Everton had never been relegated from the Premier League. With the drop looming, many thought that would change at the end of the 2022 campaign. In the end, the Toffees only just pulled themselves out of a sticky situation near the foot of the top flight. The way things are going, they might end up back in that situation again this season.
There was a near-palpable sense of relief around Everton as the club avoided the drop down to the Championship at the end of the 2021/22 campaign. Defeat to Liverpool in April left Frank Lampard’s side in the Premier League’s bottom three. With the teams around Everton picking up points, the outlook was bleak.
Lampard took some short-term measures to drag Everton away from danger, adopting a compact and conservative approach to achieve important victories over Manchester United, Chelsea, Leicester City and Crystal Palace. It wasn’t pretty, but it was what was needed to keep the Merseyside outfit in the top division.
The plan was that Everton would use this experience to build something better. Fans demanded a new direction from the club. Close to £500m was spent on transfers over the last five years while the team on the pitch deteriorated. Relegation from the Premier League would have been an appropriate mark of the calamitous Farhad Moshiri era at Goodison Park.
A drop from the top flight would also have raised questions about Everton’s financial condition. Not only has the Goodison Park club spent big in the transfer market, they have committed £500m to the construction of a new stadium at Bramley-Moore Dock. The loss of Premier League revenue would have cast doubt on the club’s outlook of the future.
Pre-season has been difficult for Lampard. Everton have struggled in a number of matches and even suffered a heavy 4-0 defeat at the hands of Minnesota United. The lack of tactical structure, on-the-pitch quality and bad body language across the board hinted at a team that will struggle once again this season.
“We were in that fight for a reason and, if we don’t want to be in that situation again, they have to be better, I have to be better,” Lampard said after the humiliating loss to the MLS opponents who had no trouble in sweeping aside Everton with the Toffees’ defence cause for particular concern ahead of the 2022/23 campaign.
“Lots to think about, lots of work to do,” he added. “What matters is where we are at in two and a half weeks. If there is to be good to come out of this, the players and the dressing room have to understand that they have just put in a very poor performance individually and collectively and been well beaten.”
Some signings have been made this summer. James Tarkowski has arrived from Burnley with the England international expected to provide Everton with presence at the back. Portuguese left back Ruben Vinagre has also joined the Toffees on loan from Sporting CP, while a £20m deal completed for Burnley winger Dwight McNeil.
All three players could be a positive impact for Everton, but Lampard’s squad is still unbalanced. This is a consequence of a messy and incoherent transfer strategy implemented at boardroom level over the last five years or so. Everton didn’t buy players to fit into a system. They bought them for the sake of buying them.
The number of managers Everton have gone through in recent times has also hindered them in the establishment of a distinct style of play. This has resulted in managerial whiplash. Everton have swung back and forth between managers with very different ideas and methods, and have signed players to suit them without any thought of continuity.
Richarlison’s sale to Tottenham Hotspur is a concern ahead of the new season. The Brazilian’s energy and general threat in and around the penalty box was key to Everton escaping relegation trouble last term and so his absence will be felt sharply. Lampard has openly admitted his team have yet to find a replacement.
There is still enough quality within the Everton squad to avoid relegation from the Premier League, but the mistakes that made a drop down to the Championship a possibility last season are being repeated. Not even Lampard appears confident that his team will be able to avoid the same uncertainty that made last season such a struggle. Fans will know quickly if those fears are still founded in reason.