Roberto Martinez’s “private” conversation to Bill Kenwright at the beginning of last season promised Champions League football for Everton within his tenure. It was a claim that seemed idealistic and far-fetched twelve months ago, but less so now at the start of the 2014/15 campaign.
A fifth placed finish last term means Europa League football for the Toffees this year and has their success hungry supporters dreaming of going one League place further come the end of May.
The arrival of £28m striker Romelu Lukaku is a major reason for the burgeoning optimism; his first two full seasons in England have reaped 32 goals, making him the 4th highest scorer in the Premier League over that period. Many doubted Everton’s ability to hold on to their three loan signings last year, Gerard Deulofeu may have gone back to Barcelona to fight for a squad number, but Gareth Barry has now put pen to paper permanently on a three year deal, and Lukaku is Everton’s record transfer fee, £13m more than they paid Standard Liege for Marouane Fellaini.
Martinez’s positive charm and insistence on attractive, forward thinking football, has managed to convince the Champions League chasing Lukaku that Goodison Park is the best place to continue his development and gain regular playing time, with both sides potentially set to benefit from Martinez’s belief in the progress of English football’s 4th most successful club.
Another significant addition (to a squad that will need at least 27 first teamer’s in order to not suffer the perils of Europa League fatigue) is the 21 year old Bosnia & Herzegovina midfielder, Muhamed Besic. The £4m fee paid to Ferencvaros could turn out to be one of the bargains of the summer; the Bosnian had a 98% pass accuracy for his club side last season and can play at centre-back or in his more favoured midfield anchor role. A cultured passer, who seems older than his birth certificate suggests, could teach the sometimes wasteful but equally talented Ross Barkley about the importance of not conceding possession in central area’s.
A midfield trio of Besic, James McCarthy and Barkley could well blossom into one of the best engine room’s the Merseysiders have seen since the holy trinity of Goodison legends Kendall, Harvey and Ball. Barry and McCarthy should begin the season as the starting pair in a defensive midfield role, but Besic will undoubtedly be the long term replacement for the 33 year old Englishman. For now, continuity is what’s important for Everton, and this has been strengthened off the pitch too with a number of important contract extensions for key players.
Leighton Baines committed his future to The Blues last year, but this pre-season has seen Barkley sign for 4 years, followed by a 5 year deal for Seamus Coleman, and a 5 year extension for Martinez himself. At the back, 20 year old England defender, John Stones, has agreed a new 5 year extension to give Evertonian’s real hope for a bright, exciting future.
Stones’ form in his 15 starting appearances for The Toffees last term displayed colossal composure, and suggested that within a few years he could be a mainstay in central defence for his country.
The Barnsley born defender is a naturally instinctive blocker of shots whose defensive positioning is already world class. In his 21 games (6 as a substitute) for Everton he won 26 tackles and made 19 successful interceptions, while also blocking 19 shots on goal and making an astonishing 87 clearances.
With goalkeeper Tim Howard coming into the form of his life at 35, the goals and creativity of full backs Baines and Coleman, a consistent first XI developing under Martinez’s second full season could well see Everton sneak into the Champions League positions, especially with the fire-power of an already settled in Lukaku.