There's been a lot of change at Everton over the past six months but there remains a simmering frustration with the team's lack of consistency and ability to grind out results.
Last Saturday's 1-1 draw with Swansea City was viewed beforehand as an opportunity for the players to offer an emphatic response to their 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Chelsea earlier in the month. Instead, they spent almost all of the second half chasing the game and barely mustered a clear-cut opening until Seamus Coleman took matters into his own hands by looping an equalising header into the top corner in the 89th minute.
Everton have undoubtedly improved from the porous and increasingly fragile outfit they had become in the early part of this year — they are fitter, stronger and undoubtedly more resilient defensively — and addressing that was clearly Ronald Koeman's first order of business this season.
Having accomplished that and made an unexpectedly strong start to the campaign, however, the Dutchman's honeymoon came to a swift end in September, starting with the League Cup defeat to Norwich City which sparked an eight-match sequence in which the Blues have won just once.
They managed to grab a creditable draw at Manchester City thanks to a moment of magic from Romelu Lukaku and they were very unfortunate to lose at Burnley but it's been an otherwise uninspiring couple of months for Evertonians who have witnessed just six home Premier League wins in all of 2016 so far, one fewer than in 2015. No wonder then that the atmosphere — or the distinct lack thereof, particularly early in matches — inside the Grand Old Lady has become a topic of concern lately; the frustration and lack of enthusiasm is understandable.
So, too, is the yearning among many fans for the arrival of the next transfer window but, with eight games still to go before the first of any new signings is likely to arrive, it's incumbent upon Koeman to dig deep and find a way of re-energising, motivating and reorganising what he already has at his disposal. Despite evidence to the contrary in recent weeks, there's plenty of talent in his ranks but it may need a fresh approach and the odd fresh face from below to tide things over until fresh faces can be introduced.
First and foremost, the manager has to find a way to harness the goalscoring ability of a player he openly admits is on the best strikers in Europe at the moment. Romelu Lukaku's all-around ability may still be a little rough around the edges but he remains a world-beater on his day who has consistently proved in an Everton jersey that he can score plenty of goals… with the right service.
It's mystifying then that supporters are still muttering after matches in terms of the Belgian being isolated and relied upon as a ball-holding, lone striker when it's been clear for years that that isn't his best game. Roberto Martinez discovered fairly early last season that, depending on the opposition, one of the best ways to bring the best out of Lukaku was to pair him with a second striker who could open up the space and channels for him.
Ultimately Arouna Koné's inability to act as that consistent foil came down to his own fitness and levels of ability but the Catalan either wasn't able or didn't try to address the situation last January by bringing in a better player. Koeman, for his part, has tried a revolving deployment of two supporting attackers in forward areas with Lukaku but it hasn't delivered consistent results either.
Part of that is due to the inconsistencies of the personnel involved — Yannick Bolasie, Gerard Deulofeu, Kevin Mirallas and Aaron Lennon have all been tried in various combinations but only the Congolese international, as maddening as he can be, has really contributed enough — but a large part of it is down to the fact that the formation isn't supporting Lukaku on a reliable basis.
Against Swansea in a match in which the Blues had 63% possession and dominated the second half, Lukaku exchanged just three passes with Lennon, six with Barkley and nine with Bolasie. Mirallas was on the field for 22 minutes and didn't link up with his compatriot once. He had just two chances in 90 minutes, one of which was of his own making.
Furthermore, in another persisting issue from the previous regime, Everton generally don't get enough players into the box when they're attacking, a symptom, perhaps, of the reliance on two holding midfielders when, particularly at home against weaker teams, there's an argument for moving one of them further forward or dropping Ross Barkley back into a deeper-lying role. Pushing desperately for an equaliser with 88 minutes on the clock and the captain having been withdrawn to make way for another forward, there were just four blue shirts in the area against Swansea when Coleman went up for his all-important header.
If Koeman's preference for Bolasie plus one other, with the former as a nominal second striker or not, is supposed to function like a 4-3-3, it doesn't seem to do so on a consistent basis — at least not to the extent that there is seamless interchange between Lukaku and his supporting cast. And that could be down to one more problem nagging at the brains of Blues fans: Everton aren't actually playing much coherent football at the moment, at least to the extent that the Goodison faithful expects.
