Everton interim manager David Unsworth faces daunting start
There was a surprising but rather welcome ruthlessness attached to the termination of Ronald Koeman's contract on Monday, as the Everton hierarchy moved decisively to begin repairing this damaging start.
The next Everton chapter starts now, and the man tasked with steadying the ship, at least in the immediate future, is former player and current Under-23 manager David Unsworth. Unsworth has been here before, stepping in for the sacked Roberto Martinez to guide Everton to a 3-0 win against Norwich on the final day in 2015-16.
The expectation at this stage is that Unsworth will remain in charge at least until the international break next month, meaning a tough run of games. Everton face a trio of away fixtures against Chelsea, Leicester and Lyon before a home game against in-form Watford.
First up is a trip to Stamford Bridge and a Carabao Cup tie against a Chelsea team that bested Koeman's Everton with ease in their last three league meetings. Chelsea emerged from those matches with a 10-0 aggregate score. Nonetheless, despite overly defensive tactics contributing to those poor results, the Chelsea problem is one that predates Koeman. Unsworth played centre-back the last time Everton won at Stamford Bridge in the league. Everton have won just one their last 27 trips to the Bridge in all competitions since Paul Rideout scored the only goal in a 1-0 league win in Nov. 1994.
To attempt to overcome this daunting obstacle and lift Everton in the weeks ahead, Unsworth must tackle a lack of confidence and fix problems at both ends of the pitch. A significant test is generating an audible tune from what is currently a dysfunctional orchestra of players.
An obvious starting point is finding a system that brings the best out of the players and features individuals in their preferred positions. Unsworth has to fashion a style of play that all concerned can embrace. Fans want to see a brand of football that gets them off their seats, while players operating with a smile on their face is every bit as important. Most of the football evident to this point has been more likely to put supporters to sleep.
Everton have been too easy to play against, especially away from home, where Koeman won just four of his 23 league games on the road. Unsworth opens up with three successive away games and the stand-in manager needs to make this team harder to beat after a run of seven defeats in the last 11 games in all competitions. Unsworth has to bolster a defence that has gone six successive games without a clean sheet and not kept out Premier League opposition since the opening day. Only Stoke (20) and Crystal Palace (19) have conceded more in the league this season.
Some form of identity is vital, particularly without the ball. Koeman promised high tempo and pressing, but there was little evidence of those traits this season. Pressing has been occasional at best and half-hearted in its execution. Expect Unsworth to make Everton more aggressive without the ball.
The continued lack of width and pace throughout the team are two other aspects to tackle. Unsworth and his newly assembled coaching team require tactics and a formation capable of scoring the goals necessary for this process. This need to create more chances for the strikers is something Unsworth has already acknowledged. Seven goals in nine leagues games, with only Wayne Rooney (four) and Oumar Niasse (three) finding the back of the net, epitomises the final third problems evident this season.
Nine half-time substitutions in 17 matches underlined the constant chopping and changing, as Koeman seemed unaware of his best starting XI or formation. Koeman spent in the region of £140 million in the summer but seemed unable to find a solution for fitting those players into the same team in an effective manner.
Unsworth may lack the top-flight experience of his predecessor and others linked with the job, but there is one aspect that supporters need not worry about. A pertinent criticism of Koeman was that he never embraced the club or its history in a manner applicable to many former managers and players. Unsworth, on the other hand, formed part of the last Everton team to win a trophy and made 350 appearances across two spells with the club as a player.
This history perhaps accounted for an impressive news conference in which the caretaker boss said all the right things. Unsworth knows what fans want to hear, but also remains acutely aware of the fact that results, not words, will pass judgement on his tenure.
The task is simple in theory: Unsworth has to get Everton winning football matches. Having made no secret of his ambition to secure the job on a long-term basis, this is great but challenging opportunity to stake his claim.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.