It felt like the perfect analogy at the time, but little did anyone know it would become so apt so soon. ‘Everton sprint out of the blocks for a marathon‘ reads the headline to an article on this very site back in July. By mid-September, the Toffees are already suffering from cramp, shin splints and a crippling stitch.
No Premier League side made quite the same impact as Everton this summer. Manchester City broke the record for the biggest single-window spend in history, while Manchester United smashed the British record transfer fee. But both took a backseat to Everton in the first few weeks. Only City (£221.6m) and Chelsea (£190m) spent more than the Toffees overall (£150.6m). Everton’s previous record for summer expenditure was £40.9m, set by Ronald Koeman last season.
A return on such remarkable levels of investment is not forthcoming. “I hope we will take some lessons out of this afternoon,” said Koeman at the weekend, having just watched his slow, plodding, aimless side be picked apart by a faster, stronger, more cohesive unit in Tottenham. Five days later, and a similarly slow, plodding and aimless team was picked apart by a faster, stronger, more cohesive unit. Both Tottenham and Atalanta cost considerably less to assemble.
The lesson he and his players appear to have learned from their humbling at the weekend is that if they can be dominated at home by a superior side, they can be just as easily dispatched away at a supposedly inferior one.
Atalanta might well take offence at such a description, but this is a side who saw two of their most important players leave this summer in Andrea Conti and Franck Kessie, while their most expensive arrival was Marten de Roon.
The midfielder joined the Serie A side from relegated Premier League outfit Middlesbrough for £12.5million. Four of Everton’s signings this summer cost considerably more; three of them featured in the 3-0 defeat in Reggio Emilia on Thursday evening.
Michael Keane struggled, and was caught ball-watching on more than one occasion. Gylfi Sigurdsson was anonymous, albeit when played out of position. Davy Klaassen was a second-half substitute, and could do little to rescue a performance, never mind a result. Jordan Pickford was rested, but as highly-rated as the goalkeeper is, he is no miracle worker.
Everton entered this summer knowing two things for certain: that they would have money to spend, and that Romelu Lukaku would leave. The Belgian scored or assisted 31 of their total 62 Premier League goals last season, and replacing him was a thankless task. But Koeman had from May until September to find a solution. With investment from Farhad Moshiri and the £75m generated from Lukaku’s sale, the options were plenty, and yet Sandro Ramirez and Wayne Rooney arrived for a combined £5m. The pockets were deep and the wallet was bulging, yet when it came to strikers, Koeman was found rummaging down the back of the sofa for spare change. The chassis had been built, the windows fitted and the engine refined, but without purchasing the wheels, Everton will go nowhere.
There was no purpose or direction against Atalanta, and strikingly little pace. Asking Dominic Calvert-Lewin to lead the line in the fourth European appearance of his career is to make the new work experience kid the company CEO: he will offer enthusiasm, but don’t act surprised when it all goes to sh*t and people start losing their jobs.
The Europa League provides the perfect opportunity for Everton, a door to the Champions League left slightly ajar. There are better teams in the competition, but Arsenal and AC Milan have designs on their league titles. Even the most optimistic Toffee could not have targeted Premier League glory in the summer. The Europa League should be Everton’s priority, not a chance to hand minutes to Maarten Stekelenburg and Phil Jagielka.
In the aftermath of such a convincing and demoralising defeat came a morsel of encouragement. There has long been a sense that Koeman often shirks the blame after poor displays, choosing instead to highlight the deficiencies of his players. But after no wins in their last five matches, and no goals in their last 314 minutes of action, even he could not keep up the pretence.
“It’s not the time and not the place to criticise the players,” he admitted on Thursday. “I need to criticise myself because the team and the players were not prepared tonight”. The first step to recovery is acceptance, and for Everton and their manager, the long journey starts now.