Everton have missed a few tricks in the opening weeks of Marco Silva’a first campaign in charge but time is needed for important players to become available and for things to gel as a whole
Like most Blues, I suspect, I came off the back of the Huddersfield game feeling pretty deflated and the international break has done little to dispel the nagging feeling that Everton have missed a few tricks in the opening weeks of Marco Silva'a first campaign in charge.
The Wolves result was palatable given the circumstances of Phil Jagielka's red card but the surrender of a 2-0 lead at Bournemouth and the failure to pick up another three points at home against the Terriers were just frustrating, particularly given the manner of the goals we conceded.
Regardless of the absent personnel the Saturday before last, Everton, at home, should have beaten Huddersfield and the fact that the team registered just one shot on target all afternoon doesn't even offer up the potentially mitigating argument that we battered them and the ball just wouldn't go in.
All-in-all, despite the attacking improvements in Everton's game that are demonstrable steps forward from Ronald Koeman's reign and that forgettable Sam Allardyce interlude, it was pretty uninspiring stuff, evocative of the frustrations from last season under the afore-mentioned managers.
With that foreboding sense that, in a macro sense, time is against Everton when it comes to cracking the ever-strengthening top six and establishing a foothold among that group, it's natural to feel a little antsy that Manchester United's unpredictable form under the mercurial Jose Mourinho and Unai Emery's uncertain start at Arsenal could be providing a big opportunity that the Blues might not exploit given the points already dropped this season.
As the old cliché goes, though, Rome wasn't built in a day and while there is very much a “results now” attitude prevalent in the modern age, it is still very early days in the Silva era. In the few months since Allardyce was turfed out, expectations of what the club can achieve this season have changed markedly since the doldrums of last term but they still need to be held in check by certain realities.
The first of which is simply a question of time. Silva may have come on board in May but he didn't get to start working with the squad until pre-season began in early July and even then there was the staggered return of various team members from the World Cup. Much of his focus was on building fitness and assessing what he had inherited with a view to reducing a bloated squad.
Roberto Martinez lauded his players for the speed with which they absorbed his methods early in his reign in 2013 and, that impotent attacking display against Huddersfield notwithstanding, there are signs that Silva's chosen way of playing has already rubbed off this season. Certainly Everton have made a better start than those worrying pre-season performances suggested they might.
When it comes to specific and significant changes, however — prime example: zonal marking — it's probably going to involve months and, perhaps, the further integration of certain individual players like Yerry Mina before the manager is happy that a chosen tactic has been fully taken on board. The interim period looks likely to test the patience, though, as opposition teams will, predictably, target that obvious Achilles heel.
Another reality is that Silva is essentially working with the same team as the one that finished last season, albeit with the additional challenges of unexpected suspensions and a slew of injuries to key players.
Richarlison is the only summer acquisition to have played more than one full game so far and his absence from the Huddersfield draw was keenly felt. As a creative and unpredictable outlet capable of chipping in with goals, he was an immediate upgrade to a team that struggled on those counts last season and there's a strong case for arguing that he alone could have made the difference against the Terriers.
Idrissa Gueye, meanwhile, has been struggling with a knee complaint, Theo Walcott was forced off last time out with a rib injury, Seamus Coleman sustained a stress fracture and Dominic Calvert-Lewin also picked up a knock on international duty this week, and all three of Mina, Bernard and Andre Gomes have been denied a debut, full or otherwise, to this point by injury. That hasn't allowed for much continuity in terms of team selection, an important ingredient when it comes to trying to build some momentum from week to week.
Then there's the fact that despite arguably accomplishing more than many were hoping over the summer in terms of squad pruning and recruitment, the lack of a reliable incoming striker has emerged as a concern and, perhaps, a priority for January.
Cenk Tosun has been conspicuous by his incredible work-rate so far but you find yourself wondering if a more rounded attacker capable of either creating something out of nothing, providing genuine pace in the central role, or simply being more clinical could compensate for a shortage of invention at times. Certainly, Oumar Niasse has been found wanting on his outings thus far and, given his tender age and particular skill-set, Calvert-Lewin was not going to be that kind of player for this season.
