Well, I’ve reached the end of August 2016, so it’s update time in the Everton Project. Has the Everton curse bitten me as well, or have I managed to stabilise the wobbly ship Goodison?
In the first update of the save, I covered the early decisions I’d made, and the pre-season fixtures. I had signed entirely from Italy in order to strengthen the squad before the Premier League season, bringing in Daniele Baselli from Torino, Andrea Conti from Atalanta and Edoardo Goldaniga from Palermo, reducing the serious weaknesses the squad had when I joined. We’d also had a good pre-season, comfortably defeating all the teams we faced – including Werder Bremen – before being defeated by Man United in Wayne Rooney’s testimony. Congratulations Wayne. Traitor. I also felt that our system was developing with the team naturally fitting into a 4-3-3 structure, with Baselli controlling the midfield, allowing Barkley to get forward in a Lampard-esque fashion and support Lukaku upfront.
Has this optimism continued, or have things fallen to pieces, as they have with so many others attempting to take the Toffees back to glory?
Well, for a first month, pretty damn well. We opened the month facing Stoke City at the bet365 – oh that’s so catchy – and all my tactical confidence in the side promptly went out of the window, with the side barely being able to move the ball in the first half, let alone keep it, and we quickly went 1-0 down to Stokealona. I then quickly made the decision to switch to the formation I know best, and re-ordered the side into a 4-3-1-2 playing this lineup:
Stekelenburg; Conti, Williams, Goldaniga, Baines; Baselli, Gueye, Barry, Barkley; Lukaku, Kone
Gareth Barry therefore came into the side to play as a Deep Lying Playmaker on the left side of the diamond, and Barkley played as Number 10, still given license to penetrate through the defence as an AM-A. Lukaku was converted from a CF-S in the 4-3-3 to a DLF-S, and Kone came in as an AF-A to stretch the defence to create space for Barkley and Lukaku. This change paid dividends, as we went on to tear Stoke’s defence apart with two goals from Kone, and another from Lukaku as we won 3-1. The only issue was new signing Andrea Conti was injured in the game, and would be out until the end of the month. Brilliant.
I decided before the Bournemouth game that I would continue with the 4-3-1-2 moving forward. This meant that we needed to sign another central midfielder, with Everton simply not having enough cover there for me to realistically use it. I therefore returned to – you guessed it – Italy, and signed the Croatian maestro Andrija Balic for £11M from Udinese. As someone pointed out to me on Twitter, this is basically ‘The Italian Job’. I prefer to call it Evertonia. Balic is reminiscent of a young Modric, and should be absolutely fantastic in the DLP role on the left side of the diamond. This also coincided with Yannick Bolasie leaving the club for £19M to Southampton. This helps balance out the books, as well as preventing any issues with Bolasie not being played in a system that no longer suited him.
We then faced Bournemouth, and promptly swept them away 4-0 at Goodison Park, with a second half hattrick by Barkley from Number 10, and a fourth from substitute Leandro Rodriguez. We were incredible, only allowing Bournemouth 3 shots on target, recording 12 ourselves from 23 shots. The 4-3-1-2 worked perfectly, and Bryan Oviedo performed well enough at right back to prevent me signing Daniel Guedes from Santos. Until Coleman and Conti return from injury, Oviedo can continue at right back. Plus, I really don’t want to disrupt the – already unstable – harmony within the squad. Of course, everything wasn’t plain sailing. Romelu Lukaku went off injured in the 76th minute, and would be out for the rest of the month along with Conti.
Ross Barkley picks up the ball from debutant Andrija Balic to make it 2-0 at Goodison Park.
We then faced Peterborough in the League Cup, and I rotated the side as much as I could, removing as many vital players as possible, giving some of the young players a chance. In classic Football Manager fashion, we then struggled, but made it through on penalties after a 1-1 draw in 120 minutes of football. Not great I admit, but I rarely put much stock in cup competitions until I actually reach a point where I can manage both league challenges and cup campaigns. Still, we should be beating Peterborough more comfortably than on penalties.
We then finished off the month travelling to Selhurst Park to face Alan Pardew’s – FM is alternative reality – Crystal Palace. Palace away is never an easy game on FM. Some of the players were struggling for fitness after the cup game – such as Ross Barkley – but I decided not to make too many changes to the first choice lineup, aside from bringing Barry in for an exhausted Balic. Enner Valencia came in to partner Aroune Kone upfront in place of the injured Lukaku. We didn’t perform anything like we had against Bournemouth, but still managed to pull out a 1-0 win, with Mirallas scoring from a cross from Baines after the Belgian had come on in place of Barkley at Number 10. There were some iffy moments – and Idrissa Gueye didn’t help us by getting sent off for a stupid second yellow card – but realistically we were never threatened by Palace, and ended the month with a perfect record. Hey, who would have predicted that?
So, we end the month 2nd in the Premier League, with three straight wins. I don’t expect this to continue at all, but it’s good to have gotten off to a good start. However, we haven’t faced any of the bigger teams yet, and realistically we’ve won the games that we would be expected to win. The move to 4-3-1-2 was a risky move, but it appears to be one that has worked out well, and this allows me to move forward in the save using a system that I know inside out (for those of you that have recently followed this blog, I have always preferred narrow formations, and 4-3-1-2 in particular). The squad itself is only a few signings – a top strike partner for Lukaku, and some rotational options in midfield – away from being able to challenge for European qualification in a 4-3-1-2. More depth is certainly needed, but the foundation is there.
We face a busy month in September, facing Middlesbrough and Southampton in the league, then West Brom in the 3rd Round of the League Cup, before returning to the league to take on Chelsea, our first real test of the season. If we can still be in the top 8 by the end of the month I’ll be extremely happy. We’ve got a steadily growing injury problem, with Lukaku, Conti (out for a second time, this time for 4 to 5 weeks with a hernia), Valencia, McCarthy, Coleman and Robles all out, although Coleman is back in a matter of days. Not before long as well. So, I’ll update again at the end of September, hopefully still going strong in the league, and comfortably in the top half. Until then, thank you very much for reading Evertonia, and if you have any questions, please feel free to ask them either in the comments section, or by contacting me on Twitter (@JLAspey). Thank you again.