Everton must make a statement as big fixtures arrive over Christmas
If they win two of their three remaining games in 2017, Everton will have gained more points in December than the rest of the season combined.
They have gone from a team seemingly unsure where their next goal is coming from, to one that has picked up 13 points from their last five league games -- one point more than they managed in the previous 13 games this season.
The most recent of these five league games saw Everton recover to beat Swansea 3-1 on Monday night. Manager Sam Allardyce is sure to have reservations about his team conceding first for the second time in three games -- the opposition has opened the scoring in 19 of the last 25 Everton games in all competitions -- but comfort can be found in the response of his players.
Allardyce praised the character of his men afterwards and the comeback victory means Everton have gained a league-high 12 points from losing positions this term. As Wayne Rooney noted after the match, Swansea was a match Everton would have lost a few weeks ago. Instead, the home side responded and recorded their fourth successive home league win.
The result, and the manner of it, should stand Allardyce and his players in good stead as the real work starts. If the past six matches and subsequent unbeaten streak were about finding a way to win and banishing talk of relegation, then the next six can set the tone for the remainder of the season as Everton face four of the top seven teams in the next few weeks.
This six-game run starts with arguably the toughest test to date for Allardyce, against a Chelsea side that have already beaten Everton three times in 2017. Then, in between trips to West Brom and Bournemouth to close out 2017, January opens with games against Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham. Supporters will learn far more about Allardyce and these players during this taxing set of fixtures.
Allardyce has previously shown his standard blueprint in these matches, putting on an obdurate display to escape from Anfield with a point in the recent Merseyside derby, but such an approach against Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool (again) and Tottenham in the space of two weeks seems unsustainable.
For all their stout defence, Everton had just 21 percent possession at Anfield and recorded a dismal 49 percent passing accuracy alongside it. Similar figures in forthcoming games would put immense pressure on the defence, especially with such a quick turnaround between matches. The Swansea win was the first time under Allardyce that Everton have had more possession than the opposition.
There is also the matter of expectation from supporters. Mere containment is unlikely to sit well with home fans. Supporters will be realistic about the quality of the opposition but remain aware that Goodison Park can be a formidable place for opponents; the setup has to be about more than just survival as, even accounting for a handful of defeats earlier in the season, home form has carried Everton through this past year.
Only Manchester City (52) have scored more home league goals in 2017. With one match still to play, this is already the most productive year at Goodison since the Premier League started. The number of home wins (15) and home goals scored (47) are club record Premier League figures for Everton in a calendar year.
Along with this consideration for home advantage and the anticipation among supporters that Everton will be more proactive on their own ground, Allardyce also has to learn from recent history and the dismal approach his predecessor Ronald Koeman offered up against Chelsea during his brief tenure.
Koeman departed Everton having lost all three matches against Chelsea, failing to score a single goal and conceding 10 in the process. Under Koeman, Everton registered just three shots on target in 270 minutes of football against the current league champions; Everton ended up well beaten each time and posed little attacking threat as an overly cautious approach instantly conceded the initiative and turned the matches into nothing more than exercises in damage limitation.
Each of the four league wins in this six-game unbeaten run has arrived against a team below Everton in the table, but the confidence gained along the way should put this team in better health for this challenging set of fixtures. The incentive should be clear for Allardyce, with Everton winless against the eight teams above them to this point, drawing twice and losing the other six.
Allardyce has shown his ability to organise a defence and find a level of consistency against the teams around them in the standings, but starting with Chelsea and moving forward into the New Year, this is an early opportunity to make a genuine statement against the teams above them.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.