Guardian writers’ predicted position: 7th (NB: this is not necessarily Andy Hunter’s prediction, but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 5th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 150-1
Roberto Martínez made no attempt to disguise Everton’s aim for the new season, which is just as well, as a 6ft 3in club record signing was sitting alongside the Catalonian while he spoke of heightened ambition. “This is a key moment in that it makes it clear where our focus is set,” was how the Everton manager described the permanent transfer of Romelu Lukaku last week. Optimism, and the bar, has been raised by the Belgium international’s arrival from Chelsea. A club in Everton’s position does not spend £28m on a player to stand still.
Ordinarily, continuity would not be sniffed at by Everton given the deeply impressive and refreshing debut season enjoyed by their manager. Come May, that may be the case. It is worth recalling that 12 months ago, David Moyes’s replacement was being asked whether inspiring FA Cup winner or relegated idealist was the more accurate reflection of his managerial talents following the extreme end to his reign at Wigan Athletic. The answer unfolded swiftly and with substance as Martínez guided Everton to fifth with their highest points total of the Premier League era – 72 – while imposing a new style of play on a squad that proved it was not set in its ways after 11 years under Moyes.
Lukaku was fundamental to Martínez’s impact and Everton’s evolution, hence the concerted effort to turn his season-long loan from Chelsea into a permanent deal, and the manager’s willingness to spend the bulk of his transfer budget on the 21-year-old. The financial manoeuvrings that enabled Everton to break their transfer record six years after paying £15m for Marouane Fellaini are impressive enough. Martínez made a profit in both transfer windows last season, resisted spending it in January and played the loan market to build a fund to cover Lukaku’s fee, believed to be around £23m plus £5m in add-ons, Champions League qualification among them.
The manager outlined exactly what he was going to do in March. “The cash has been here before but in the past they have spent £10m in one window, £6m in another window,” he said. “I prefer to stockpile for the summer. Having to sell players, reduce the wage bill and keep money from other areas to make a big pot is what I’ve been aiming for over the last 10 months.”
But it is in convincing Lukaku to sign a five-year contract that Everton’s manager and board alike have truly demonstrated intent. “A real football statement,” as Martínez put it. Coveted international strikers, even those like Lukaku who need to develop and have fallen out of favour with José Mourinho, do not tend to sever their ties with clubs like Chelsea to move outside the Champions League. Not unless they are confident of a rapid return.
The day before the Belgium forward was unveiled at Finch Farm, Ross Barkley sat in the same place, having signed a four-year contract with his boyhood club worth around £60,000 a week. The man to their left at both press conferences, Martínez, agreed a five-year contract extension at the start of the summer. Seamus Coleman soon followed suit. Everton also want to reward James McCarthy for his commanding debut campaign with a new contract. No distractions, and the main deals – Lukaku, Gareth Barry on a permanent three-year deal, and Muhamed Besic, the tenacious Bosnia-Herzegovina midfielder signed for £4m from Ferencvaros – have been completed. Goodison summers have rarely been so smooth.
As mentioned, Lukaku has strides to make. The jury may not be as tolerant as during his loan period otherwise. Encouragingly and unusually for a major signing, the 21-year-old publicly declared as much when he returned to Everton last week. “If I want to win titles I have to get better at everything,” he stated. “I can score goals, but I need to be more efficient, help my team-mates more on the defensive and creative side. I learned here how to play in possession and to develop my back-to-goal play. I have very high expectations of myself but when you have a manager who wants to make one of the best teams in England, I knew I wanted to be part of that very quickly. I’m a team player, and our ambition is to challenge the big four and become one of the best teams in this country.”
Barkley is equally important to realising those goals, and the improvement he makes, in terms of consistency and decision-making, will be key. The 20-year-old’s elevation to England’s World Cup squad should not gloss over his sometimes sparing deployment by Martínez last season, as the manager handled raw but immense potential with patience. A breakthrough campaign behind him, Barkley will view this season as his to conquer. “I’d like to play more games in central midfield,” he said when announcing the new contract last week. Martínez’s eyebrows soared upwards.
It is how the Everton manager utilises another gifted young English talent – John Stones – that could have a greater bearing on the team’s shape. The central defender was unfortunate to miss out on the World Cup squad (or fortunate, in hindsight) following a classy, authoritative end to last season that prompted talk of a move to Chelsea. Will his push for a regular first-team place result in three-men at the back, a system Martínez employed to close out games on occasions last term, or herald time for the established centre-half pairing of Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin?
The impact of the Europa League on a squad that ultimately strained without European commitments last season, when defeats to Crystal Palace and Southampton – plus Arsenal’s impressive finale – thwarted their Champions League aspirations, will be a concern to Martínez. Equally, as the club approaches the 20th anniversary of its last trophy, the manager views the Europa League as an ideal opportunity to end that drought.
Martínez has said: “You need around 27 players plus the keepers for Europe.” He currently has an established first team pool of 20 plus keepers – including the rehabilitating Arouna Koné and Bryan Oviedo – though hopes to promote two players from the under-21 ranks to the senior squad and recruit a wide man before the Premier League opener at Leicester City. The Everton manager succeeded in introducing “a football arrogance” and the confidence to go “eye-to-eye” against wealthier opponents last season. The next step is clear: to go one better.