Everton plod toward finish line but need to experiment if things are to change
Despite the best efforts of Everton personnel trying to suggest otherwise this week, this season has been going through the motions for a while and most supporters cannot wait for it to end. The trip to relegation-threatened Swansea on Saturday marks the start of the last five games.
Winning those matches would at least end the season on a positive note, and there should certainly be nothing to fear from five opponents all sitting below Everton in the Premier League table. Back-to-back home games against Manchester City and Liverpool marked the end of matches against the top six teams this season.
Successive away wins for the first time since 2016 is an incentive for Everton for this trip to Wales, but there are only scant consolations left to chase in the closing weeks of the season. Therefore, supporters can do without hyperbolic soundbites from players and staff.
Club captain Phil Jagielka spoke of clean sheets bringing foundations -- a shame then that Everton have managed just two in their last 14 matches -- while fellow centre-back Michael Keane discussed playing with more confidence and freedom. Former player and current first-team coach Duncan Ferguson pinpointed the need to fight for the fans and show a winning mentality.
But these valid claims lose most, if not all, of their credibility when a team has only five games of a 51-game season still to play. The time for such remarks has come and gone. Players and managers dish out these lines when they do not matter and never when needed.
Everton needed such belief and belligerence at the start of the season, or when Ronald Koeman received his marching orders in October, or even when appointing Sam Allardyce in December. Everton needed this as they stumbled through the Europa League and won only one of six group games, recording one of the worst European campaigns by any British team. At this stage in the season, these comments merely appear empty and insincere.
A fair counter argument to the Ferguson comments is that fighting for the fans and showing a winning mentality should already be present and not reserved for the end of a season that has seen ambition nosedive. These should not be mantras to cling to when a season staggers toward its dull conclusion. These should be the centre point of the club philosophy.
On the back of two sobering performances against Manchester City and Liverpool, manager Sam Allardyce has used all his creativity to dream up several fantastical defences of his tactics and selections in both matches.
Some of the quotes need a second look as it is difficult to reconcile such words with the manager of a club on the up. The undercurrent at the centre of this is Allardyce's willingness to say anything to preserve or enhance his own reputation. Allardyce putting himself above the club and the players is another mark against his long-term credentials.
"We did a job on Liverpool by nullifying that outstanding attack even though they changed the team around," Allardyce exclaimed. Yet this was a Liverpool attack spearheaded by Danny Ings and Dominic Solanke, not the Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah duo that has combined for more than 60 goals in all competitions this season. Ings was making his first start in 916 days and Solanke has never scored a senior goal in English football.
When commenting after that match on the prospects of midfielder Davy Klaassen, the defence launched by Allardyce once more did not add up. Allardyce explained that he did not have the luxury of using Klaassen because "I've got to win" and Everton not doing so would result in him getting "stick."
But Allardyce and Everton are not winning and have not done so with any regularity. Allardyce has overseen four wins in the last 14 matches and one of those was against a Stoke side reduced to 10 men for an hour. Allardyce has almost spent much of the past few weeks talking about how the season is over and he is eyeing next season, which would suggest upcoming matches are actually the ideal time to experiment and assess other players within the squad.
The view that there is no room for Klaassen also goes against the recent use of Beni Baningime in midfield. This is no slight on a young midfielder that has shown promise in his fleeting first-team appearances, but the idea Allardyce can find space for a 19-year-old midfielder with 173 minutes of top-flight football to his name but none for Klaassen, a former Ajax captain, does not really stand up to scrutiny.
It is no wonder Everton look like a club lacking direction and identity as the targets and parameters change more quickly than the weather. Nothing adds up as viewpoints bend with ease and ambition exists mostly as an afterthought. Talk is cheap and muddled messages are still the only constant. Everton need action rather than words as a pivotal summer looms large.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.