Koeman's side appears to have been built on pace and power, with finesse largely taking a back seat to the expectation that sheer pressure and forward momentum will generate sufficient goalscoring opportunities. It's a theory that was entirely debunked by the galling lack of chances against Swansea and it's come to the point now where the manager needs to try something wholly different to see if it yields different results.
Trying a genuine 4-4-2 formation would be a start. Granted, until new director of football Steve Wash is able to bolster the forward line Koeman's options in this regard will be limited, but having that option via a more reliable goalscoring outlet than Bolasie should give Everton more flexibility than the repetitive and predictable reliance on Lukaku as a lone striker. Neither Enner Valencia nor Koné are the answer long term but trying either one for a time during games in the coming weeks might give an indication as to whether it's a system that has merits.
In need of a “water-carrier”
Of equal — if not greater — priority should be acquiring a genuinely skillful and creative attacking midfield presence in the Christian Eriksen or Gylfi Sigurdsson mould but, again, that can only be achieved when the window is open and the right targets are available. In the interim, the focus should be on establishing some sort of passing rhythm and pattern to Everton's play.
Gone are the intricate triangles and off-the-ball movement that characterise many of the top sides' ability to move the ball from box to box, replaced by the necessarily more direct and haphazard approach we have witnessed in recent week — one where the ball stops with the centre halves as they search for a forward-looking out-ball that doesn't involve flighting diagonal balls up the pitch.
For now, the onus will fall on Gareth Barry and Idrissa Gueye to be the link men in the middle but the one player who has looked the part in his fleeting appearances so far has been Tom Davies. There was a strong argument for his inclusion last weekend but, whether it was due to his heavy commitments with England Under-19s over the last international break — the fact that he played for the Under-23s against Manchester City last Saturday would suggest otherwise — or Koeman's hesitance to blood him at this point, he was overlooked in favour of the returning James McCarthy.
Many felt that, combined with McCarthy's lacklustre form in recent months (he was disappointing again at the weekend, albeit on the back of a couple of layoffs from injury), Davies's confident and positive cameo at Stamford Bridge earlier this month warranted his inclusion against Swansea. The fact that much of Everton's passing patterns against the Welsh side bypassed the Irishman — with Barry suspended, Bolasie was the key outlet in that game — would seem to support the idea that Koeman missed a trick by not giving the youngster a chance but the manager is clearly biding his time with Davies.
“It's always difficult for young players but they need to know that we really believe in them,” Koeman said after the midfielder's appearance as a substitute against Chelsea in which his forward drive produced the corner from which Everton had their only effort on goal in the entire match. “Obviously you need to be a little bit patient but after they have made their debut – they know the level they need to be at, to compete against clubs like Chelsea.
“It was a very good experience and it will help him to improve and become a better player.”
Koeman appears at the moment to be stubbornly putting his faith in the more senior players when plenty of supporters feel Davies is ready now and, the longer results continue to disappoint, the stronger the case for change will be. Clearly, the team's reliance on Barry, who, despite being 35, remains the glue that holds the midfield together, but the need to groom his successor will grow more acute as this season wears on.
The likes of Kieran Dowell, Liam Walsh and Dominic Calvert-Lewin might justifiably be regarded as too raw or light-weight to make the step up just yet in other areas of the field but Davies has shown in every appearance so far that he is more than capable of stepping in and holding his own. (After all, this is a kid who has been training regularly with Everton's first team and who was invited to do the same with the senior England side at St George's Park earlier this year.)
Again, some are viewing the upcoming transfer windows as a panacea and they may well prove to be if Walsh and Koeman can draft in some transformative additions to the side. The more immediate changes must come from within the current personnel, however, and that will likely require all the coaching acumen of the manager and his coaching staff.
As Leicester proved last season — and continue to do so with their Champions League exploits — psychology, confidence and a winning attitude can offset for a multitude of apparent deficiencies but it has to be paired with the right system and approach.
A relatively comfortable first quarter of the season should have been the period in which Koeman worked out the kinks in the squad he inherited and integrated his new signings, ready for this upcoming period when the fixture calendar becomes much more challenging. As it is, he and his team will go into the gruelling winter months still searching for some key answers; time will tell if he has what it takes to find them in what will be more difficult circumstances.
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