was the team's top scorer in 2010-11 with nine goals in 22 league starts), the only deal Moyes has been able to strike has been to re-sign Sporting Lisbon's 17-year-old defender Eric Dier on a season-long loan. While rivals plunder the European market for some of the continent's most exciting talents, Moyes has been reduced to scratching around for loan deals and free transfers. Unable to improve his squad beyond its current level for the time being, it's plain to see why there are serious concerns over Everton's ability to maintain its status as a regular feature of the top eight.
With significant inbound transfers not forthcoming, the club has been forced to bolster the first-team with players plucked from its successful academy. However, while the likes of Shane Duffy and Jose Baxter may be exciting prospects, they are not yet good enough to warrant starting places and will almost certainly spend the season on the fringes of Moyes' squad. As a number of the club's stars enter the latter years of their careers, Everton could soon find itself severely weakened should the current financial issues persist for the foreseeable future.
The other major concern for Everton fans is that their club may be forced into selling its most prized assets. Last season saw Steven Pienaar leave Goodison Park to join Tottenham Hotspur for £3 million, and while no players have publically expressed a desire to leave the club, it is thought that more players will have to be offloaded in order for the books to be balanced. The rejection of Arsenal's recent £12 million bid for central defender Phil Jagielka may have suggested a degree of financial strength, but Kenwright is not thought to be in a position to drive such a hard bargain. He may well have no option but to let the England international move should the Gunners come back with an improved offer.
Away from the concerns of monetary predicaments, there were plenty of causes for optimism amongst Toffees fans last season as their team played an encouraging brand of strong and intelligent football. One of the major positives of late has been the emergence of Leighton Baines as a genuinely world-class attacking full-back, his breathtaking work ethic and crossing being at the heart of much of Everton's offense. The 11 assists Baines accumulated last season were invaluable, the accuracy of his delivery both in-play and from dead-ball situations being maximized in combination with Cahill's aerial prowess. Still just 26 years old, the left-back is constantly improving and will again be instrumental to Everton's fortunes over the next nine months.
Last season also saw 22-year-old Seamus Coleman rise to become an integral part of Everton's midfield, his swashbuckling play on the right flank a major feature of a team which often relied on its midfield for significant goal scoring contributions. Alongside the likes of Jack Rodwell and Mikel Arteta (a player who finally rediscovered his consistency after a long period of injury disruption), Coleman provided Everton with great energy and enthusiasm and is quickly becoming one of the league's young stars. Indeed, if the Toffees are to finish in the top eight for a sixth consecutive season, preserving the fitness of their midfielders will be absolutely crucial.
While Everton were generally impressive during the second half of last season, there was criticism of the club's attackers. With Yakubu shipped out on loan to Leicester City and Louis Saha a mercurial talent (at best), it was often left to Jermaine Beckford (and even Cahill on occasion) to lead the line. After a difficult start to life at Goodison for the former Leeds United player, Beckford gradually grew into the Premier League, finishing last season with eight goals from 14 starts. Questions remain over his ability to become a consistent goal scorer at the highest level, but his performances at the end of the 2010-11 campaign went some way to answering his critics and potentially solving one of his manager's most troublesome selection dilemmas.
Of course, Everton can always rely on Moyes to maximize the potential of his squad even if he is to lose more important players before the transfer window slams shut. Time and again the Scot has proved himself adept at operating with minimal resources and developing a consistency that clubs with far bigger budgets often struggle to achieve. All may not be well behind the scenes at Goodison, but Moyes gives Everton a reliable manager who will more often than not get the very best out of the assets available to him. Keeping Moyes at the helm should ensure the Toffees don't fall too far from grace in this difficult financial interregnum.
This season could prove difficult for Everton, a season in which the club may have to temper its ambitions and happily settle for the anonymity of a mid-table finish. Such is the club's lack of presence in the transfer market, maintaining a healthy level of competition with the clubs seen as its immediate positional rivals (Tottenham, Aston Villa, Sunderland and others) should be viewed as a success come season's end. While an impatience amongst Everton fans would be understandable, they may need to endure a year-or-so of water-treading before their club is able to challenge for Champions League football again (as it did so successfully in 2004-05).
In short, it may be a quiet season of preservation at Goodison Park, but The Toffees will be back, make no mistake about it.