Everton continue search for a reliable lineup amid grueling schedule
On from the close of the transfer window and end of the first international break, manager Ronald Koeman now knows the squad tasked with carrying Everton through to January and the next opportunity to strengthen.
The first test for this finalised squad is the visit of Tottenham to Goodison Park on Saturday. The Toffees are attempting to end a run of nine matches without a win against Spurs in all competitions.
This is the latest challenge amid an unrelenting fixture list also offering up Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United in the first five matches. Europa League and League Cup involvement ensures this demanding schedule continues through the next few months.
Yet despite the volume of games and beginning the season in July for the first time in their history, Everton are still striving for a reliable formation and the correct personnel to fill it. A chaotic August saw a preseason friendly and six competitive matches in just over three weeks and the constant rotation of players and formations said as much about the number of games as the ongoing search for a reliable lineup.
This quest for consistency explained a transfer window that saw a mountain of activity but still fell short in key positions. Much rests on how well Koeman turns this squad into a team. Failure to add any left-sided defenders puts pressure on a thin and ageing part of the squad. Koeman is a Leighton Baines injury away from a potential crisis at left-back. As the only viable option in his position at this stage, a dip in form is almost inevitable if the soon-to-be 33-year-old remains an ever-present.
Similar pressure falls on 35-year-old Phil Jagielka and 33-year-old Ashley Williams in central defence. Though Michael Keane has quickly established himself as first choice in a matter of weeks, which should ease the burden on his older teammates, the lack of additional cover and occasional use of three centre-backs asks a lot from two players nearing the end of their careers.
Nevertheless, any disappointment at the defensive situation pales in comparison to the failure to acquire a player able to lead the attack, a target around which the numerous midfield options can influence matches.
Koeman must fashion a productive attacking platform from the players at his disposal, and it has been quite a week for those aiming to impress. While Wayne Rooney made headlines for all the wrong reasons and Dominic Calvert-Lewin further enhanced his claims with a goal for the England Under-21 team, Oumar Niasse completed a Lazarus-esque rebirth by returning to the first-team squad.
Koeman seemingly needed only 45 minutes of a preseason friendly in his first season to deem Niasse not good enough. There was no place at an evolving Everton for this £13.5 million forward, the final Roberto Martinez signing. "If he likes to play football then he needs to leave Everton," said Koeman on the player.
A little more than a year on from those damning words, Niasse has returned to the first-team setup. But this dramatic U-turn says more about the failure to replace Romelu Lukaku than the value of Niasse. He has shown a great attitude throughout, responding to demotion to the Under-23 side with a handful of goals, but the idea that a player so ruthlessly written off 12 months ago could now be the answer in attack has more than a hint of desperation about it.
There may be no harm in handing Niasse an opportunity in the League Cup, for example, but the realistic answers to the striking conundrum facing Koeman should come from the other options available to him.
While Sandro Ramirez continues to settle in and return to full fitness after injury, and with the lone striking role asking too much of Rooney, Calvert-Lewin has shown the most promise in the opening weeks of the season.
As Everton toiled in possession against both City and Chelsea because of the restrictive wing-back system, Calvert-Lewin made a difference in both matches, belying his age and relative lack of experience.
Against City, the young striker was a willing runner, chasing a succession of lost causes while using his work rate and hold-up play to help Everton push up the pitch. This ability to retain possession long enough for teammates to join in support created the opening goal for Rooney on the night.
Dropped to the bench against Chelsea in the last match, his absence left Everton without an obvious focal point in attack. With only the diminutive Sandro to aim at, the ball kept coming back at the away defence. Gradual improvement arrived with the belated introduction of Calvert-Lewin and subsequent switch to a four-man defence.
Koeman knows his team must improve considerably on the lifeless display offered at Stamford Bridge. Everton touched the ball only seven times in the Chelsea penalty area and failed to register a single shot on target.
Even accounting for the contrast between excellent home form and lacklustre away displays, there was a distinct lack of ambition in the two league games preceding the international break. A braver approach is required moving forward and Calvert-Lewin deserves a chance to spearhead it.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.