Midfield void most glaring of Everton's ruinous spending misadventures
Muddled recruitment has cast a long shadow at Everton, with countless millions squandered in recent transfer windows. For better or worse, the irony of this lavish and misguided spending is that the present solution appears to be spending even more.
With Theo Walcott the latest addition, arriving from Arsenal this week for a fee in the region of £20 million, manager Sam Allardyce will hope Walcott and fellow new signing Cenk Tosun can bring a dormant attacking unit to life when Everton welcome West Brom to Goodison Park on Saturday.
No opposing goalkeeper has faced a single first-half effort on goal in this current six-game winless run in all competitions. Everton have lost four games in a row, with just two goals scored and 10 conceded. No shot on target in the Premier League in 2018 is the unwanted headline attached to this form. Three of the past five league games and each of the most recent two ended with Everton not registering a shot on target. No team has completed more games without a shot on target this term (four).
Such dour attacking statistics and the suggestion from Allardyce after the 4-0 defeat at Tottenham that his team need to be more boring and less expansive are completely at odds with each other. It does not seem possible that this team could be more boring or excruciating to watch than it is now.
Quite how Everton reached this point is as remarkable as it is troubling. Spending close to £200 million in the past six months alone and being worse off as a result is a tale so tragic it is almost impressive. Failure to replace Romelu Lukaku ranked as the biggest oversight, particularly earlier on, but the passage of time has seen other issues became equally significant.
One such issue regains focus this weekend as Gareth Barry returns to Goodison for the first time since his summer move. Combined with the alarming loss of form suffered by Morgan Schneiderlin, there is a Barry-shaped hole in the Everton midfield.
At 36, Barry is reaching the end of his career and could only possibly have done so much to affect this season had he stayed on Merseyside, but this team is crying out for the traits Barry offered in midfield, particularly his reading of the game and playmaking ability from deep.
Through injuries to key players and the loss of form in others, the absence of a midfield playmaker in front of the defence has stood out all season. Jordan Pickford has excellent distribution, but a goalkeeper can only do so much. Deprived of first-choice full-backs Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines due to injury, there is a lack of composure among a makeshift defence when in possession.
This is where the complications begin. As defenders look to unload the ball to, in theory, teammates better equipped to dictate play, there is no link between the defensive third and the attacking third. Everton lack that player in the Barry mould, someone knitting the team together, controlling the tempo and giving the necessary attacking platform for the creative players in the final third. Wayne Rooney has featured in the role but concedes possession far too cheaply to be a practical solution.
Glance through passing statistics and the struggle to involve creative players in matches is clear. Ten of the top 11 Everton players in terms of number of passes per game are defensive-minded players. Pickford averages more passes per game than Gylfi Sigurdsson, a player signed for £45m and expected to be the creative hub of this team. Instead, the club-record signing has spent most of the season wasted on the left side of midfield.
Idrissa Gueye tried to drag Everton forward against Tottenham but resembled a man walking head-on into a storm as a lack of support undermined his endeavours. Gueye, to his credit, is the only player in royal blue averaging more than 40 passes per game this season, but his best attributes are the destructive side of the game.
Those Gueye passing numbers merely underline the problem. In each of the past four seasons, the top Everton passer averaged 61 or more per game. Barry topped the list in his first three seasons at the club before Schneiderlin picked up the mantle last season after signing in January.
Building on that fine start after his move from Manchester United, this was to be the season when Schneiderlin filled the playmaker role on a permanent basis, but the France midfielder has spent the entire season struggling, like most of his teammates, to string a run of performances together.
As it stands, when the final game of the season concludes, and the postmortem begins in May, the gaping void in central midfield will rank alongside the other recruitment failures haunting this season to forget.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.