“Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.” When it comes to Marco Silva and the Premier League it is tempting to wonder which part of Joseph Heller’s dictum is most applicable. The third part? All of them? None?
There was something haunting about the sight of Silva on the Anfield touchline as Liverpool scored four goals in the first half on Wednesday evening. Usually managers in this position – forced to stand in the light as a game, a season, a version of their own future slips away – have a set of mannerisms to sustain them.
Even in victory Silva has a certain gloom about him, the air of a man who has just been informed his goldfish has died, albeit laced with a furtive kind energy. At Anfield he just looked lost, a manager reaching the end of something.
In many ways the time it took the Everton board to agree on a date for Silva’s sacking is entirely apt, a strand of the same muddled planning that brought the two together in the first place. Not to mention a reflection of the confused tides of opportunity and ambition that have sustained Silva’s rise to this point.
Take a step back and it has already been a deeply strange managerial career. Silva has been in English football for nearly three years. Currently all three clubs he has managed have either been relegated, or are in the relegation zone. Silva has built no notable teams, created no period of sustained success and won only 32 league games. And yet he has accumulated £15m in salary and payoffs from this three-year Premier League association, and been aggressively recruited by all three of his employers.
It is a pop-up football career, built in its early stages on pure aspirational hunger. Silva’s break came at Estoril, where he retired as a player, became director of football and then within three months had replaced the veteran first-team manager. Slick moves, and the start of a career trajectory marked by sudden resignations, immediate rehires and the eye-catching (at the time) victory for his Olympiakos team against Arsène Wenger’s mighty Arsenal at fortress Emirates in 2015.
Silva showed a love of fine detail and flashes of brilliance in his mid-game shifts and tweaks. Beyond that there were the familiar tropes: a way of standing, of wearing an excellent coat, of talking in that comfortingly generic managerial Euro-speak about fighting for the team and being in a good moment. It was enough to take him through Hull City and Watford, a £4m payoff, a great deal of rancor, and into a three-year contract at Everton.
At the end of which nobody can really say with any real certainty what kind of manager Silva is, or what he was supposed to have become. What are his main attributes, his chief tactical methods beyond a high press staffed by players who don’t seem to have the heart to put it into practice?
It is all too easy to see Silva as a villain in this, the snake oil salesman who played at 11 different clubs then just kept on going, testing out how far a sharp brain and a disposable set of loyalties could take him. But he is also something of a victim too. How good a manager is Marco Silva? Nobody will ever really know, least of all Silva himself, whose career has become a story of hot-housed ambition, a talent processed through the machine, vices and weaknesses pandered to, in the way of so many talented young players on the pitch.
Aged 42 Silva is pretty much done in England, destined for China or Qatar, a one-man mystery story for future football historians. He does, though, still have a very good coat.
None of which will be any compensation to Everton fans, for whom thoughts have already turned, in a typically gig economy kind of way, to Silva’s successor, or even the successor to his successor. The team he leaves behind is a strange-looking thing, and for reasons that go beyond the latest manager.
Look up rather than down and Everton are two wins off eighth place, with a squad of high-class players. But this is also an oddly brittle group, able to play with real drive against Leicester City last weekend, then come out with the same high-line three-man defense against Liverpool, all the better to be torn apart by opponents who love nothing more than haring off into those spaces. Four of Liverpool’s goals involved simply running straight through Everton’s midfield and defense and putting the ball in the net, meeting on the way no resistance, no sense of coherent planning.
Silva will bear responsibility for this. But who bears responsibility for Silva, or indeed for the sense of wider drift? Everton have spent around £450m on players under their current structure and recouped half as much, an incoherent splurge that has brought them to a place where there is widespread surprise that a team containing Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi should seem so decoratively fragile.
There is talk of a boardroom split on what kind of manager Everton should be seeking, what kind of style they should expect, a fissure that runs through the everyday component parts. As it stands they have a squad where most of the players were signed before the appointment of the director of football, Marcel Brands, whose appointment predated the lining up of Silva.
Little wonder there is a confusion of methods here. Brands’ most notable piece of recruitment is Moise Kean, a client of his friend Mino Raiola, who is still to score for the club and whom Silva seems to regard with a sense of mild bemusement.
Ambition, flux, a congealment into energetic mediocrity: this has been the story of so many clubs at this level. The real game-changer here would have been to keep Silva, to make him settle and work with the players, to stay a while and grow roots for the first time in his elite career. The easier way was to sack him. Either way, a more profound change than simply the man with the coat and the face is required.