Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Tom Davies show way forward for Everton
Manager Ronald Koeman saw his much-changed Everton side advance into the Carabao Cup fourth round with relative ease against obliging Sunderland on Wednesday.
The first Dominic Calvert-Lewin's two goals on the night marked the first by any Everton player in almost seven and a half hours of football. The three-goal victory secured a first win in seven matches and ended a four-game losing streak.
There was a lack of cohesion in the early stages after eight changes from the 4-0 defeat at Manchester United, though a surge in confidence and encouraging second half reflected well on a young side. This midweek win felt, hopefully, like the first steps of recovery after a trying start.
The significance of those steps will become clearer after the visit of Bournemouth to Goodison Park on Saturday, as league form remains the yardstick for Koeman and his players. With a home match against Burnley and a trip to newly promoted Brighton to follow, three wins has to be the target from these fixtures before the international break interrupts the campaign once again.
In attempting to acquire those nine points, tactics and personnel are the vital formula, a formula that has misfired in recent league games. Jordan Pickford, Leighton Baines and Idrissa Gueye are sure to return to the starting XI after the League Cup reshuffle, yet other positions in the team should be up for grabs on recent evidence.
Moreover, it is some of the younger members of the squad pushing hardest for increased involvement. There is an honourable mention for midfielder Nikola Vlasic, who added attacking threat and pace to the right flank on Wednesday night, but the strongest candidates are academy graduate Tom Davies and Calvert-Lewin, a £1.5 million signing from Sheffield United on transfer deadline day in August 2016.
Calvert-Lewin was denied a perfect hat trick after a diving header rebounded off the post, while Tom Davies assisted Oumar Niasse to cap a good night for strikers looking to send a message to Koeman.
A deft finish was reward for the commendable attitude Niasse has offered in the face of being frozen out and demoted to the under-23 team last season before being loaned to Hull City. Niasse has just kept his head down, worked hard and gone about proving a point. A well-taken first goal for the club signalled a moral victory for the striker in that regard.
As a result, Koeman confirmed in his news conference that Niasse is in his thinking for a place in the matchday squad on Saturday, though it remains Calvert-Lewin and Davies presenting the most compelling arguments for selection.
Davies established himself last season and has been unfortunate to see game time limited due to the number of new signings, but the midfielder built on his performance at Manchester United with another composed display on Wednesday, only this time from his preferred central midfield role. Davies showed the quickness of foot and speed of thought lacking in Muhamed Besic alongside him.
Notwithstanding the fact Everton were facing accommodating opponents from the Championship, the admirable manner in which Davies controlled the Sunderland game underlines his quality and temperament. Displaying a trait not always found in more esteemed and experienced teammates, the young midfielder has a willingness to seek possession that has been absent of late.
And matching Davies all the way is Calvert-Lewin, who once more enhanced his credentials for the lone striker position mainly rotated between Rooney and Sandro Ramirez. Since delivering easily the best performance by an Everton forward this season in the 1-1 draw at Manchester City in August, Calvert-Lewin has started none of the three subsequent league matches. Everton have not scored a goal in that time.
Koeman has often stated Calvert-Lewin's versatility and ability to play out wide, but it is clear this is a waste of his burgeoning potential. Two midweek goals fired another reminder to his manager that the central striking role is his best position. Calvert-Lewin has been directly involved in four of Everton's five goals in the Premier League and League Cup this term, scoring two and assisting two. Add in a key goal in the Europa League and his statistics this season show three goals and two assists in just 591 minutes of football.
With several new signings still to settle, especially those tasked with creativity and goal scoring, a 19-year old midfielder and 20-year-old striker that were already at the club are demonstrating that big-money arrivals may not always be the answer when trying to improve a team.
As Koeman struggles to accommodate all his new signings after summer spending headlined by the return of Wayne Rooney and addition of record signing Gylfi Sigurdsson, it is a rather compelling and refreshing paradox that two young players costing a combined £1.5 million are the ones adding excitement and attacking purpose in recent matches. Both Davies and Calvert-Lewin merit a sustained run in the team.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.