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For much of this season, Everton have seemed perfectly suited to their current seventh-place position in the Premier League table. They seem in their own bubble, at once apart from those below them and unable to break beyond the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool to gain entry into the top six.
For some, finishing seventh would be an underwhelming end to Ronald Koeman’s debut campaign in the dugout at Goodison Park. Yet, at the same time, further progression isn’t far away. Currently enjoying an unbeaten streak of five league games that began with a 4-0 thumping of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Everton should perhaps be considering what is required not simply to achieve a top-six place, but to crash the Champions League spots.
This summer could prove pivotal in this respect. With the correct decisions on and off the pitch, Everton could aim for the Premier League’s top four next season.
ESTABLISH TACTICS AND BUILD ON THEM
Koeman’s first campaign with Everton has been blighted by a disconcerting inconsistency. After winning four of their opening five Premier League fixtures, they then went without a single victory in their next four; a win over Arsenal was sandwiched by a disappointing home derby defeat to Liverpool and a loss away to Watford; the sensational win over Manchester City was followed up by a tight 1-0 victory over lowly Crystal Palace.
This inability to achieve concerted good results is perhaps down to a tactical uncertainty. Koeman has experimented with a variety of systems this term, including 3-4-2-1, 3-5-2, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, without ever really identifying one shape that works best and sticking with it.
Deciding whether a three or a four-man back line works best, and whether or not to play with wingers, is important not only to ensure more consistent performances, but also give the club greater direction when spending money on the playing squad in the summer transfer window.
RESOLVE BARKLEY’S CONTRACT SITUATION
Ross Barkley may not have hit the heights of 2015-16 this season, and his form has at times been a target for criticism from Koeman, but the fact his contract is set to expire in June 2018 is a problem Everton need to solve.
The 23-year-old brings power, athleticism, audacity, technique and flair to the midfield, and seems to be getting back to his best. These qualities are hard to find in one player, and as his contract continues to near its conclusion, the realisation that Everton don’t have someone to replace his creativity will become starker.
Barkley is an important component in Koeman's and Everton’s plans. He is a unique player and, when given the freedom to roam, represents a huge threat to opponents. Losing him would be difficult to handle. Losing him for free is unthinkable.
SORT THE GOALKEEPER SITUATION
Maarten Stekelenburg was the first major signing of Koeman’s Everton era. The Dutch goalkeeper arrived from Fulham for an £850,000 fee having worked with the manager on loan at Southampton last season, but he has failed to impress at Goodison Park.
The 34-year-old has been absent through injury of late, and in his place Joel Robles has put him some good performances. However, the Spaniard is not quite the quality No.1 Everton so badly need.
The goalkeeping position has never been more important within football than it is nowadays. As well as organising the defensive line, commanding the penalty area and possessing good reactions, decision-making and handling, goalkeepers are now required to be sound on the ball, as well as willing and able to sweep up and resist pressure from opposition forwards when necessary.
Everton must prioritise the signature of a goalkeeper who ticks most of these boxes this summer.
They may not have to look far to do so. Sunderland’s Jordan Pickford has good fundamentals and a bright future, while England shot-stopper Joe Hart is out of favour at Manchester City. Both would be big improvements on Everton’s existing options.
FOCUS ON YOUTH
Across Europe, a number of teams are proving that it is possible to compete with the best domestically while building for the future. In England, Tottenham are a good example of this, while Monaco in France and RB Leipzig in Germany are also models of how to create sustainable success.
Everton must follow these teams if they wish to make top-four status a long-term ambition.
Fortunately, they already have exciting raw material to work with in the likes of 20-year-old defender Mason Holgate, 18-year-old midfielder Tom Davies and 19-year-old attacker Ademola Lookman, as well as Barkley and Romelu Lukaku, who are both still only 23 years old.
REFRESH THE DEFENCE
Koeman’s willingness to rotate between three and four-man defensive lines is admirable when considering the shortage of players available to fill the relevant positions. The emergence of Holgate has been crucial, with the only other centre-back possibilities being Phil Jagielka, Ashley Williams and Ramiro Funes Mori, while beyond Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines competition for the full-back berths is sparse.
The need to bring in defensive reinforcements is all the more pressing considering the ages of some of the aforementioned players—Jagielka is 34-years old, while Baines and Williams are 32. Evidently newer and younger faces are needed in this area.
The youth academy has produced two possible backups to Coleman in 19-year-olds Jonjoe Kenny and Callum Connolly, while 20-year-old Brendan Galloway, who showed promise last term and can play at centre-back or left-back, deserves more of a chance once his loan deal with West Brom comes to an end.
But even with this trio of youngsters adding depth, Everton must bring in quality at centre-back. Domestic options exist in the form of Hull’s Harry Maguire and Middlesbrough’s Ben Gibson, both of whom are 23 years of age. It may also be worth looking at 22-year-old Chelsea reserve Kurt Zouma, who has recently indicated his desire to play more frequently.
SUPPORT ROMELU LUKAKU
This season, Lukaku has had a direct hand in half of Everton’s 40 Premier League goals, scoring 16 and setting up four. The Belgian deserves credit for his individual displays, but the Toffees are far too reliant on the striker as it stands.
Everton’s second-highest scorers are Coleman and Barkley with four apiece, while their other attacking options – namely Kevin Mirallas, Arouna Kone and Enner Valencia – have hit just four league goals between them this season. With the latter two set to depart at the end of the campaign, the need for greater quantity and quality in attack is clear.