Saturday's draw with Manchester United — the fourth 1-1 draw at Goodison Park in just seven Premier League games — may have extended Everton's disappointing run with just a single victory to nine matches but the performance that earned it, as toothless as it largely was, at least provided some crumbs of optimism.
Wholly absent in too many of their recent displays, the Blues finally showed some of the fight and spirit that is a bare minimum requirement for any player that pulls on the Royal Blue Jersey in the second half. It was rewarded with a late equaliser but it couldn't mask the glaring deficiencies from which Ronald Koeman's side still suffer going forward.
Just seven goals from their last seven league fixtures paints the picture fairly succinctly of a team struggling with offensive production and it's a problem rooted in a number of factors which can't be overcome with sheer effort alone. Neither a counter-attacking outfit, a passing side nor an effectively direct one, Everton's is a team without any discernible identity under Koeman's stewardship. It is led by a player who has again this week been talking up his lofty ambitions but who, as Sky Sports's Matt Cheetham persuasively argues, isn't prepared to put in the requisite mileage to engage in the pressing from the front demanded by his manager or provide the movement up front to create space for his supporting players to work in.
The Belgian has at least weighed in seven of the Blues' 17 league goals this season, proof that even if he is mostly static, he will score goals if you put them at his feet or head where it counts. Damningly, just four goals have come from the other attacking players in the side and just two from Koeman's revolving cast of wingers. Ross Barkley's struggles for form have been well-documented and could fill a separate article on their own — suffice to say that, with two Premier League goals and one assist thus far and having been dropped back to the bench again last weekend, it looks increasingly unlikely that he can fulfil the creative No.10 role that Everton so badly need.
Tellingly, though, like Seamus Coleman and even Gareth Barry, the 23-year-old has scored as many goals all four of the wide players combined and it's there where one of Everton's biggest shortcomings lie, particularly now that Yannick Bolasie is surely out for the remainder of the season.
The Congolese's acquisition over the summer was greeted with a mixed reaction from Evertonians who baulked at the £25m paid for a player renowned for his inconsistency. Having assessed the squad he inherited from Roberto Martinez, however, Koeman clearly saw the need to add some pace and power to his flanks, something that Bolasie has certainly provided and they are attributes that will be sorely missed in the coming months.
He has, almost inevitably, been criticised for his lack of end product but he has unquestionably been the Blues' most effective wide player so far. By his very nature, he can be frustrating to watch for long periods but can be relied upon to deliver a handful of telling moments in a match. He has created four goals for Lukaku, scored one himself, set up a number of other chances that were squandered, and generally provided an unpredictable outlet for balls out from the back. With no one else like him in the squad, the manager will surely have to return to the transfer market in January if he wants to replace him.
In the meanwhile, Koeman's search for a successful formation or formula will continue. While Bolasie has been ever-present since he arrived from Crystal Palace, the manager has been rotating Kevin Mirallas, Gerard Deulofeu and Aaron Lennon from week to week, no doubt hoping that one of them can find some form over the course of a game let alone successive weeks. None of them have, making Bolasie his most productive attacking midfielder.
Pilloried by supporters this season — with good reason until Saturday, it has to be said — against Manchester United Kevin Mirallas finally put in a 90-minute shift that suggests he could be an answer if the rest of the team can start producing at the same time. The Belgian international harried and pressed from the front and at least looked hungry to make something happen in attack and he might have grabbed an equaliser earlier than Leighton Baines's 89th-minute penalty had David de Gea not diverted his half-volley over the bar.
Mirallas has otherwise been poor in what is a very important season for him. Neither a reliable second striker nor out-and-out winger, he has to show that he can be a creative spark playing off and behind Lukaku and Bolasie's injury suggests he could get the chance, at least for the next month. More committed displays like Saturday's can only help but he has a lot to do to convince his manager and the fans that he can shed his “consistently inconsistent” image.
Deulofeu, the Spanish “magician” whom Evertonians regarded as an almost unthinkable coup, first when Martinez was able to attract him to Goodison on loan in 2013 and then last year when he was signed for just £4.2m, has disappeared as a threat almost completely this year. For a brief few weeks last season, starting with that brilliant cameo at West Bromwich Albion, Blues fans thought Everton had found the reliable provider of Lukaku's goals but he has lost his way alarmingly since.
Scoring goals for fun for his country at U21 level, Deulofeu goes to pieces in the box in an Everton shirt and both ability to beat a man and his delivery from the flanks have deserted him. Again, with no other reliable option, Koeman has regularly turned to him to see if he can reignite his spark but, thus far at least, his best days seem a long way off.
It's a shame because his attitude appears to be spot on and he has, by his own admission, been putting the work in at Finch Farm. The hope is, of course, that the groundwork eventually pays off for him on the pitch where it counts.
“In my daily work I am much more professional,” he recently told Goal.com. “I'm more mature. I have changed the way I play at Everton. It shows in every training session, and even if you do not play, you are happy because you know that there is no doubt of your training and your sacrifice.”
Then there's Lennon, another winger who enjoyed a brief purple patch last season when he took the chance afforded him to play in the FA Cup by turning in a man-of-the-match performance at Carlisle, the start of a seven-game sequence in all competitions where he scored four times. After the 2-0 win over Chelsea in the cup quarter-final, however, Everton would win just one of their next 10 games and Lennon, a starter in almost all of them, came to be seen as part of a failed team under Martinez's failed tenure.
He hasn't been alone this season, of course, but Lennon, despite his industry and willingness to track back, has done almost nothing to convince Koeman that he is any kind of answer on the right wing. Unless something significant changes in the pattern of his career dating back to his Tottenham days, it's hard to see him being a regular feature of the Dutchman's starting XI.
Few Blues will be holding their breath but the combination of Bolasie's KO and the impact the change to a two-striker formation had on Everton's attack against United will hopefully have convinced Koeman that he needs to move away from this dogged reliance on the 4-2-3-1 system that he has thus far, with a couple of exceptions, rigidly adhered to. Even he hasn't been much of a goalscorer, Bolasie's versatility has allowed the Dutchman to keep banging away with the same setup for weeks but, depending on the faith he has in the three remaining wingers, he must surely start dabbling with other options in the coming weeks.
Everything from pushing Coleman and Baines forward into wide midfield roles to blooding a player like Kieran Dowell has been mooted by fans but the scope of any experimenting by Koeman is likely to be narrow. In the short term, that might mean giving Enner Valencia a run in a 4-4-2 alongside Lukaku and affording Mirallas and one other one more run of games to impress.
Longer term, he and Steve Walsh will almost certainly be looking for reinforcements in the January transfer window, with Memphis Depay an obvious target. (It's a pity that Everton weren't able to swoop for Ivan Perisic in the final days of Frank de Boer's reign at Inter Milan at a time when the Croatian was said to be unhappy.)
Whether the Dutch forward proves to be a solution remains to be seen; if nothing else, he'll add to Koeman's revolving door of inconsistent wide players and restore his fourth option in Bolasie's absence. If he can be joined by a genuinely creative attacking midfield addition to the centre of the park, another striker and fresher legs acquired to ease the burden on Gareth Barry then things might really start looking up. Otherwise, the pace of Koeman's Goodison rebuilding job will remain achingly slow.
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