Relegation is simply a part of professional soccer. In every nation outside of the United States, where the professional game is modeled after American football and baseball, relegation occurs at the end of the season as teams who finish at the bottom of every division dropping down to the division below, while the top are able to ascend up a step of the football pyramid. “Yo-yo clubs” as they are known, are common in many countries. In the English game, Fulham and Norwich have developed their reputations as in-betweeners, not good enough to stay in the top flight while also being far too good for the second tier.
In Italy, Benevento have been up and down multiple times in recent years. Germany has seen Hannover 96 undergo a similar case, always toward the top of the 2. Bundesliga, but going straight back down upon promotion. But for every side that is expected to go down, or at least to battle the drop, there exists another who is seemingly safe before the season even begins. Fans of these teams are disappointed when a season ends without a trophy; they never even consider life as a second-tier supporter. And yet that is exactly the position Everton supporters find themselves in.
Everton are regarded as one of the biggest clubs in England. They haven’t played outside of England’s top division since 1955, a run of 67 years. They have been a top-half side in the Premier League since well before I began watching Premier League games, and for much of that time, they were in the hunt for Champions League football via a top four finish. But results have begun to slip in recent years, as the club last finished in the top six, much less top four, in 2013-14. They slipped to 11th in the next two seasons, before climbing back to seventh in 2016-17, but that’s as good as it has gotten. Two eighth place finishes, a 10th place finish in mid-table and now a relegation scrap that sees the Toffees, as they are affectionately known by fans, sitting in 18th place. The bottom three teams (18th-20th places) are relegated to the Championship, the English second tier, at the end of the season. All year, the narrative has been that Everton will surely stay up, this is just a poor season, and they’ll have plenty of quality to avoid the drop. But with two points between them and Burnley in 17th with just six games to play, things are looking bleak. So what has gone wrong?
The issues have been building at Everton for quite some time now. Looking first at this current season, there are a host of factors that have played into Everton’s potential demise. The elephant in the room is the appointment of poor managers. They began the season with Rafa Benitez as the new hire, which on the surface is quite a good move. After all, Rafa has extensive European experience, having managed multiple Champions League and Europa League-winning sides, as well as big sides like Real Madrid, Napoli and Inter Milan. He had also previously managed in the Premier League with Newcastle and Chelsea, and–infamously–Liverpool. This normally wouldn’t be an issue, except that Liverpool and Everton are bitter rivals.
Benitez may have been a world-class manager, Toffees fans were not very welcoming to Benitez after his seven-year stint in charge of the club they hate most. It also didn’t help that Benitez had previously publicly called Everton a “small club” while leading the reds. So when results began to turn sour over the winter period, including an eight-match winless run, the fans turned on him. Benitez was replaced with Frank Lampard, but with little experience to build on, much less in relegation battles, he has been useless. Systemically, the issues stretch back much further at Everton. Put simply, the club doesn’t have a unified vision of who they are as a club anymore. Between 2007 and 2013, the club never finished below eighth place because there was a unified idea behind the way the club conducted business. Everton were never a rich club, and so had to buy smartly in the transfer market, and get the most out of players with limitations. They were almost a workman-like top side, built around unfancied talents that gelled together to serve the club’s iconic manager, David Moyes.
Moyes built his teams around players like Leon Osman, Leighton Baines, Steven Pienaar and Tim Howard. These players would not have gotten a sniff at a team like Manchester United or Chelsea, but when put into Moyes’ hard-working system, focused on winning the ball high up the pitch, staying compact defensively and shuffling the ball wide to create chances from crosses, it worked-very well, actually. The issue arose after Moyes left. The momentum carried into 2013-14 after Roberto Martinez took over, but by 2014-15 the momentum had run out. Martinez had tried to put in place a more expansive system that did not cater to the squad at hand. Some players like Ross Barkley and Gerard Deulofeu thrived, which carried the team through the previous high of 2013-14. But when their form dipped in 2014-15 and beyond, the team suffered. When Martinez left in 2016, the squad was divided between older, hard-working talents from the Moyes era and expansive players from Martinez’s tenure. The result was a loss of identity, which they never got back.
Billionaire Farhad Moshiri bought the club in 2016 and immediately set about solving the issues in the squad in all the wrong ways. Not a football man, he attempted to just buy success by buying talent. In came big money names that weren’t necessary, like Gylfi Sigurdsson for £44 million, Alex Iwobi for £28 million and Yannick Bolasie for £26 million, among others. All were overpriced as clubs took advantage of Everton’s newfound riches, while the squad cohesion got worse. By 2017-18, the squad was incredibly bloated. Everton had four high-profile attacking midfielders in the form of Sigurdsson, Davy Klaasen, Tom Davies, and Nikola Vlasic, all of whom underwhelmed while eating up massive amounts of money in wages. The same could be said about the front line, as Wayne Rooney, Cenk Tosun, Oumar Niasse and Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored a measly 28 goals between them in the Premier League, despite making a total of 98 appearances.
This season also saw the forward-thinking Ronald Koeman replaced by Sam Allardyce, notorious for his cagey style and stifling of creative nature in his players. Thus the squad, bloated in attacking talent, was now being run by the worst possible coach for the job. Returning to the current state of Everton, their relegation battle is perhaps not as surprising as
we have thought. The squad is packed with overpaid, underperforming talent mixed and
matched to the interests of a cascade of contradictory managerial appointments, while the
board has overspent to the point that further purchases will result in financial sanctions from
UEFA. Couple this catastrophe with the poor managerial appointments this term, and I won’t be
surprised in the slightest if Everton are playing Championship football next season.