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What Kind of Club Would Everton Like to Be?

The “People’s Club” of Liverpool has been trapped in a cycle of mediocrity despite a decorated history and a lot of money spent. How did we get here, and what can the hiring of Frank Lampard change going forward?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Here’s a list of Everton’s managers since Farhad Moshiri became the club’s biggest stakeholder in 2016: Ronald Koeman, David Unsworth, Sam Allardyce, Marco Silva, Duncan Ferguson, Carlo Ancelotti, Rafael Benítez, and, as of the end of January, Frank Lampard. Setting aside the turnover, there’s a breadth of philosophy here that any big club with aspirations to be bigger would find ungainly: Each of these managers employ a vastly different approach to soccer, and taken together, their appointments tell us that Everton has no clue what kind of club Everton would like to be. Maybe that’s the problem?

You wouldn’t primarily describe Everton as fun in their best years. After a young, talismanic Wayne Rooney left for Manchester United in 2004, David Moyes achieved a top-four finish using a siege mentality and an ultracautious 4-5-1 setup that featured Mikel Arteta as the creative spark. It was the Toffees’ highest-place finish since the formation of the Premier League, in 1992. Though it was humbling for critics who suggested Moyes needed to replace the goals in his team to avoid relegation—and doubtlessly vindicating for Everton fans—you wouldn’t really say it was fun. For a few years after that, with the exception of one 11th place finish, you could reliably count on Everton to place no higher than fifth and no lower than eighth, and not make much noise doing it. That was until Roberto Martínez was chosen to deliver the club from the desert of respectable but unremarkable finishes following a dazzling 2013 FA Cup run with Wigan Athletic, during which Wigan beat the brakes off of the Toffees themselves in the quarterfinal and then dismantled league-holders Manchester City in the final. The subsequent season was perhaps as exciting as it got in the past half-decade, but Martínez’s idealistic Everton teams eventually succumbed to their habit of giving up as many goals as they scored, and after two underwhelming seasons, he was sacked.

Hiring Barcelona and Dutch legend Ronald Koeman before the 2016-17 campaign was meant to affirm Everton’s status as a big club—to shift the sense that it was just cosplaying as one, and to establish continuity with some bombast. However, no one could really accuse Koeman’s Toffees of having any style or cogency or confidence at all. After a self-obliterating summer haul of expensive no. 8s and no. 10s—assuming there was some kind of high-flying, prolific, total Dutch football to be extracted from the likes of Davy Klaassen, Gylfi Sigurdsson, and a 31-year-old Wayne Rooney, back after more than 400 games of top-flight soccer on his legs—Koeman turned Everton into one of the most tedious teams in the league, and was gone after 15 months.

That’s about how long everyone else has lasted: Everton moved on from their ensuing hire, Allardyce, and his boring, defensive style as soon as they were safely mid-table, away from the wreckage that Koeman had wrought. Optimism over Silva was eventually cowed by injuries, nonexistent chemistry between his 78-million-pound outlay of attacking signings, and middling results at home and abroad at a time when their arch rivals Liverpool to the southeast were becoming one of the most fearsome teams in Europe; three-time Champions League winner Ancelotti was brought in to arrange the ideas of three past permanent managers into something like the winner he had when he last was managing in the Premier League, at Chelsea, but that too came to naught. Rafa Benítez, another Champions League winner, for Liverpool of all teams, became the fifth hire of the Moshiri era, again adopting a defensive style primarily reliant on organization—of which there was none—that left fans disgruntled, important players running down their contracts, and Everton in the relegation zone.

