Everton attack blunt under Sam Allardyce's cautious approach
The new manager bounce which helped Sam Allardyce and Everton to an eight-match unbeaten run lost some of its spring during a festive period short on points, goals, and anything else worth cheering. Four games without a win and two points from a possible 12 has exposed the folly of sending out a team merely to survive games and hope to pinch a goal through divine intervention or a slice of luck.
Everton deserved their hard-earned point against Chelsea at the start of this four-game run, limiting the visitors to half chances and efforts from distance, but later games felt like a waste as the Toffees squandered attainable points by not employing a more proactive approach.
The attacking output across the last four matches consisted of four shots on target and one goal scored. Successive matches against West Brom and Bournemouth, two teams in the relegation zone and mired in longstanding winless runs, offered an opportunity for Allardyce to present a bolder outlook.
The reality was altogether different, though, as Everton picked up a fortuitous point at West Brom and lost late on at Bournemouth, displaying a distinct lack of ambition in both games. Indeed, Idrissa Gueye's goal at Bournemouth was the only shot on target from the visitors in that match.
The irony of this cautious approach of late is that the defence has underperformed and only escaped further damage due to the wonderful form of goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. Allardyce has been resolute and rebuilt the foundations in the first stages of his tenure, rightly prioritising a defence leaking goals for fun, but the lack of attacking relief in recent games is starting to take its toll on an overworked defence.
This restored defensive platform is beginning to creak under the weight of a chaotic fixture list and the rotation of defensive players. With such a short turnaround between matches in the past month, spending so much time on the back foot while trying to shut out the opposition is near impossible with fatigue and injuries adding to the problems.
This has seen the attacking side of the game wither away. Each of the past four matches has seen Everton reach half-time without a shot on target. In two of those games, successive home games against Chelsea and Manchester United, Everton were still without a shot on target when the final whistle sounded.
As such, the last place Everton would like to be heading is across Stanley Park for an FA Cup clash with neighbours Liverpool on Friday night. But that is the luck of the draw, and as Allardyce prepares for his second trip to Anfield in less than four weeks, he must know Everton need to do much more in attack if there is to be any hope of progressing to the fourth round.
Quite simply, Everton need to be sharper in all areas if they are to end a sustained run of misery in this fixture and lift the mood after a dismal run of results to close out 2017. No Everton win at Anfield this century should be incentive enough for Allardyce and this group of players.
For that to happen, better care of the ball is imperative after Everton recorded just 21 percent possession in the December meeting, their lowest amount since Opta began tracking such statistics. Pass accuracy also lingered around 50 percent as those in blue regained possession only to return it straight back to their grateful hosts.
Everton can't afford to gamble only on set pieces in this match. Wayne Rooney converted a penalty late on to snatch a point in the earlier meeting, but with that being only the second Everton penalty at Anfield since 1937, the chances of another being awarded in this FA Cup outing appear miniscule. Aside from the penalty, a tame Gylfi Sigurdsson effort from distance signalled the only other attempt on target from the away side.
It is clear Everton cannot win repeating their December set-up. A conservative approach to secure a replay is also redundant as history shows Everton have as much chance winning this fixture at home as they do at Anfield.
Friday's game may also be the best opportunity to progress, with the home side potentially without several key players: Philippe Coutinho looks set to miss out with a thigh injury, while there are doubts also over Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.
The weakest part of the Liverpool team is still their defence and the key to victory is putting them under pressure, something Everton did not do well enough throughout their games over the festive period. Allardyce himself has said his team will go for it, calling this cup clash, "win or bust; simple as that." The hope is that becomes a reality on the pitch.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.