For the second successive summer, a Champions League-winning manager’s first signing for Everton was one of his former players.
The similarities probably end there. Allan represented a statement of intent for Carlo Ancelotti, a £20 million ($27.3m) Brazilian from Napoli who addressed a position of weakness, in defensive midfield, and immediately appeared an enviable upgrade. Allan was proof of Ancelotti’s pulling power.
Fast forward 10 months and Rafa Benitez’s first recruit was a free transfer from Crystal Palace. Andros Townsend may prove an astute acquisition: he excelled under the Spaniard in their doomed attempt to rescue Newcastle’s 2015-16 season and, after four years under Roy Hodgson, has shown he can ally his flair with tactical discipline.
A free transfer seems set to offer Everton far more value for money than many a buy in the Farhad Moshiri era of extravagant outlay. A free Townsend promises far more than a £35m Alex Iwobi ever did. When Palace bought Townsend, he was a £13m player and he is still only 30. He spoke eloquently about the move. “A no-brainer,” he said. “Rafa is a great man, a great man-manager.”
But it was notable Townsend also described Everton as “very ambitious, a club trying to get back where it belongs in Europe and beyond”. Ambition has been expensive. It could be counterproductive. Benitez made several references at his introductory press conference to “financial restrictions”.
Moshiri has not run out of money, but Everton lack wriggle room. Past overspending – and Everton announced losses of £139m for 2019-20 and £111m in 2018-19 – mean that passing Financial Fair Play poses problems. Regulations were eased but Everton’s past outlay is such that they still need to box clever.
Benitez, who has long had wranglings with power brokers about transfers, has begun by fishing around in the bargain bucket. Townsend was followed later on Tuesday by Asmir Begovic as a free-transfer back-up to Jordan Pickford. Neither is exactly a statement signing.
But Townsend offers a hint of Benitez’s gameplan. He drilled Newcastle expertly with a back three but the addition of a specialist winger suggests he sees Everton with a back four; it is easy to envisage Townsend and another potential signing, Demarai Gray, on the flanks in a counter-attacking 4-4-1-1, the formation the Spaniard’s Liverpool often used.
Ancelotti delivered a vote of no confidence in some of his midfielders by playing the full-back Seamus Coleman on the right wing at the end of last season. Bernard, a big earner with a small impact, was one of those benched. He could leave as Everton look for a cut-price overhaul. A striker could be required; a right-back will be.
And yet the biggest issue may concern Everton’s most glamorous free transfer and another huge earner. Billboards in Times Square in New York advertised James Rodriguez’s arrival. The Colombian brought class and creativity. He had a starring role in their autumnal surge to the top of the table and the long-awaited first win at Anfield of the 21st century.
But his season ended with even his long-term ally Ancelotti unsympathetically citing Rodriguez’s supposed “tiredness” for his absence. He flew back to Colombia before Everton’s final game only to fail to make their Copa America squad.
Now he has a manager who was not his long-time champion: Benitez was under pressure to pick Rodriguez for Real Madrid when he wanted to incorporate the defensive midfielder Casemiro instead. Benitez said last week it would not be “fair” to discuss individuals which, when asked about Rodriguez, was scarcely a resounding endorsement. His departure would come as no shock and would free up funds.
A summer when Townsend came in and Rodriguez left would have a pragmatic, prudent feel but it might sum up Everton’s new reality.