If there was an overriding gripe about Everton as they lurched their way through a run of two wins in 12 games towards the end of last year, culminating in the dismal derby defeat just before Christmas, it was that they were almost completely devoid of flair at times.
It was galling to watch how a collection of players, the bulk of whom had on occasion passed their fans to distraction under Roberto Martinez, could barely string two passes together and it was a predictable indication of the way results went under Ronald Koeman's stewardship until late December.
Since then, of course, results have picked up impressively — the Blues are unbeaten in the Premier League since Sadio Mané plundered that sickening stoppage-time winner at Goodison Park on 19th December, with the meek cup defeat to Leicester the one aberration in a nine-match sequence stretching back to Boxing Day.
The highlights in the interim have, of course, been some mostly brilliant home displays against Southampton, Manchester City and Bournemouth where Evertonians have revelled in the attacking talent of a side growing in confidence. Bolstered by the emergence of Tom Davies, the arrival of Ademola Lookman and Morgan Schneiderlin, with the ever-improving form of Joel Robles in goal, Everton have looked more like the top-six contenders most believed they would be before the season started.
Romelu Lukaku has thrived in those home games where Koeman's men seem to adopt a swagger that hints at what might lie ahead as he continues to build and mould his team and there have been suggestions as well that the likes of Kevin Mirallas could be settling back down after an extended spell of under-achievement.
If that strength and confidence at home has been encouraging, it hasn't translated to the Blues' away performances, even if they are unbeaten on the road since that awful display at Watford, having won two of their last five. Successive away draws at Stoke and Middlesbrough in matches that you feel they could have won with a bit more drive and guile feel like huge opportunities missed — even the victory at Crystal Palace came courtesy of a late Seamus Coleman goal in a match that could easily have ended goalless as well — and they are displays that underscore why Everton are unlikely to close the gap on the top six unless one of the sides above them truly melts down. Hello, Arsenal?
It speaks to the need for the players to try and capture that attitude they have been exhibiting at home and release it when playing away from Goodison Park because there was a hesitancy and a lack of imagination in their play at bet365 Stadium and The Riverside when faced with two stubborn and entrenched defences.
On the positive side, Koeman's side dominated and dictated both games but, deprived of the space they have enjoyed recently at Goodison, they lapsed back into a frustrating tendency to knock the ball long, often aimlessly, from the back with few of the attempted passes giving Lukaku a hope of reaching them.
Despite having a left back who has led the Premier League in chances created from his position, Everton under Koeman have overwhelmingly favoured attacking down the right flank. Not since Steven Pienaar's involvement in the side diminished, has Leighton Baines had a partner with whom to link up but the same argument could be made for Seamus Coleman, although the Irishman's superior ability to take a man on and get crosses in from the byline has probably influenced the manager's thinking in that regard.
That limiting reliance on trying to move the ball down the right is least effective with the four-man defence that Koeman deployed at Stoke (in the second half) and Middlesbrough. Ironically, seemingly by design, the ball kept being fed to Ashley Williams, a player for whom, by his own admission, the term “ball-playing centre-back” was not made. His distribution leaves a lot to be desired at the best of times which is why it was perplexing to see the two centre-halves regularly split towards the fullback positions in both games and to see the ball continually worked to the right side of defence.
With Coleman marked by the touchline and the nearest midfielders corralled into the centre by the close attentions of their markers, it would then either go back to Robles — at 50%, his passing/distribution accuracy against Boro was the lowest in the team — or Williams would send an angled ball forward that invariably ended in possession being lost.
The heatmaps from Everton's last four away games illustrate the team's bias towards attacking down the right as well as how, bizarrely, in the Stoke and Boro games the ball was consistently fed to Ashley Williams, arguably the least proficient passer in the team
Everton weren't entirely devoid of good football — in patches, they played some decent stuff in all three of the games at Palace, Stoke and Boro and could have easily won either of the latter two games — but the overall feeling was a team still struggling to find its attacking rhythm which was at odds with some of the irresistible stuff they have been producing at home.
Conditions in the latter two matches certainly played their part — both stadiums were cold and either windy or rain-swept — as did the disadvantage of being away from home but it's that lingering lack of consistent craft, creativity and a link between Lukaku and the midfield in the final third that remains a key aspect of the team that Koeman and Steve Walsh will hopefully look to address in the summer.
There is still plenty to build on in the interim, however. In Davies, the team now has a player capable of playing box-to-box, both in terms of stamina and versatility even if the opposition's setup, Boro in particular, closed off many of his forward avenues. Given more freedom, he can provide that vital link between midfield and attack while also offering the forward drive that prevents the Blues dropping off too much as they are prone to do when Gareth Barry is in the side.
In Schneiderlin, Koeman has acquired a midfield figurehead with experience and vision, with the ability to keep the ball moving. He, too, offers versatility, able to drop between the two centre-halves in a four-man back line while also providing attacking support as he did in the Bournemouth match. Like Davies, he wasn't able to influence the match at The Riverside in the way that could have turned the game Everton's way but the signs are that he has been an astute signing.
Then there are the more dynamic, less predictable elements of Ross Barkley (poor against Stoke but influential, almost decisively so, at Boro) and Lookman, two players who could eventually help even out that bias towards the right flank as the latter gains more experience. The 19-year-old has shown glimpses of brilliance and a valuable eye for goal that hint at a dual role as a foil for Lukaku and a link-man for Baines to start getting forward more in the way that he used to during his partnership with Pienaar.
Next weekend's home game against a porous Sunderland could be the stage on which Koeman's charges can flex their attacking muscles but it's the trip to White Hart Lane to face title-chasing Tottenham that will be the real test of how much Everton have improved in recent weeks.
If they are to sneak into the top six, it's games against those teams that will make the difference. Pick up an unexpected win or two at the likes of Spurs, Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool and combine that with a home win over Chelsea and the prospect of European football returning to Goodison Park next season becomes that bit more attainable.
It's going to require the Blues looking the part a bit more than they have away from Goodison recently, however — a touch more puffing out of the chest, the self-belief that swept them to that handsome win over Man City last month and the kind of “joined-up” passing football that has been more evident at home in recent weeks. The talent is there based on recent showings but the imagination and reliable creativity hasn't always been. Plenty still to work on as the Koeman evolution continues.
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