BY DAN BILLINGHAM
There’s a routine I follow every few years when I buy a new computer. While I feign some knowledge of bits and bytes, I can’t help resorting to my habit of finding the cheapest possible laptop, assuming that’s crap and finding one for a couple of hundred quid or so more – if I’ve heard of the make and its appearance doesn’t offend me, it’s mine.
Needless to say, I’ve no idea why the laptop I bought in October is clunking and crashing much more than its cheaper predecessor ever did in its four-year career. Something isn’t going right at a level I’ll never be able to comprehend – where the microchips buzz and zap away. I must have been deluded by the bigger price tag – but I suppose I’m not the only one.
Everyone knows there’s a lot that goes into making a good football team, but a couple of times a year the interest of the public gets transfixed by football’s own price tags. Transfer talk well and truly bosses the media agenda over the summer break and at the end of January. We all love a good transfer saga, the will he or won’t he, the accusations of betrayal, and the ‘Eh? How much?’ It was no surprise to hear recently that news of Manchester United’s signing of Romelu Lukaku was the most read item on the BBC Sports website last year.Embed from Getty Images
We all know the Premier League has got so much TV cash that if you stacked it all back-to-back it’d make a ladder reaching Neptune. You could even climb it if you want to host a pre-season tournament there – which would rake in enough to buy jet packs for the journey back. Of course, money isn’t actually for building hypothetical space ladders though. It’s there to be spent. Fans understandably urge their clubs and their mega-rich owners to use their resources to gobble up talent. It’s an attitude neatly summed up by the West Ham expert fan called to contribute to the BBC’s transfer deadline day coverage who wrote: “What do we want? Bodies! When do we want them? Now!”
That all contributes to the unseemly spectacle though of the competitive transfer window. Every signing is celebrated like a win, every useful player sold rued like a defeat – as you may have noticed from differing reactions in Merseyside and Barcelona to the Coutinho transfer. Clubs who can pinch players from underneath others’ noses can laugh at having shown the world who has the bigger bollocks.
It’s usually expressed in politer terms than that, of course. Big clubs spending big are merely ‘proving their credentials’, smaller clubs spending big are often ‘making a show of intent’ while no-hopers spending big are usually admired for their ambition.
Now there’s no denying well-judged transfers can boost a team – just feast your eyes on a few of Ederson’s saves or Mo Salah’s runs. The transfer narrative has become so massive though it has warped into a monster that overshadows the actual football, making people view the game as some kind of high-octane version of Monopoly. The reason Manchester City are playing football from a different galaxy to the rest of the Premier League is less to do with signing expensive full-backs, as Jose Mourinho recently claimed, and more to do with Pep Guardiola’s endless tactical tweaks and obsession with detail. We can only see the results of Guardiola’s work, of course, not the process itself. Over the summer, while Pep was relentlessly drilling his players, the debate therefore continued to hurtle around what we could all grasp: transfers.Embed from Getty Images
Man City’s success, like Leicester’s fairy tale two seasons ago, or Burnley’s extremely impressive first half of the season, is a clear reminder that football is decided more by the extra yards chased, extra glimpses over the defenders’ shoulders and extra desire to leap to a ball than the extra millions invested in players. This gets all too easily forgotten, though, when the transfer frenzy reaches its height.
Managers only have a certain amount of time to juggle between tactical work and transfer strategizing. They might claim never to read the papers or care about public opinion, but their frequent twitchiness in press conferences and the vulnerability of their positions suggest they have a natural interest in keeping pundits and fans on their side. In an age when clubs provide glitzy short films to celebrate every new signing on social media, it would be tough for managers to close themselves off entirely from the idea that they can buy their way to success.
If you think you can simply buy your way to success you are accepting a false media narrative though and neglecting the reality of patiently building a team towards their potential with sheer hard work. A manager who buys into the whole transfer euphoria – who lets the ‘look at how much we’ve spent, this is a sign of a club going places’ idea to take root – could be in serious danger. Where is the incentive to add that extra training drill or to spend the extra time on a tactical innovation when your transfer business is already making the pundits say you are a team to be feared?
