By Matt Jones
So low, so soon. How on earth did we get here?
A summer of simmering positivity gave way to one of frustration and concern among the Everton fanbase, with Ronald Koeman’s wishes not granted in the transfer market. No left-sided defender, no pace and no target man.
And perhaps it was naive to expect a restructured squad to click into gear immediately with Europa League progression and an unforgiving fixture list to negotiate. But when there’s a dearth of determination in the Toffees’ play, angst will naturally build in expectant supporters.
Matches against Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Atalanta and Manchester United have been a grind and for a football club seeking to make progressive strides, opportunities to make statements against the best have slipped by. But after the latter of that quintet, it feels like a line needs to be drawn. A new phase of the campaign dawns on Wednesday.
So, what next?
Everton stand on the cusp of four consecutive home matches stretched over three competitions; Sunderland in the League Cup, Bournemouth and Burnley in the Premier League, and sandwiched between those two a Europa League encounter against Apollon Limassol. Four games in 12 days.
They’re not easy fixtures. For a team that’s conceded 12 and scored none in their last four outings, the cliched “no games are easy” rings true. But they’re big opportunities nonetheless.
For Koeman it’s a chance to peel back the curtain on the plan he hopefully has for this term, one that feels as though it’s been embargoed until the meeting with the Black Cats.
The Dutchman is a reactive coach against superior sides. Throughout his Everton tenure he has made sweeping changes to the XI when taking on elite outfits—think back to the juvenile team fielded in the Merseyside derby and the quintet of central midfielders who played against Spurs in games last season, as well as the scattergun approach to selection we’ve seen in 2017-18.
For a set of lads who are most likely only on small-talking terms with a lot of their team-mates, that rotation has not been ideal this term and no doubt a contributing factor to the moribund displays.
These four games are a chance to take a step forward in terms of harnessing that familiarity.
Four games in 12 days. 360 minutes for Everton’s players to build after a rebuild. To conjure an affinity with each other up against football teams they are better than.
Yes, the nature of modern-day football and the sheer number of players in the Everton squad mean some rotation will occur. But nothing like the seismic moves we’ve seen so far in an attempt to nullify the main strengths of class sides.
It’s unlikely Koeman will have a spell of matches like this again this season to refine. Four games in 12 days with no travelling, no international break puncturing the schedule and against four sides that’ll adopt similar tactics. Tactics most teams facing the Toffees will adopt—sit, contain, scrap and spring.
The manager must settle on a blueprint he feels is best for these types of matches this season and stick with it through this stint.
If the preferred system is going to include a three-man defence, now’s the time to use it. If there’s a midfield combination that will suit the side in these kinds of contests, play it. If there’s one forward or two preferred to lead the line until January, let them get acquainted with one another.
Play seven, eight or nine lads who are going to be in the XI for the bulk of Everton’s matches in all four of these fixtures. Give them a platform and time to kindle some cohesion. Because with plenty of the Premier League’s top sides out of mind for a while yet, the Toffees’ plan shouldn’t deviate too much in the weeks to come.
That continuity can be a catalyst for Koeman’s team. Even if the Sunderland game is a struggle and supporters remain antsy, persistence and conviction with his preferred methods are key, as is a level of trust in the players who the club worked hard to bring in this summer.
Because if Everton chop, change and flounder over these 12 days, where do they go? The match with Burnley is followed by a two-week international break. When the players return, in terms of footballing familiarity, there’s every chance they’d have another blank canvas to work on ahead of an away trip to Brighton.
Four games in 12 days. Four chances for Koeman’s version of Everton to begin to take shape in earnest.
Opportunities of a different kind have already slipped by for this squad. Let’s not waste these four.