London- There is no doubt which Premier League club have made the quickest start in the race to do business in the summer transfer window. One might not go as far as Robbie Fowler, who believes Everton’s resolve and targeted investment are making the rest of the league look stupid, though there is plenty to admire in the way Ronald Koeman and his club backers go about their business.
Everton have made five major signings before most clubs are properly back from their holidays, although Henry Onyekuru will be going straight out to Anderlecht on loan. The others offer straight-down-the-middle solidity, almost literally since Koeman has brought in a goalkeeper, centre-half and striker. Everton set their transfer record when they signed Jordan Pickford for a fee that could rise to £30m, though the former Sunderland player has long been regarded the best English goalkeeping prospect around and if he fulfils his potential he will soon start to look a snip even at that price.
The club then paid roughly the same amount, £25m going on £30m, for the 24-year-old Michael Keane, another proven performer at the right age with no shortage of admirers and a promising future. By Everton standards this is a huge level of investment, particularly as the Holland midfielder Davy Klaassen has also been signed for around £24m, but as soon as someone meets Southampton’s asking price for Virgil van Dijk, or perhaps when Romelu Lukaku finally gets his inevitable move to a club in the Champions League bracket, Everton’s outlay is likely to be dwarfed.
It has not all been big spending either. Picking up Sandro Ramírez from Málaga for a fee of around £5m could be the sharpest piece of business of the summer so far, even if it is unlikely the former Barcelona striker on his own will be able to fill the hole Lukaku leaves. To an extent Everton have been rebuilding in the knowledge that they will have to react and reshape once their leading scorer departs, and to an extent they have been spending in the expectation of a large fee being received before the end of the window. They will probably need to recruit again once Lukaku goes. Koeman is still an admirer of Gylfi Sigurdsson and there are even reports of a move for Olivier Giroud, though regardless of what happens later in the summer it is never a bad idea to have your principal targets identified early and to bring them in with a minimum of fuss in time to take part in a full pre-season.
Were there a prize for this sort of thing, Everton would have just put themselves in pole position, with other clubs still dithering and debating at the back of the grid. Perhaps Everton also deserve some sort of industry award for having the foresight to recruit Steve Walsh from Leicester as football director and head of scouting. Football does not work quite like that, however, and one has to assume that the real prize Everton are after is a place in the top four. “It will be a big season for us,” Sandro said on arrival, possibly a little prematurely. “Everton have made some big signings, I’m excited about being able to compete here and win plenty of silverware. Hopefully we can achieve that aim of getting into the Champions League.”
Any player is entitled to be optimistic upon joining a new club for a considerable fee, and there is perhaps no harm in being unrealistically so, but were this an Alfred Hitchcock film the menacing music would now be building to a crescendo. Were it a Vic and Bob show there would be tumbleweed rolling across the set. Players do not generally move to Everton to win “plenty of silverware”. That has not been the case since the mid-80s, and even then the revival under Howard Kendall was a relatively short-lived affair, bookended by underachievement and far less distinguished managers. In the 21 years Sandro has been around Everton have not won a thing. Their last glimpse of silverware was the 1995 FA Cup, a couple of months before he was born.
Everton have a capable, go-ahead manager, it must be admitted, and a top-four finish seems an achievable ambition for a club of Everton’s stature and spending power, yet it cannot have gone unnoticed that Arsenal and Manchester United managed to miss out last season. That’s the Arsenal currently vying with Real Madrid to pay more than £100m for Kylian Mbappé, and the Manchester United who boast the world’s most expensive player in Paul Pogba and could well end up paying a similar amount for Lukaku.
It was put to Koeman when he arrived on Merseyside this time last year from Southampton that there seemed to be little anyone could do to elevate Everton beyond fourth-best team in the north-west. They would never be able to match the spending power of the Manchester clubs, and could hope to overtake Liverpool only on the few occasions when standards at Anfield slipped. The manager did not disagree, though Leicester had just won the league at the time so anything seemed possible.
What happened in Koeman’s first season at Goodison was that the six clubs with regular Champions League experience strengthened and improved, leaving an improved Everton still best of the rest, a nailed-on seventh. That is not good enough for Koeman, never mind the owners or fans, but it is not difficult to see the same pattern repeating itself this season. This time Everton will have to cope with the demands of the Europa League, too. They may even try to win it, and take the Manchester United route to Champions League qualification, though such a plan would inevitably have implications for their league aspirations. José Mourinho, with all the resources at his disposal, ended up having to prioritise at the end of last season. It is unlikely that Everton would be able to prosper on two fronts, and it will be interesting to see how Koeman approaches the European competition.
Yet for now, before a ball has been kicked, Everton followers can at least take satisfaction in their club doing something right. They should be a tougher proposition this season, and with their fighting spirit and the ability to make Goodison a difficult place to visit, they could prove a surprise package in 2017-18. As long as everything continues to go to plan. Any unpleasant surprises, such as potential buyers driving down Lukaku’s price or perhaps even looking elsewhere for a striker, could make life more interesting still before the start of the season.
The Guardian Sport