Everton's haphazard transfers hurt prospects of revival under Unsworth
Everton travel to Lyon on Thursday in search of an improbable escape route as Europa League aspirations teeter on the brink of an abrupt and rather embarrassing end. A European journey that has been something of a disaster sees Everton bottom of their group and possessing more UEFA disciplinary charges (two) than Europa League points (one) thus far.
The worst start by any English team in this competition means three points are imperative to maintain any faint hope of this European campaign extending beyond December. Lose in France and Atalanta need only a point against Apollon Limassol to eliminate the Toffees with two group games still to play.
Caretaker manager David Unsworth has to lift a squad in desperate need of a positive result. Sunday's 2-0 defeat at Leicester was a 13th successive Premier League away game without a win. Everton have won none of their last seven games in all competitions and lost all of the last four.
The difficulty for Unsworth is that confidence has taken such a battering that Everton appear to be running out of alternative systems and personnel able to deliver that much-needed victory and potential turning point. The next three points seem just as likely to arrive by fluke as by design.
Unsworth does at least have options to change things up in midfield, but such luxury hardly exists in defence and the same players attracting criticism against Leicester are likely to form the majority of the backline on Thursday. Everton have too many players at the beginning and end of their careers, and most of those approaching the final stretch reside in defence. This ageing unit has shipped 20 league goals in 10 games. Only bottom of the table Crystal Palace have conceded more goals this season (21).
Unsworth attracted some criticism for tactics that left the defence exposed against Leicester at the weekend as the home side exploited gung-ho tactics and a lack of pace in the defensive third. Yet this mismatch between the two teams was such that you suspect Leicester might have had similar success even if Everton had been more compact as a team.
It is as though the defence has gradually been left to rot away over time. In the recent transfer window and those gone before, defensive additions seemed neglected at the expense of supposed creative reinforcements.
Right-back Seamus Coleman suffered a horrific leg break in March, but Everton have been without reliable cover in his position for the past few years anyway. Cuco Martina arrived on a free but his performances have mostly shown why former club Southampton released him. Those unconvincing displays mean Unsworth is effectively choosing between a 21-year-old centre-back Mason Holgate and 20-year-old Jonjoe Kenny to fill the right-back slot. Both are promising but Kenny especially has faced a tough baptism and had to learn on the job against experienced and quality opponents.
On the opposite flank, the left-back position has reached a rather ridiculous situation in which 32-year-old Leighton Baines has been an almost ever-present as there is not one other recognised left-back registered to either the Premier League or Europa League squads. Baines has been without cover since Bryan Oviedo moved to Sunderland in January.
The same lack of depth haunts the centre-back position. While the arrival of Michael Keane was most welcome, it was clearly not enough. Despite a combined age of 68, teammates Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams are being relied on too much with few realistic alternatives.
Based on injuries alone, it was apparent this squad needed extra personnel in defence in the summer. Along with Coleman's long-term injury, centre-back Ramiro Funes Mori had knee surgery in preseason, effectively ending his campaign, but that was around six weeks before the transfer window closed. Failure to add players in either the centre-back or left-back positions has placed huge pressure on ageing players in those roles, while the right-back position has numbers but lacks experience or quality.
The result is an undermanned defensive unit that is drowning under the extra workload as the rest of the team misfires around them. Looking every one of their combined 100 years against Leicester, Baines, Jagielka and Williams have each played three matches in the past seven days; Williams has played four matches in 10 days. And an injury to Keane increases the chances of both Williams and Jagielka starting again on Thursday. Baines or another defender out of position are the only options at left-back.
Three months into the season and this defensive trio of Baines, Williams and Jagielka, the first two especially, have played far more football than they should have. Everton are already 19 games into their season in all competitions -- Thursday is the 20th -- and Baines and Williams have started all bar two of those matches. Jagielka has started over half of them.
Whatever the reasoning, the manner in which the Everton defence has fallen into such a state of disrepair is every bit as bad as the failure to replace Romelu Lukaku and the decision to overload the midfield with similar players. An area that was once the undoubted strength of this team presently seems a liability, and long-term neglect and another haphazard summer transfer window are at the centre of the issue.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.