With one club blessed with practically infinite resources and the other constantly scrambling for financial stability, Manchester City and Everton haven’t had much in common for the past nine years. But now, as they prepare to meet at Goodison Park on Sunday, there’s more that unites than divides them.
Both clubs unveiled a sought-after manager in the summer. Both clubs have the resources to support their new boss. Both clubs started the season like runaway trains and yet both clubs currently find themselves modestly placed, a little underwhelmed at what they’ve achieved.
Without considerable improvement, the two campaigns are looking distinctly “transitional” at present. But were our expectations for both clubs a little too high?
Of the two managers, Man City’s Pep Guardiola has been forced to work under the most intense scrutiny. No manager has arrived in England with more fanfare; he wasn’t just expected to win titles, he was expected to do so in a style so intricate that it would cause headaches up and down the country.
And for a short time, that seemed to be the case. From the opening day of the season, City won 10 consecutive games in all competitions. And then, in the Champions League, Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic decided to push up and put on pressure as Guardiola’s men freestyled in the middle of the pitch. The result was a 3-3 draw for Celtic and, for the rest of the Premier League, a lesson: City won only one of their next five league games.
Guardiola has admitted to “getting things wrong,” particularly in the way he has flitted unsuccessfully between one defensive system and another. But he has also learned from his errors; since their humiliating 4-2 defeat against Leicester in December, it’s been a back four all the way and City have duly won four of their past five league games.
For Everton’s Ronald Koeman, meanwhile, the highs and lows have been more intense. Nobody expected a 13-point haul from the first five league games, just as nobody expected them to win only four of their next 17 fixtures in all competitions and crash out of both domestic cups at the first hurdle.
For Koeman, his experience so far must have felt like driving a surprisingly cheap sports car off the forecourt, doing 100 mph down the motorway with the wind in his hair and then, as green smoke belched out of the exhaust, being hit with the realization as to why the car was so cheap.
The Dutchman hasn’t taken recent developments well at all. After Everton’s FA Cup defeat at home to Leicester last weekend, he was merciless in his criticism of his team and hinted at problems behind the scenes with head of recruitment Steve Walsh. Everton, in every department, just aren’t good enough.
Years ago, before interest in the Premier League had stretched much further than its own territory, it was generally accepted that new managers required a transitional season. In fact, there were those who believed that three seasons were required before a manager could call a team his own. Time was needed to assess existing players, to locate ideal replacements and, then, to bring them all together.
This, as the brief and painful experience of Bob Bradley proved, is no longer the case. Relegation is no longer the kind of hiccup that a club like Manchester United could endure without feeling the need to sack the manager. Times have well and truly changed.
When United went down in 1974, they kept faith in Tommy Docherty and were rewarded with an instant return to the top flight, followed by a third-place finish in their first season back. By contrast, David Moyes was removed in 2014 when it was confirmed that United would finish outside the top four.
Transitional seasons are easier to justify in summer rather than in winter when reality sinks in. It’s one thing to say that City finishing fourth or Everton finishing ninth in the first season under their new managers would be fine if you consider the long term. It’s another to keep saying it when you’ve lost half a dozen games before the Christmas decorations go up.
Few football fans still consider patience to be a virtue. Moreover, it’s even harder to take a broader, philosophical view of life when Antonio Conte, newly in charge at Chelsea, clicks his fingers, shifts to a back three and goes on a record-equalling run of consecutive victories. That sort of thing makes everyone look bad.
But for all the hype, Guardiola inherited a squad that simply wasn’t good enough to consistently rival the best clubs in Europe. Cup runs were possible, as Manuel Pellegrini demonstrated by reaching a Champions League semifinal last season, but sustained excellence was unlikely with an ageing, unbalanced squad that featured, in Vincent Kompany, an injury-prone defensive leader and an absence of the dynamic, versatile, complete full-backs that Guardiola has been used to in the past.
They are good professionals and solid squad players, but it’s slightly alarming that City have enjoyed nearly a decade of infinite money and yet they still rely on Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy on the defensive flanks.
Rebuilding is not all that occupies Guardiola’s time. He is trying to revolutionise the way City play, slowly inculcating the squad with better habits and more intelligent movement. That doesn’t happen instantly after one preseason; it takes many months before players adapt, if they are even capable of adapting.
There’s also the fact that Guardiola is in his first season in England and is dealing with an unfamiliar environment. He steadfastly refuses to entertain the premise that the Premier League is more competitive from top to bottom than any other league he has experienced, but he certainly seemed taken aback to find the likes of Burnley holding their own against his players through the rather more prosaic methods of getting stuck in and winning second balls.
Koeman knows well that there are no “procession” games in the Premier League and proved himself tactically adept in his two years with Southampton. But all the other aforementioned problems apply, enhanced by increasing frustration in the stands after the false dawn of Roberto Martinez and the knowledge that, for the first time in decades, Everton have money to spend.
And so both men find themselves here; one team desperate for a win to stay in touch with the league leaders, the other desperate for a win to stay at the top of an already distant chasing pack. And yet with all the work ahead of them, you wonder if it might be worth reducing the pressure by saying that this season is all about rebuilding.
We’ve already seen the back three come back into vogue. Perhaps now it’s time that the transitional season enjoyed a renaissance.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.