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Creaking defence damns Everton

Everton
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Wayne Rooney's place one of many dilemmas for Everton boss Unsworth

The two most recent occupants of the Premier League managerial merry-go-round face each other on Sunday as Everton travel to the King Power Stadium to face Leicester.

While Leicester quickly settled on former Southampton manager Claude Puel to take them forward, Everton are taking a more considered approach. Interim boss David Unsworth has some time to drag the Toffees out of the relegation zone and up the league table while simultaneously hoping to convince the club to extend his tenure beyond a handful of matches.

A significant boost to those long-term job prospects would be a swift end to form showing 12 away league games without a win and only one away win in 2017. These struggles on the road leave Unsworth needing to oversee a notable sea change in how Everton operate away from Goodison Park, especially as the trip to Leicester is the second of three successive away games before a home game against Watford next month.

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Unsworth has to rebuild confidence and change the mindset of his players as the fear usually reserved for the top teams has crept into all games lately. To that point, the 2-1 Carabao Cup loss to Chelsea on Wednesday marked a promising beginning, result aside. There were plenty of positives as a much changed and youthful Everton took the game to their hosts. None of the five midfielders started the 5-2 defeat to Arsenal four days earlier, one of those brought in was 19-year-old debutant Beni Baningime, and the subsequent fanfare around his first match highlighted both his promise and how little comfort there has been to cling to in recent Everton games.

With results against Chelsea under former manager Ronald Koeman painting a grim picture of inferiority and passiveness, it was refreshing to see Unsworth employ a more proactive outlook in the League Cup tie. Abandoning the three-man defence that saw Everton lose 5-0 and 2-0 and fail to register a single shot on target in two visits to Stamford Bridge under Koeman, Unsworth opted for a simplistic but effective and well-balanced 4-3-3. The late consolation from Dominic Calvert-Lewin marked the first goal from any Everton player against Chelsea since March 2016.

Tellingly, there was no place for a No. 10 in the starting XI in midweek as Unsworth opted for three central midfielders with Aaron Lennon and Kevin Mirallas providing width on the flanks. The absence of a No. 10 and the fact only Jordan Pickford and Wayne Rooney started points toward an issue that has largely gone unnoticed: Everton generally look a better team without many of their new signings on the pitch.

Wayne Rooney leads Everton in scoring, but his place in the team is far from secure.

Unsworth must tackle that conundrum moving forward as the Chelsea display, particularly the second half, carried the pressing, tempo and width lacking in previous matches. Pickford is a shoo-in and quickly becoming the standout player this term, while the costly errors hampering Ashley Williams should see Michael Keane brought back into the side, but the fate of others appears less certain.

One prominent issue for Unsworth is the answer to the Rooney question, as despite being the top scorer thus far with four league goals, his best position remains unclear and the lone striker role is blatantly not a good fit. Rooney no longer carries the physical attributes needed to play up front on his own and tends to drop too deep and leave Everton without a focal point in the final third. If Unsworth continues with a 4-3-3 setup that uses two wingers, no No. 10 and only one forward, there seems no obvious place for the 32-year-old.

Several other new signings would also appear ill equipped for that system and Unsworth cannot fall into the Koeman trap and force players into team irrespective of suitability. The same fearlessness apparent when promoting youngsters to the first team must also be apparent if more experienced players potentially need taking out of the team. Price tags and reputations are irrelevant at this stage as all that matters is how players fit with the pressing and high-tempo style Unsworth seems to be demanding.

Unsworth is likely to face some difficult decisions regarding personnel but cannot be afraid to make them. The short-term task is simply constructing a balanced team capable of winning matches. For all the admirable qualities and individual positives evident on Wednesday, Everton still lost for the eighth time in the past 12 matches and have won just two of the past 14 games in all competitions.

Therefore, if the path to a winning formula means some so-called star names warm the bench or fail to make the squad for a period then that is a necessary concession as Unsworth and Everton strive to kick-start this season.

Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.

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