Major transfer comings and goings leave plenty of room for speculation on how the Toffees will perform this season.
After finishing seventh in the Premier League last season, manager Ronald Koeman’s Everton team will be looking to maintain their status as an upper-middle-tier English club while also challenging for a spot in the top five this time around, in order to secure qualification for European play in either the UEFA Champions League or its less-prestigious younger sibling, the Europa League. On paper, this seems like quite the ask for the Toffees, especially given the fact that they just sold the face of their franchise to a league rival.
No Premier League team relied on a single player more than Everton did in the 2016-17 campaign. Striker Romelu Lukaku netted 25 goals (second-best in the league) for his club and tallied six assists as well, meaning the Belgian 24-year-old was directly involved in an astounding 50% of all league goals (62) scored by Everton last season. To put Lukaku’s percentage-contribution in perspective, the league’s top scorer, Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur, scored 29 league goals and registered seven assists, but these together only make up ~42% of his side’s 86 total goals scored. Lukaku was not simply Everton’s best attacking player, he was their attack.
Romelu Lukaku’s move to Manchester United hurts Everton’s attack tremendously Sky Sports
Yet now, with the 2017-18 Premier League competition just beginning to get underway, Everton must learn to cope with life after Lukaku. The forward moved to big-spenders Manchester United earlier this summer for a fee of (at least) £75 million. The bad news: Everton essentially signed away half of their offensive firepower with a single transfer. The good news: they now had some money to work with as they tried to bring some balance, depth and quality to a club that quite frankly lacked all three at times last season.
To their credit, Everton’s front office spent their transfer funds in some intriguing ways this summer, making moves for a few players that will be worth watching for this season. Two promising young Englishmen, central defender Michael Keane and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, were acquired for around £30 million apiece, joining from Burnley and Sunderland respectively. Both players stood out as potential stars on lesser teams last season, and now have the opportunity to serve as home-grown cornerstones for Everton going forward.
The ex-Black Cat, Pickford, will be an especially welcome upgrade in the Everton goal. After last year’s departure of American international Tim Howard, who logged over 350 appearances for the Toffees in ten years with the team, the Liverpool-based side have struggled to find a suitable long-term replacement. Last season, veterans Joel Robles and Maarten Stekelenburg split time in net, but neither player did enough to stake a full-time claim to the position.
Pickford, on the other hand, excelled during the 2016-17 campaign, despite playing for last-place Sunderland, who won a grand total of six league games out of 38. The 23-year-old made an astounding 135 saves last season, good for second-most in the league, and more than any keeper from a team in the top four. Now that he has a higher-quality back line in front of him, expect Pickford to thrive; the save numbers will likely not repeat themselves, as he will not face as many shots, but if Everton end up finishing anywhere near the top five this season, it will be in large part because of their new net-minder.
Despite the improvements in defense that Pickford and Keane undoubtedly bring to Everton, questions remain about their ability to score goals. In addition to Lukaku leaving, the club now also have to deal with some contract drama surrounding attacking midfielder Ross Barkley. Though same age as Pickford, Barkley was once considered one of the most promising creative players in the Premier League. After an underwhelming 2016-17 season in which he scored only five goals (albeit alongside a respectable tally of eight assists), the now-injured Liverpool native has been unwilling to commit to staying with Everton, leading his manager to essentially state that he has written him off altogether. Any remarkable career turnaround for Barkley will not be happening at Goodison Park, so it seems.
With Lukaku and Barkley out of the picture, it will be up to new transfers Sandro Ramirez, Davy Klaassen, and Wayne Rooney to take charge of the Everton offense. Ramirez, a 21-year-old Spanish forward arriving from Málaga in La Liga, will look to make an instant impact in the final third with his nimble dribbling, impressive field vision, and decent pace on the ball. Dutch midfielder Klaassen will be playing a more facilitative role in the attacking midfield, utilizing his pinpoint passing and positioning abilities to create scoring chances. Though neither player will come close to matching Lukaku’s level of offensive productivity, their attacking partnership looks like it could be quite fruitful for the club this season.
Finally, we come to Wayne Rooney. The aging striker returns to his first club Everton after almost a decade and a half at Manchester United, winning five league titles, one each of the Champions League and Europa League, one FIFA Club World Cup, and one FA cup trophy with the Red Devils. In addition, Rooney remains the second-leading scorer in Premier League history with 199 goals to his name. For the sake of a hypothetical American sports comparison, this would be like if Derek Jeter had actually bookended his career with the Detroit Tigers, yet accomplished everything he did with the New York Yankees in between.
Wayne Rooney left Everton a teenager, but now returns as an aging star on the wane Getty Images
At 31 years of age, Rooney is by no means a top-caliber attacking player anymore. Every season since 2013-14, his Premier League goal totals have diminished, from 17 in that season all the way down to just five in the 2016-17 competition. Much of this decline stems from him losing a step or two in the attack, being unable to cut in behind the opposing back line with near the quickness he displayed at the zenith of his career. United, as a result, slowly phased the Englishman out of their gameplan, with younger forwards such as Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial being heavily favored last season. The signing of Lukaku this summer eliminated any real opportunity for Rooney to continue playing in Manchester, hence the move back to his hometown team.
This all being said, Rooney is not simply a morale boost signing for Everton. The club definitely will be looking to fill the attacking void left by Lukaku with a variety of scoring options, and Rooney will assuredly play a key role in those efforts. He started for the Toffees in their opening game against Stoke City this past weekend, and thrilled the home fans by scoring the winning goal with an excellent header. Though anticipating anything near Lukaku-type numbers from Rooney seems frankly ridiculous, his return home and the accompanying increase in playing time will likely help him produce a more impressive stat line in 2017-18 than those of his past couple of seasons.
As you have probably gathered, Everton’s Premier League fortunes this season depend largely on how well their new signings come together to fill the shoes of Romelu Lukaku (and to a much, much lesser extent, those of Ross Barkley). The club’s defense looks markedly deeper and more talented with the additions of Keane and Pickford, but the introduction of Ramirez, Klaassen and Rooney into the Everton attack comes with a significantly higher degree of uncertainty. If everything clicks, they could make a serious run at the top five, but at this point another seventh-place finish seems most probable.
[stats courtesy of foxsports.com and premierleague.com]
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