Consider this: Everton have been bogged down in this identity crisis long enough for Wayne Rooney to have come back around yet again, this time, recently, in consideration as a manager. But the now-Derby coach turned down the job, and Everton have since settled on Chelsea legend Lampard— still somewhat unproven as a young manager, whatever he himself did at Derby. Still, Thomas Tuchel may have twisted the lid off of Chelsea’s Champions League victory last year, but it was Lampard in the first half of the season who loosened it for him. For a team like Everton looking to rid itself of a nagging sense of incompleteness, you would think Lampard’s hiring is at least a step in the right direction. And yet, we’ve been here before; Lampard’s teams also have that Martínez affliction in that they tend to be a little defensively naive. But there is a silver lining: After Lampard’s sacking at Chelsea, there was a sense that he accomplished something special with the youngsters over at Stamford Bridge. The optimist will bet that Lampard can pluck the next Mason Mount or Reece James out of Everton’s youth academy, should he be given time to do so.

So are Everton a big club—they have won nine league titles and five FA Cups in their history, after all—or aren’t they? Are they supposed to be fun or not? We’re back around to the part where they bring in a fresh-faced, up-and-coming 40-something who uses words like “hunger” and “passion” and “ambition” and “fight” in his introductory press conference and subsequently splashes a bunch of money on dubious prospects. In an effort to bootstrap themselves out of the relegation zone, and just maybe stay competitive in this season’s FA Cup, the Toffees added Donny van de Beek and Dele Alli from Manchester United and Tottenham, respectively, in the January transfer window; both weirdly surplus to their new managers’ plans at their old clubs, both very good-to-great once upon a time, both weirdly young for us to be talking about their moves to Merseyside as a kind of last-chance-saloon thing. Everton will have to be a re-proving ground for both, and the hope is that they can provide a creative spark that leads to some intense, free-flowing attacking play that produces goals.

Everton’s 4-1 FA Cup win over Brentford this past weekend was the biggest win of any managerial debut of the club’s history. The 30-pass move that resulted in the third goal was rhythmic, imaginative, and almost tidy—all the things Everton hasn’t been for the better part of a decade. Haters would say it’s luck, more the result of missed interceptions and poor defending than of any good shape or attacking genius; everyone else would say they hadn’t even added van de Beek and Alli, who were unveiled at halftime, to the team yet.

But there’s always a new manager bounce at first, and then what follows can feel a little closer to reality. Earlier in the week, Everton faced Newcastle, who are only just below them in the league, and who with their Premier League status similarly ailing, have tried heaping on pounds of cure. Where they end up will be entirely dependent on how well they assimilate their shiny new toys. But in this match, at least, it was Newcastle’s decisions in the transfer market that were comprehensively vindicated on the field. The best of them was maybe Allan Saint-Maximin, who had already been there and seemed caged by the sum of Newcastle’s hopes before their recent 90-million-pound spend. He seemed positively free out there this past week, doing whatever he wanted against an Everton squad assembled from, what Guardian writer Barney Ronay describes imaginatively as, “scrolling through Euro-house soundtracked videos on YouTube.” A “highlights reel” squad whose only contribution to the scoreline was an own goal from Jamaal Lascelles. There’s no need for allegory or comparison: It is straightforwardly bad that Everton were sliced apart by a Newcastle side that still hasn’t bedded in Bruno Guimaraes, the former Lyon defensive midfielder who’ll make it so that Saint-Maximin has to do even less of the boring stuff. It is precisely foreboding that Kieran Trippier split Everton’s wall in between Dele Alli and Anthony Gordon; the first a big signing that probably won’t work out as a box-to-box midfielder and the second a younger attacking midfielder that will probably need to figure it out fast through no fault of his own. Again, Everton are just one point ahead of Newcastle, who look more like they’ve got a plan, and like they might just walk out of this relegation scrap.

Despite that, Everton fans can, if they want, take encouragement from van de Beek looking pretty good in a deep-lying playmaker role next to Allan, as well as the fact that Everton at least lost using an approach consistent with the one they took earlier in the week. Lampard insists Everton “must not let our heads drop” after just one game in the league, because, you know, it’s just one game. But do they have time to patiently build something? For pyrrhic victories in shambolic performances? For learning curves? We’ll talk again in five games.