Everton unable to cure their slow starts and away issues
Despite a campaign that has featured several heavy defeats and inert performances, Everton travel to Watford on Saturday improbably pushing for a repeat of their seventh-place finish last season and potential re-entry to the Europa League.
That a repeat finish is even possible is a damning charge against the rest of the division and merely emphasises the ever-increasing gap between the top six teams and everybody else. Everton have won only twice in their past nine league games, yet sit just two points behind seventh-place Burnley ahead of a pivotal trip to Turf Moor next weekend.
The next two games must see Everton tackle a longstanding issue that is undermining realistic hopes of progress. Though it is far from the only reason, results away from home are a prominent reason for the glass ceiling that has them unable to bridge the gap to the established teams above.
Five wins in the past eight home games is the reason Everton are within sight of seventh, because the story away from Goodison Park -- one win in 13 games -- is truly miserable. And three points are needed from the remaining six games to avoid a repeat of 2003-04, which ended with just one win and 10 road points.
To begin repairing the damage, starting at Watford on Saturday, Everton must correct a horrible knack for slow starts that has seen the opposition score first in 10 of 13 away games this season. Given they have only scored 32 times in 27 league games overall, it is especially damaging to gift opponents a one-goal start.
There has often been a lack of conviction as a passive approach sees initiative conceded outside the comforts of Goodison; Everton have conceded in the first half of nine of their 13 away games, with seven of those goals arriving within the first 30 minutes. Everton have gone 1-0 down within the first six minutes on three separate occasions on the road.
The team's failure to impose itself upon matches has seen a leaky defence crack under pressure; two or more goals have been shipped in 12 consecutive away games in all competitions. A 1-0 win at Newcastle in December stands as Everton's only win in the 21 away league games, dating back to January 2017.
Only West Brom and Stoke have won fewer points away from home this season but, though his cautious approach has compounded matters, there is some mitigation for manager Sam Allardyce, who inherited rather than created the problem.
This longstanding issue stretches back to the final months under Roberto Martinez, whose successor Ronald Koeman won just four of his 23 league games. Since beating Stoke and Aston Villa in successive matches between February and March 2016, Everton have won just five of 38 away league games.
But it is on Allardyce to work toward fixing the problem and he has a favourable platform to try this overhaul: Aside from the trip to Burnley, the remaining away fixtures are against teams below Everton in the table.
Allardyce must engineer a proactive approach against Watford and beyond, especially against opponents scrapping for points. Recent improvements in home matches owe much to a consistent starting XI, better balance within the team and a more positive setup. That needs to translate to away games.
On the back of some warm-weather training in Dubai and with a kind fixture list for the rest of the season, Allardyce stated that his players have no excuse for not performing. The same also applies to the management team with regard to formulating a solution for such wretched away form.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.