Everton desperate for points and hindered by left-back negligence
Everton need three points when in-form Leicester visit Goodison Park on Wednesday. The home side sit ninth in an increasingly congested league, six points behind their midweek visitors in seventh but only as many points ahead of the relegation zone. Three points from the past 18 available has led to nervous glances over the shoulder again. Leicester, meanwhile, are unbeaten in six matches and have won their past three.
With Everton at such a low ebb, the returning Seamus Coleman can hopefully inspire some reaction among his teammates. Coleman cannot do too much too soon on his return from a serious leg break and 10 months out of action, but assuming the injury has no lasting impact, the 29-year-old can gradually look to regain his best form and add another dimension to a right flank that Everton favour but gain little output from.
Coleman can also relieve the pressure on understudy Jonjoe Kenny; Kenny has tired of late, featuring in all bar one of the past 16 league games, but the 20-year-old has acquitted himself well in a struggling team.
Though this leaves the right-back position looking healthier, the outlook on the opposing flank is altogether bleaker. In truth, the defence in general has struggled in recent weeks and throughout the season. Injuries, recruitment failures and the constant rotation of centre-backs has led to Everton conceding more goals than each of the three teams currently occupying the relegation zone.
The ongoing left-back void and inability to resolve it sets a new benchmark for Everton incompetence. Exactly a year on from allowing backup left-back Bryan Oviedo to join Sunderland, leaving a 33-year-old and increasingly injury prone Leighton Baines as the only recognised left-back in the first-team squad, the situation is still unaltered.
With the arrival of director of football Steve Walsh, heralded for his work at Leicester and sourcing many of their title-winning team, there were hopes of similarly effective business at Everton, but even aside from the left-back oversight, overall recruitment has been a muddled and expensive mess thus far.
Everton stand on the brink of a second successive transfer window without a resolution to this left-back problem and Walsh has been in place for both. This inevitably raises questions as to what exactly Walsh is supposed to bring to the role if not the filling of gaping holes in the first-team squad. With millions wasted readily enough in other areas of the squad, the failure to deliver even a single credible left-back option is beyond parody.
"There's obviously a great shortage of quality players throughout the world who can play in the Premier League, I don't have any doubts about that," said manager Sam Allardyce. But on a day when Chelsea sent one left-back on loan and moved closer to signing another in his place, this wafer-thin excuse does not stand up to scrutiny. Left-backs are not the rare and unreachable beings the Everton hierarchy appear to view them as.
Allardyce claims this apparent shortage means any attempt to sign a left-back at this stage is a gamble. But is it surely a far bigger gamble to instead persist with a barely adequate right-back in the left-back position. In fact, it is not a gamble, it is gross negligence. Cuco Martina offers effort and endeavour but is quite clearly out of his depth and a key factor in the left flank becoming almost obsolete in this team.
It leaves Everton with Luke Garbutt as the only remotely workable alternative, with the 24-year-old recalled to the first-team squad after former manager Ronald Koeman omitted him at the start of the season. Garbutt has an opportunity to reignite a career that has stalled in recent years, potentially offering better balance as a natural left-back, but it is worth noting that Garbutt has not played a competitive match for Everton since May 2015. This is still a player with just three Premier League starts in his entire career.
Until Baines recovers from injury, Allardyce must choose between a hapless right-back out of position or a 24-year-old who is now effectively an unknown quantity because of a lack of competitive football in the past few seasons. Inexplicably, whether bluffing or otherwise, Allardyce seems content with those options.
This season has not gone as hoped in any sense, but it started with European ambitions and genuine hopes of progress. That a team with such aspirations could end the summer transfer window with only one recognised senior left-back in the squad is frankly ridiculous. To end another transfer window in the same situation is inexcusable.
Though Everton continue to look like a team without a plan or any form of identity on the pitch, the continued and incomprehensible failure to address the lack of depth and quality at left-back raises the same doubts off it.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.