I can’t say with any more certainty what happened at Everton’s training ground over the summer than I can talk you through my computer’s motherboard. All I know for sure is that they went on a pre-season tour to Tanzania and signed a hell of a lot of players. The £149million they spent made Everton the fifth biggest spending club in Europe in the 2017 summer transfer window – ahead of Manchester United, Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich. The clear narrative in the sports sections and on the airwaves back on those long summer days was that Everton were a club determined to close the gap between themselves and the top four. Robbie Fowler said they were making the rest of the Premier League look stupid. Viral news items appeared entitled ‘Inside Everton’s Sensational Transfer Window’.Embed from Getty Images
Spirits were sky high on the blue side of Merseyside as the start of the season approached. Understandably so, as by investing all the £75million gained from the sale of Lukaku and plenty more, they had done exactly what many pundits had advised – making a play in the transfer market to press on from their seventh place finish last season. It was just what manager Ronald Koeman had called for earlier in the year too, saying: “We know we need one more transfer window to get that strong team that we’d like to have…then we will really battle with the big ones in the Premier League, I’m really confident of that.” The Guardian echoed these sentiments with a video among its Premier League previews captioned ‘Everton: can new signings return them to the big time?’
It’s hard to put a finger on what went wrong exactly. Some pointed to Michael Keane’s failure to settle in defence, others at the overabundance of number 10s and inability to replace their lead scoring threat. What didn’t seem to happen was an investment in training of an effort and quality to match the investment shown in the transfer market. Nobody would accuse Ronald Koeman of getting the cigars out in pre-season believing his job to be complete at having assembled his real-life fantasy football team, but at some level did the euphoria of the praise Everton were attracting from their transfer business seep in where it shouldn’t have? Did the Dutchman buy into the excitement of a series of headline signings so much that he gave his players the impression that this alone was going to take them places? Or to put it another way; how is Koeman doing in the parallel universe where Everton decided as they had loads of promising young talents (and several Under-20 World Cup winners), they were going to invest the Lukaku cash in their academy but work their arses off to compensate for losing their top scorer?
Amid the incessant flashing lights in the world of football that grab our attention and lead us into following the next disaster and see the next manager walking, it is worth remember just how great the chasm was between Everton’s pre-season expectations and where the club found itself in October. Hopes of a bid for the Champions League places were buried under relegation fears with the Toffees in the bottom three at the time of Koeman’s dismissal. Their multi-million pound rabble won two of its opening ten matches of the campaign.Embed from Getty Images
Turning to safety specialist Sam Allardyce after a five-week attempt to find a more attractive appointment confirmed the embarrassing climbdown in ambitions. After a brief upturn in fortunes, Everton went through another rut of seven winless matches in December. More alarmingly there was a spell in which they failed to register a shot on target in three out of five league fixtures in this period – this creative drought being another irony for a club that had signed four playmakers in the summer. What was the problem now? Allardyce hinted at the incoherent thinking in the summer window when saying Rooney and Sigurdsson, the club’s highest profile summer signings, wouldn’t be able to play in the same team together. The lack of a real centre forward was clear to see, as was a lack of pace going forward – issues the club duly patched up by splashing £20million on Cenk Tosun, and throwing in another £20million for Theo Walcott. Both are exciting players in their own right, but where has this sudden love of spending taken the club since the summer? Through crisis and panic to a point they have an outside chance of matching last season’s seventh place finish. We’ll never know what would have happened if Everton’s energy had been placed fully in their youngsters instead of on the transfer market, if they had scaled back their acquisitions, just taken one of Rooney or Sigurdsson, forgotten about Klaassen, and looked where possible to fill gaps in the squad by promoting from within. It would have been the bolder move, for sure – which goes to show what might appear to be ballsy or ambitious often isn’t – especially when you are gauging ambition, or quality, solely on the size of a pile of cash.
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