Season starts now for Everton after chastening run of defeats
Even Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho, never one to shy away from needling the opposition, has offered his views on how high Everton should aim after their summer spending spree. Debate on this topic could run and run, but if there is uncertainty as to the aims for this campaign, there are no such doubts regarding the need for a rapid uplift in results and performances.
Setting expectations and targets at this stage feels futile. At its most basic level, the only immediate concern should be finding a way to win football matches. Four successive defeats with 12 goals conceded and none scored has taken a chainsaw to preseason optimism. Irrespective of any extenuating factors and the strength of the opposition, nothing about the opening weeks of this season has been good enough.
Defeat on Sunday saw United score four goals on a day when they themselves disappointed. An assist and goal against his former club underlined the Romelu Lukaku-shaped hole left in the Everton attack in his absence. Failure to replace their top scorer overshadowed all other business in the summer transfer window.
Yet this void in the final third remains no justification for the passive approach witnessed this season. Hoping to replace Lukaku's goals by adding defensive players to the starting XI is as misguided as it sounds. This ultra-defensive mindset has arguably caused more concern than the actual results. While defeats to the top teams are nothing new, especially away from home, the complete lack of courage or conviction shown by manager Ronald Koeman has been startling.
Despite obvious defensive improvements since Koeman took charge, recent matches aside, this team remains better on the front foot. Better pressing of the opposition eased the pressure and workload on a defence asked to do too much under former manager Roberto Martinez. Current displays, unfortunately, resemble those days as attacking deficiencies and problems in possession leave the defence working overtime. Everton are shipping goals because the ball keeps coming back at them and a shortage of options forces unnecessary risks in possession in their own half.
Everton are developing an unwanted trend for conceding goals in bunches. While their own lack of goal threat means one goal is presently enough to inflict defeat, teams are scoring in bursts and leaving no chance of recovery. After conceding two in 13 minutes to Chelsea, three subsequent matches have seen opponents score three in quick succession. Tottenham scored three in 16 minutes either side of half time. In the Europa League defeat in Italy, Atalanta wrapped up their three-goal win in 17 first half minutes, while the loss at Old Trafford saw three conceded in a nine-minute spell at the end of the match. One goal goes in and the wheels tend to fall off.
Koeman must ease the pressure on his defence and force opponents backwards, instead of inviting pressure on a backline that has seen its confidence eroded in a matter of weeks. For a team that has now gone over 400 minutes since their last goal in all competitions, the use of five defenders and two defensive midfielders is excessive. Tactics left Tom Davies, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wayne Rooney as the only attacking outlets in the last match. Both Davies and Sigurdsson also had to contend with playing out of position.
Regardless of where people expect Everton to be when the curtain falls on this season in May, it is reasonable to expect a team spending in the region of £140 million to display some form of ambition in every match they enter -- summer outlay aside, supporters already expect that as standard. No player touching the ball in the opposing half of the pitch in the opening 10 minutes against United smacked of damage limitation. This negative approach was undone after just four minutes.
Such caution cannot exist moving forward. With no points and no goals in the past four matches, this upcoming run of games before the next international break is a chance to repair this disappointing start. A Carabao Cup tie on Wednesday against Sunderland sparks a run of four home games in 12 days across three competitions. Saturday brings a league game against Bournemouth, one of only two teams below Everton in the table, while Apollon Limassol follow in the Europa League before Burnley visit in the league at the start of next month.
There may be a case for this string of defeatist performances owing to the quality of the opposition, but there is no such mitigation for these four upcoming home matches. Koeman has to loosen the shackles and get his team producing the kind of attacking football their supporters can get behind. This season has to start now.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.