Everton might employ England's best young spine.
Minus their search for a permanent goalkeeper once Tim Howard returns to America, the Toffees boast Romelu Lukaku, 22, in attack; Ross Barkley, 22, in midfield; and John Stones, 21, in defence.
Still evolving as footballers, going through ups and downs, the burgeoning trio should be foundational for a trophy-winning Premier League side. Everton have money to spend—especially after billionaire businessman Farhad Moshir bought a 49.9 percent stake in the club, via the Guardian's Andy Hunter—and possess decent standing in English football, but they are struggling to create an environment for trophies.
In many ways, Goodison Park has become a launching pad. A club where good, not great, footballers continue their careers and where promising young talents are given opportunities to develop. Often compared with Tottenham Hotspur in recent years, Spurs have reached UEFA Champions League (and possibly title-winning) levels this year, while Everton languish.
Disappointing seasons from Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United left gaps in the Premier League's presumed hierarchy this season. Tottenham, Leicester City and West Ham United have walked through the doors provided, but Merseyside's blue half are 11th in the table, standing atop the bottom half.
Given the world-class potential their three young stars hold, the upcoming summer transfer window seems a massive moment in Everton's future.
Leaving for Manchester United after the 2012/13 season, David Moyes had posted seven consecutive years in the top eight. Once the Scottish manager left, Roberto Martinez came in and immediately improved upon what had been established during Moyes' dozen-year reign. A 72-point, fifth-place finish in 2013/14, plus the emergence of Stones, Barkley and Lukaku, were Martinez's building blocks.
Some might argue the Spaniard has been living off that performance, and the potential of his young stars, ever since.
Given the Europa League to contend with—and spending £28 million capturing Chelsea's Belgian centre-forward—no improvement happened last year. Performing 25 points worse last season, Martinez was in the proverbial hot seat heading into 2015/16, and he has underperformed again.
The majority of the Everton dressing room lost faith in Martinez some time ago and it is showing.— Matt Law (@Matt_Law_DT) April 20, 2016
Forty-one points from 34 fixtures, without the excuse of European fixtures, is damning.
Moreover, Lukaku has become one of the Premier League's best centre-forwards, only rivaled by Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero and Jamie Vardy. Barkley has added more goals to his game; scoring nine in his first two seasons of consistent first-team football, the 22-year-old has scored 12 goals this season.
The biggest question mark is Stones. Chelsea were chasing the England international the whole of 2015's summer transfer window, to the point where the 21-year-old handed in a transfer request. His form vanished as quickly as Everton denied him.
It seems Stones is pressing too much, trying to prove himself all over again, leading to mistakes. Last summer, Chelsea were willing to spend upwards of £40 million on the defender, but Everton rejected the offer—even issuing football's equivalent of a cease and desist letter. Neither of the three parties involved have excelled since their transfer negotiations went awry.
Now that another season has essentially passed, and Everton look nowhere near where they should, the question becomes: "Can the Toffees hold on to their young talent?" Better yet: "Should the Toffees' young talent want to stay?"
Those answers lie somewhere in Martinez's managerial tenure.
Is Goodison Park's dressing room in need of another voice? Maybe. Could another manager get the best from this group of players? Sure. Would changing managers to keep Lukaku, Barkley and Stones be worth upsetting the proverbial applecart? Undoubtedly.
If Everton wish to take the next step, they must retain their young players, but doing that with Martinez is looking more unlikely by every passing week.
Should the young trio leave Stanley Park? That is dependent on how much their current employers are willing to push. Moyes lasted 12 years, and Martinez can talk a great game, so it's possible he goes nowhere if the Toffees' FA Cup journey ends with silverware. Furthermore, the club has proved their players' wishes are irrelevant when under contract.
That combination could mean they don't have much choice, but if Everton are not ready to challenge for the top four—at worst the top six—then Lukaku, Barkley and Stones should be looking for the first three tickets out of town.