Perhaps Silva was banking on Richarlison to play that role as an auxiliary forward coming off the flanks and leveraging Tosun's industry, as was the case in the first couple of games, and he has been forced to punt while the Brazilian serves his current three-match ban.
Finally, though, there remain some question marks over the system at Everton and the personnel within the midfield particularly that, in concert with that defensive fragility, perhaps underpin what has been a solid start under Silva — the Portuguese is unbeaten so far, after all — but one which has left most Evertonians ruing the fact that the Blues didn't take a 100% record into the first international interruption to the campaign.
Favouring, as first Martinez and then Koeman and Allardyce did, a formation dependent on twin holding midfielders, Silva has effectively deploys four defensively-minded players down the middle (Gueye, Morgan Schneiderlin and the two centre-halves) with the fullbacks given license to go forward when Everton have the ball. Ordinarily, you would assume that the manager would prefer one of those two midfielders to operate in more of a box-to-box capacity but, unlike Gareth Barry for instance, neither Gueye nor Schneiderlin are all that effective in the final third. Tom Davies is more in that mold but he, too, continues to struggle to find any consistency in his game.
That can be offset to a degree if the fullbacks are genuinely producing as attacking outlets but Coleman has been mystifyingly off-form thus far and Leighton Baines hasn't been a consistent outlet. Pleasingly, Lucas Digne has slotted in nicely at left back and looks to be in the process of levering Baines out of the first-choice left back role but it was noticeable how infrequently either fullback got behind Huddersfield's defence to the byline in the last match.
Then there's the well-worn issue of the “number 10” role, nominally occupied by Gylfi Sigurdsson at the moment but with mixed results. In Richarlison's absence especially, the onus for producing something unexpected, for creating chances and generally being the heartbeat of the team has fallen on the Icelander's shoulders but while he seemed to respond against Southampton, he was found wanting against Huddersfield. At the heart of the issue is the fact that, lacking genuine ability to consistently take a man on, spray the ball around or dictate the tempo of a match, he is not a typical playmaker, although he has shown flashes that he could be.
Given his price tag, the pressure to utilise him as a focal point of the side and for Sigurdsson himself to deliver is high but in his year or so at Goodison Park, the conundrum of how to get a player who was as much a Talismanic driving force behind Swansea City as he is for his country to reproduce that role at Everton remains unsolved. And the longer that continues, the greater the need to find a different solution to the Blues's periodic shortages of creativity.
The answers could eventually come from Messers Bernard and Gomes in combination with Richarlison when all are fit and available. Though the former Brazilian operated mainly as a left winger at Shakhtar Donetsk, he has the technical ability and vision to operate across the forward line. That makes him versatile enough to play wide on the left and allow Richarlison to move into a more central role, deputise for Walcott on the right or, if he proves capable of adapting to the Premier League, assume responsibilities in the No 10 position, possibly at Sigurdsson's expense.
Gomes, meanwhile, opens the door for a new approach in midfield whereby one of the defensive midfielders is dispensed with, particularly at home, and he becomes the playmaker in the middle sitting behind the forward line. Much like Mikel Arteta when he arrived from Real Sociedad 13 years ago, the Portuguese midfielder has enormous potential and a loan switch to Goodison Park could be just the catalyst he needs to relaunch his career.
Blues fans are having to wait patiently to see both in action but the possibilities exist when both Gomes and Bernard are on the field are genuinely exciting. Obviously, however, they just have to get and stay fit! If and when they do, only then can we really feel as though we have moved on from the team that bumbled its way through last season to one more suited to Silva and Marcel Brands' vision.
In the interim, as frustrating as it is, that old chestnut of patience will remain the watchword. Time is needed for Silva to further impress on the team his preferred way of playing; for the injured players to return; and for this Everton side as a whole to gel into something altogether more effective in all departments.