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Soccer

How Do You Explain A Disaster Like Everton?

Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Everton currently sits in 17th place in the Premier League, with just a one-point cushion between them and Burnley, the team currently occupying the final relegation spot. Burnley is also the team that beat Everton on Wednesday, 3–2, after the visitors squandered a 2–1 halftime lead. As things stand right now, with Everton in its current form and facing a much more difficult schedule than their relegation-battle rivals over the final nine games of the season, the smart money is on the Toffees not being in the Premier League next season.

It has to be said that if Everton does get relegated, it will be the most shocking and humiliating relegation in the history of the Premier League, and perhaps even in the entire history of modern, top-flight soccer. Teams with big fanbases and rich histories (Newcastle, Aston Villa, Leeds, etc.) have gone down before, but none of those failures can quite measure up to the one Everton is facing. Not only has Everton been a fixture in the top flight since 1951, this particular version of Everton should be nowhere near the drop zone. The team’s recent history has been great. The money is there and has been spent. The squad is decent. It simply makes no sense how a club in that position could find itself where Everton is.

Iranian billionaire Farhad Moshiri became Everton’s majority shareholder in 2016, and his riches were meant to usher in a new golden era for the club. No longer would Everton be a competent presence in the Premier League’s middle class, they would join the nouveau riche, start throwing around cash in the transfer market, build a new stadium, and eventually establish themselves as a permanent member of the Premier League’s upper crust.

Money doesn’t fix everything in soccer, and so you can’t say it’s a total shock that Everton did not go crashing into the Top 6 even after Moshiri pumped half a billion pounds into transfer fees over six years. A rich team failing to capitalize on its financial advantage is one thing, but a rich team finding itself a hair away from relegation after spending all that money really is unthinkable. That things have unraveled so quickly and so completely defies explanation; it’s enough to make one think that there is some higher power at work here. What else could this be but a clunky parable about the perverting nature of money and the pitfalls lining the road of ambition?

OK, fine, this is likely not an act of the divine. But if God didn’t make this happen, who did? The difficulty in trying to find an answer to that question is that there are too many people and too many moments on which blame can be pinned. Does the fault rest with Steve Walsh, who was appointed as Everton’s Director of Football and spent millions in fees and wages on unexceptional players like Gylfi Sigurdsson, Davy Klaassen, Yannick Bolasie, Morgan Schneiderlin, Ashley Williams, and Michael Keane? Or should we be shaking our fist at Marcel Brands, who succeeded Walsh as the Director of Football, failed to shift most of Walsh’s biggest mistakes off the books, and then wasted piles of new money on players like Moise Kean, Fabian Delph, André Gomes, Alex Iwobi, and Jean Phillippe-Gbamin? Perhaps ire should be directed at Ronald Koeman and Marco Silva, the two managers who were entrusted with turning the teams that Walsh and Brands constructed for them into modern, free-flowing, attacking sides, but only succeeded in authoring seasons full of limp and uninspired performances? Further down the list is Carlo Ancelotti, who unexpectedly abandoned his post as Everton’s manager this past summer, leaving the club scrambling for a replacement. Behind Ancelotti is Rafa Benítez, who succeeded the Italian, chased off two of the team’s best players, shoved Brands out of the boardroom, and then plummeted Everton to 15th place before getting sacked. Above all of this is Moshiri and the rest of the Everton board, who in six years have failed to establish any kind of infrastructure or coherent philosophy with which to guide the club’s decision-making, and below all of that is the players themselves, who have repeatedly embarrassed themselves on the field.

The length of the above paragraph, which honestly doesn’t even get into half of the mistakes and poor decisions that have plagued Everton over the last six years, should demonstrate just how difficult it is to meaningfully assign blame for a failure of this magnitude. That has left people like me, a sucker who has watched every single Everton game since 2014, pondering a question that only gets more maddening by the day: How? How did this happen?

The best answer I’ve been able to come up with is this: Everton is about to get relegated due to an ever-growing confluence of big- and small-picture mistakes, which were set into motion by every key decision-maker at the club, at every key moment, precisely misunderstanding the reality of their circumstances. When Walsh spent all that money on a collection of players whose skills were never going to mesh, he misunderstood Everton as a club that was only in need of an influx of raw talent in order to succeed. When Moshiri brought in Brands and Silva to finally try and build a coherent tactical and recruiting philosophy from the ground up, he misunderstood Everton, still buckling under the weight of Walsh’s errors, as a club that was primed for such a project. When the board decided to hire Ancelotti, they misunderstood Everton as the kind of club that could hold a legendary manager’s attention for more than a season or two. When Benítez rode into town and kicked James Rodríguez and Lucas Digne out the door, he misunderstood the solidity of his team and the degree to which it would be able to deal with the loss of two key creators. When Moshiri and the board appointed Frank Lampard in January, and brought in Dele Alli and Donny van de Beek to assist with his rescue attempt, they misunderstood the urgency of Everton’s situation, which needed immediate results, not a long and uncertain initiation of a prettier style of play.

A club simply can’t succeed when so many compounding bad decisions are being made at the least opportune times. You can make some mistakes in the transfer market and still succeed if your club has the sort of infrastructure and tactical identity that can make the best of those mistakes; you can survive a string of fumbled managerial appointments if your recruitment is good; you can paper over a lack of organizational direction and identity if you bring in a pragmatic manager who can squeeze results out of whatever he’s given. But if all of those things are moving in the wrong direction all at once, you end up here.

And yet, despite all of that, Everton should not be on the edge of relegation today. Even with the weight of all these errors bearing down on them, the responsibility for Everton’s position in the table ultimately rests with the players. A team with attackers like Richarlison, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Demarai Gray, Andros Townsend, and Anthony Gordon should not be going through weeks-long stretches in which they can’t score a goal from open play. A team that employs hardened veterans like Abdoulaye Doucouré, Allan, and Seamus Coleman should not be playing their games in a state of sheer panic, constantly undermining themselves with red cards and horrendous individual errors. It cannot be overstated how easy it should be for a team with this collection of players to not get relegated. You don’t have to be anywhere near “good” to stay in the Premier League, you just have to be “not awful.” There is no excuse for these specific players to be as bad as they have been, week in and week out, for an entire season. I have lost count of the number of goals I’ve seen Everton concede due to a misplayed pass or flubbed clearance in their own box; I can’t even begin to tell you how many games have been lost because the players on the field so clearly wilted in the face of any sort of adversity; I’d be here all day if I tried to list the number of clear-cut scoring chances that were squandered.

Here are the highlights from Everton’s most recent defeat to Burnley. You won’t see a single goal scored by Burnley that wasn’t made possible by a humiliating individual failure from someone in an Everton shirt:

If Everton does get relegated, it will be entirely deserved. Professional soccer can be an exceedingly cruel sport, but it is ultimately a fair one. The table, as they say, doesn’t lie, and no amount of historical importance or money can help anyone escape the truth of it all, which is that bad teams get punished, and Everton is as bad as it gets.

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