Romelu Lukaku reunion tough for Everton as Koeman's men limp on
Alongside the many issues hampering Everton after five matches without a win, addressing results away from home remains a priority amid a worrying slump that has quickly wiped out preseason optimism.
A trip to Old Trafford sees the Toffees on the brink of some unwanted history, having won just one away match in 2017. Anything less than three points on Sunday and Everton will be winless in 11 league games on the road for the first time in 13 years.
Combine that with three successive defeats, eight goals conceded and none scored, and a match against Manchester United and reunion with former striker Romelu Lukaku is the probably the last thing Everton need. Lukaku has scored more goals and had more shots on target than all of his former teammates combined in the first four league games.
In defeats to Chelsea, Tottenham and Atalanta, manager Ronald Koeman has seen his team face 21 shots on target while returning a paltry four attempts on goal in return. Each damning statistic emphasises the importance of putting words into action, as there has been a lot said by Koeman and his players since the Chelsea loss but precious little response in matches.
Koeman accepted the blame for the Atalanta debacle, but raising his head above the parapet counts for nothing if this responsibility does not translate to the pitch, because at present, there is disconnect between what Koeman says and how he sets his team up. Talk of attacking football and dictating matches is at odds with the stifled and one-paced formations used so far. The wing-back system favoured against the top teams often features seven defensive-minded players (goalkeeper not included).
Similar problems afflict the narrow 4-2-3-1 setup witnessed in most other matches, with the overuse of similar players in midfield making possession football impossible. The continued insistence on shoehorning central players into wide roles has seen both Tottenham and Atalanta gleefully expose the lack of pace and width on the flanks while overworked full-backs crumble under the workload.
Alongside defensive troubles, there is no creativity. No Premier League team has recorded fewer dribbles or shots on target thus far. In each of the four league games, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford or a central defender has attempted the most passes. No team plays a higher percentage of their football in their own half than Everton (33 percent), while only three teams play less football in the opposing final third (25 percent). What little passing there is takes place in all the wrongs areas.
After the so-called reaction against Atalanta failed to materialise, Koeman has rightly called on his team to show some aggression against United, but it is difficult to see how this can come to fruition due to the chronic lack of pace among his preferred group of players. If the press is beaten high up the pitch, Everton lack the recovery pace to reorganise and risk leaving their already creaking defence further exposed. It leaves Everton sitting back and allowing opponents to control the play.
This speed shortage showed up on an attempted counterattack on Thursday. The move resembled an army of slugs advancing across a back garden. So much time spent defending due to a failure to retain possession leaves a slow midfield unable to cover the extra distance required to support their isolated lone striker.
Too many players struggle to get up and down the pitch. Watching Wayne Rooney toil out wide and spend long periods of a match almost as a second full-back benefits nobody. Meanwhile, energetic and expressive players such as Tom Davies and Ademola Lookman remain on the periphery.
Plan A and B are being exhausted to the nth degree despite neither the narrow 4-2-3-1 or wing-back system nor the personnel within them offering a viable solution. If the definition of insanity is attempting the same things and expecting different results, the phrase was tailor-made for Koeman at present. A summer of heavy but lopsided spending seems to have fostered a stubbornness to persist with new signings, even if their presence does not fit the chosen formation.
They say football is a simple sport that gets overly complicated. Rather than forcing individuals into ill-fitting systems that do not work, the system should exist around the players. Play players in their proper positions and go from there, instead of shuffling the same square pegs into slightly different round holes.
Everton have no identity, no obvious style of play. Recent matches show a collection of individuals aimlessly going through the motions. There is a glaring need for some new ideas and an injection of pace and energy into the team.
There has to be a plan beyond throwing new signings onto the pitch and hoping something clicks. Buying a player should not provide a free pass to the starting XI. New players need time to gel, but a team still requires a basic setup that suits its players and a style of play offering attacking threat. Koeman has to find both.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.