“They had three shots on target, we had two. That shows how we mastered a really good side.” Sam Allardyce’s summary of events at Anfield on Sunday was more than a little biased, but the result was more important than the performance for the new Everton manager and rightly so at this early stage of his tenure. Everton are unbeaten in their last four matches – with the 1-1 draw at Liverpool coming after a 4-0 win over West Ham, a 2-0 win over Huddersfield and a 3-0 win over Apollon Limassol – but Allardyce knows better than anyone that he still has a huge task on his hands.
Everton’s strongest system, let alone their starting line-up, is still a mystery. They have deployed nine different formations in the league this season, which sums up the issues with this muddled squad better than anything. The fact that 22 different players have started for them in the league shows this is a side lacking an identity. Allardyce has managed to take them into the top half of the table but establishing a clear vision for his players will take time.
One thing that should be clear is that this squad, with the current list of absentees at least, does not suit a back three. They have played three at the back on five occasions this season and shipped 12 goals. Instead, a variation of a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 formation looks the most viable option, but they need to exploit the wide areas of the pitch better and that has been a major problem.
Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson were fielded as the nominal wide men against Liverpool on Sunday and Everton were toothless on the counterattack. Rooney’s penalty in the 77th minute was their only shot of the afternoon from inside Liverpool’s box. Given his team’s lack of threat from wide areas, Allardyce will have been pleased to see Yannick Bolasie return from injury to play for Everton’s U23s against Leicester on Monday night. His comeback could be a real turning point for a side in stasis.
“Playing again was overwhelming,” said Bolasie after he had been given the last half-hour of the game by David Unsworth. “When I got on I felt good. I knew about two weeks ago I was going to play in this game. Right now the team is doing really well so you’re going to have to try to fight your way in, but there’s no rush. I know what my role is because a year out in football means it will be a month or two before I’m really back at it, but the main thing is that I feel OK. Just the smell of grass again in the game was great.”
None of the adjectives used to describe Everton’s poor performances this season could be attributed to the winger. Everton lack pace, invention and unpredictability; step forward Bolasie. The DR Congo international is one of the league’s great entertainers when he is on top form. At times he is so unpredictable even he seems to have no clue what he will do next.
Everton paid Crystal Palace £25m for his services in August 2016 and he is exactly what they have been missing this season. Bolasie will bring the team pace and so will Seamus Coleman, who is back in training after suffering a double fracture to his right leg in March. Coleman signed a new five-year contract with the club in May and Everton will be an entirely different animal once both are fully fit. The right-back has been a pivotal player at both ends of the pitch for years, while Bolasie made an excellent start to life on Merseyside before he suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury in a 1-1 draw with Manchester United last December.
In his 12 starts for the club, the 28-year-old had a direct hand in five goals and averaged 2.8 dribbles per game. To put that figure into perspective, of the players from last season who have started more than twice for Everton this season, Idrissa Gueye was his closest challenger on 0.8 dribbles. Of the players who have started at least five times this campaign, Dominic Calvert-Lewin leads the way, again with just 0.8. Everton’s average of 5.6 dribbles per game as a team this season is just twice what Bolasie was averaging on his own.
Given the nature of his injury and the type of player Bolasie is, it is important Everton do not rush him back after a year on the sidelines. A knee ligament rupture can be devastating to a player so reliant on speed, power and agility. However, once he and Coleman settle back into the team in the New Year – with the Irishman expected back in January – Everton should be a force to be reckoned with once again. The fans will have to be patient – and perhaps settle for performances akin to one they produced at Liverpool for the next few weeks – but a far more exciting side could be just around the corner.
Allardyce will ask every member of Everton’s first-team squad whether they wish to be part of the club’s future before finalizing transfer plans for January.
Allardyce hopes to sign a proven goalscorer when the transfer window reopens after the club failed to replace Romelu Lukaku in the summer. Allardyce admits his first signing “has to be correct for Everton and for my future here – make bad signings and you get the sack, it’s that simple”. But with 31 players in the first-team pool when fit, the 63-year-old is prepared to sell assets who consider themselves surplus to requirements. All will be asked directly in face-to-face meetings with the manager.
“If every player is honest enough when I finally get through the one-on-ones they will tell me if they want to stay or they don’t,” Allardyce said. “If you are going to be honest with the manager, or if they want to leave it a bit longer and see how it goes to January, then I’ll deal with it.
“I don’t want anyone here who doesn’t want to be here. By the same token there’s always a price to pay and the club accepts we are not going to be mugs and let people leave under value in today’s market. People might want to move because it hasn’t quite worked or they have not settled as well as they thought. Up until then all these guys have a chance.”
Davy Klaassen, the £23.6m signing from Ajax, and the former Málaga striker Sandro Ramírez both fall into that category having struggled to make an impact since arriving in the summer. But Allardyce insists every player has an opportunity to shape his transfer strategy over the coming weeks
“At the moment we would look to add a goalscorer. Dominic [Calvert-Lewin] has done well, [Oumar] Niasse has scored a few. It is the hardest thing to recruit players who score goals and hopefully there is somebody that can be brought in. If not, we will have to try to get Sandro to contribute a bit more.
“When everybody is fit we have a 31-man squad. At this early stage adding more players to that would mean thinking ‘Who is going to come in for one of our players and am I prepared to sell them or rotate the squad a little bit?’ I don’t want to be in a desperate position in January. I want the players to show me that I don’t desperately need to sign anyone and that we are going to be OK for this season. Then it would be a key element of next pre-season. The hardest time of the year to recruit the players, and the most expensive time, is January.”
Allardyce, who hopes to appoint a psychologist at Everton in the next week. Jonjoe Kenny is close to signing a new contract that will tie him to the club until 2022. Dominic Calvert-Lewin could be next in line for a new deal.
The Guardian Sport