Everton's turnaround driven by consistency and faith in youth
Swansea's visit to Goodison Park on Monday night should offer a good indication of how quickly Sam Allardyce has overseen improvement at Everton, as the visitors are similar to the Everton team Allardyce inherited a few weeks ago.
An overworked goalkeeper and a lack of attacking threat recall two of the main Everton problems this season. Swansea goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski began this current round of matches having made the most saves in the current campaign, while Wayne Rooney has scored as many league goals as the entire Swansea team this season (nine). The visitors are the only team averaging less than two shots on target per game this season. Therefore, Allardyce and his players should be confident of stifling a blunt visiting attack, but the Everton manager has rightly warned his players against complacency.
While trying to extend this honeymoon period at the start of his tenure, even a noted self-promoter such as Allardyce can scarcely believe how quickly things appear to have clicked into place at Everton. Building on a 4-0 win against West Ham in caretaker manager David Unsworth's final game, Allardyce, who watched on from the stands that night, has helped Everton establish a five-game unbeaten run in all competitions. That sequence has seen Everton collect 10 points in four league games, which is one point more than they managed in their previous 12 league games combined.
Allardyce has married effective football with a happy knack for frustrating opponents and managers along the way, delivering clean sheets and organisation as promised. Having spent recent months performing a one-man rescue mission behind a shambolic defence, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has been relatively untested and not had a noteworthy save to make since Allardyce took charge.
Pickford's significantly reduced workload is testament to the work of the new managerial team and the players ahead of him. Allardyce has overseen a remarkable transformation with only one goal conceded in four games in all competitions. After one clean sheet in the first 13 league games and none since the opening day, Everton have managed three in their past four games.
Consistency has been a key factor in this upturn as Allardyce has done little to disrupt the team. On the back of the West Ham win under Unsworth, Allardyce stuck with the same team for the Huddersfield victory. An unchanged starting XI for the first time since February helped Everton to their first back-to-back wins and clean sheets of the season, while the midweek 1-0 win at Newcastle ticked another box for Allardyce as Everton won away for the first time in 11 months and 17 league games.
There have been occasional tweaks in team selection along the way, which is understandable as Everton face eight matches in a packed December, but those changes have been limited to midfield and the final third. This continuity and an unchanged defence have lifted Everton into the top half. While injuries initially forced the current defence on Unsworth and then Allardyce, the form of those defenders has kept fit-again duo Phil Jagielka and Michael Keane on the bench in recent matches.
One of those keeping club captain Jagielka and Keane, the most expensive defender in Everton history, on the sideline is 21-year-old Mason Holgate, who is enjoying a sustained run in his preferred position. This upturn in results and defensive improvement has coincided with his partnership alongside a revitalised Ashley Williams at centre-back.
Before now, Holgate had appeared in every other conceivable defensive role except for his current one. Impressing most often on the right side of a back three, the youngster has also featured at right wing-back in the same system and in both full-back roles in a four-man defence. This is Holgate's first genuine opportunity as one of two centre-backs in a four-man defence and his composed start has been vital at the heart of a defence conceding only once in the past four league games.
Holgate should receive another chance to impress on Monday as Everton look to continue moving up the league table. There is a rawness to elements of his play, such as a problematic tendency to head the ball into dangerous areas when attempting to clear, but with Allardyce thriving on strong defence, Holgate has the ideal environment to continue his development.
Allardyce's willingness to trust Holgate and other youngsters continues the faith Unsworth placed in them and marks a significant departure from their general misuse under Ronald Koeman. It would have been easy for Allardyce to restore Keane or Jagielka at the earliest available moment, especially with Everton struggling until recently, but Holgate has remained in the team on merit and proved his worth to the new manager thus far.
Along with Holgate, Jonjoe Kenny and Dominic Calvert-Lewin signed new long-term contracts this week and all three have played every minute in the league under Allardyce. Alongside the expected qualities many thought Allardyce would bring, this early show of belief toward the youngsters in the squad is a welcome addition.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.