Default choice David Unsworth must move quickly to drag Everton from trouble
Everton ending the international break without a permanent successor to Ronald Koeman merely paints a more daunting picture for any prospective new manager, should the club hierarchy continue their search and appoint one in the near future.
Echoing the challenge already facing caretaker manager David Unsworth, upcoming fixture congestion means there is a need for results and tangible improvement in several areas but little time to implement progress or ideas outside of the actual matches. Everton close out this month with four games in 12 days. Eight matches in 29 days is the schedule for an absurdly packed December.
By default, Unsworth finds himself with more time and takes Everton to Crystal Palace on Saturday, hoping to oversee successive league wins for the Toffees for the first time since April. In theory, this extra time in charge should provide a clearer picture of Unsworth's vision for this team. His first three games saw three defeats before the 3-2 comeback against Watford marked an improbable first victory.
For the most part, while points proved elusive, those first three matches demonstrated a significant departure from the methods employed by Koeman as Unsworth opted for more tempo and width in advanced areas. However, the fourth match, the Watford win, saw Unsworth transform into his predecessor and abandon the positive qualities that had been among his main selling points when first appointed. Only through the persistence of Oumar Niasse and the salvation of his substitutions thereafter did Unsworth manage to rescue a bad situation that was entirely self-inflicted.
These early matches have also shown the difficulties in handling this unbalanced squad. In elevating younger players, handing a debut to Beni Baningime and gradually increasing the involvement of Ademola Lookman, Unsworth has proved the antithesis to Koeman, yet the management of others to this point has been less encouraging. Unsworth appears to have quickly abandoned the Koeman signings arriving with no Premier League experience. While Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane, Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson continue to feature, Sandro Ramirez, Davy Klaassen and Nikola Vlasic have become ghosts, with Vlasic entitled to feel especially unfortunate at his recent lack of football.
One of the few positives in the final weeks under Koeman, Vlasic has failed to make three of the four squads under Unsworth, with a mere 19 minutes against Lyon in the Europa League his only involvement. Neither Klaassen nor Sandro has played a single minute of football; Klaassen was an unused substitute against Lyon, while Sandro has not featured in any of the four squads thus far.
As much as Koeman seemed intent on forcing new signings into the team at any expense and to the detriment of shape and balance within the chosen system, Unsworth has to be wary of doing the exact opposite and ignoring new players without first giving them a chance to prove their worth on the pitch.
Unsworth has to learn from this and from previous matches, the last match especially, and all while attempting to secure that elusive away win. Since beating Palace 1-0 in the corresponding fixture back in January last season, the winless stretch on the road stands at 13 league games. Everton have won only two Premier League away games since September 2016.
To that end, defensive progress would no doubt increase the chances of productive away form as Everton need a reliable base to build on. With Watford as the rarest of exceptions, this season has shown that Everton are not equipped to spend their time chasing matches. Everton have scored the first goal in just two of their last 16 matches in all competitions.
Again, the character and determination evident in the closing stages against Watford bode well if the players can maintain such attributes, but this team cannot continue to ship goals at its current rate. Unsworth has seen Everton concede two or more goals in each of his first four games. Everton are without a Premier League clean sheet since the opening day and only West Ham have conceded more goals to this point.
In so many ways, the Watford comeback provided a snapshot of this season and the state of the squad. While embracing the positives that sparked victory from an apparently impossible situation, Unsworth has to acknowledge the issues that saw Everton trailing 2-0 and facing a crisis heading into the final 20 minutes.
For the Watford victory to become the much-needed turning point required this season, Unsworth has to recall the traits he so fervently championed at the start of his tenure. With the right balance and necessary uplift in defence, the pace, width and energy evident in the closing stages against Watford needs to set the tone moving forward.
The longer Unsworth remains in charge, the more expectations will grow and the demands placed on him will increase. Overcoming these aforementioned issues is vital to that.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.