Everton future looks bright if they can resolve Romelu Lukaku issue
There are still two and a half months before the end of the current transfer window, but Everton have wasted no time laying out their plans for the new season.
This week, the Blues announced the signings of Sunderland goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and Ajax midfielder Davy Klaassen for fees that could eventually rise to £56 million for the pair. With more spending planned, a host of young starlets pushing for first-team football and a new stadium in the pipeline, are things finally looking up for the blue half of Merseyside?
It's just over 30 years since Everton last won the title and, until last year's takeover by businessman Farhad Moshiri, it seemed as though it would be at least 30 more before they won it again. That's not the case now. Moshiri has dramatically changed the mood, investing heavily in the club and setting up a sensible structure that gives Everton every chance of progression.
The training facilities, upgraded under the guidance of David Moyes in the happier days of his career, are excellent. There is a culture of youth development, started by Moyes and embraced by successor Roberto Martinez, that will continue to benefit the club for many years.
Ronald Koeman had an encouraging, if disjointed, first season in charge, and head of recruitment Steve Walsh has lived up to his reputation, with the £7m signing of Idrissa Gueye proving a particularly shrewd move.
The reaction to Everton's spending this week, however, has been mixed. While Klaassen, who scored freely last season and starred in Ajax's Europa League run, has generally been deemed a solid purchase, Pickford's signing has raised eyebrows. Is it right to spend £30m on a young goalkeeper with just one full(ish) season behind him? No, of course it isn't. But there's very little that's right about today's transfer market. You either accept the realities of life at the top end of the richest league in the world, or you try to cut corners. Everton no longer wish to cut corners.
Pickford is a highly promising young goalkeeper with excellent distribution and a good attitude. He will not be surprised by the speed and physicality of the Premier League because after a year behind the Sunderland defence, it's likely that nothing will ever surprise him again. He hasn't been bought for one season, he's been bought for 10 seasons. And if you're going to try to lock down one of the most important positions on the pitch for a decade, you're going to have to take a gamble and spend some money.
And Pickford may not be the only young player looking to dominate the next decade at the club. England's Under-20 World Cup win this summer was built on the back of their Everton contingent. Kieran Dowell had moments in the midfield that suggested he could have a bright career ahead of him. Jonjoe Kenny was outstanding at right-back and, with Seamus Coleman expected to be out for some time yet, he may challenge Mason Holgate for a first-team place come August. Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored the winning goal in the final and might yet be given a chance to impress in his natural position of centre-forward, rather than on the flanks as he has done so far. In this quest, he'll be joined by Ademola Lookman, one of the brightest of the U20 team. Lookman played out on the left in South Korea but has the pace and ability to play anywhere across the front line.
It's also worth remembering that Everton spent £30m on Yannick Bolasie last summer and barely got to use him because of injury. His presence will make a huge difference to this team. Defensive midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin will be settled in, with a full preseason behind him. This is a powerful, talented squad.
The only serious issue is Romelu Lukaku, scorer of 87 goals in four seasons with Everton. He seems certain to leave Goodison Park this summer, with a return Chelsea looking the most likely destination. He is likely to fetch over £50m, vindication for Martinez who was mocked by many for spending £28m on the Belgium striker in 2014. That money will have to be reinvested in a high-quality replacement, which will be easier said than done.
For most of last season's run-in, Everton were in a mini-league of one, cemented into seventh place. They finished 15 points above Southampton in eighth, but eight adrift of Manchester United in sixth. Their failure to win any of their late-season games against Tottenham (lost 2-3) Liverpool (lost 1-3), Manchester United (drew 1-1), Chelsea (lost 0-3) or Arsenal (lost 1-3) prevented them from breaking into the Champions League place.
But if they can resolve the issue up front, if they continue to strengthen in other departments, if their youngsters continue to develop, there's every chance that they could improve again this year. Everton, under smart, resourceful and well-backed management, are a very different proposition now.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.