Pickford's heroics have helped Everton salvage seemingly lost season
It's the halfway point in the season and time to take stock of the season so far at Everton.
Sam Allardyce's men have been graded and we've picked a star man, flop, key question and prediction for the rest of the season.
With Everton starting the season in July for the first time in their history and clocking up 31 matches in all competitions to this point, there has been little time to catch breath and reflect on a season that has slowly showed signs of recovery after a nightmare start.
It is easy to forget that before the countless capitulations, lifeless performances and eventual sacking of manager Ronald Koeman, Everton actually began in encouraging fashion and seemed well placed to justify preseason optimism. After Wayne Rooney scored the only goal as Everton beat Stoke 1-0 for a first opening day win in five seasons, the Toffees then secured a 1-1 draw at Manchester City, a result that becomes more baffling with each passing week.
Early optimism soon vanished, though, as a six-match unbeaten run disappeared and Everton dramatically fell apart, developing a horrible habit for conceding goals in quick succession and losing 10 of their next 14 matches in all competitions. By the start of November, Everton were without a manager, occupying the Premier League relegation zone and embarrassingly eliminated from the Europa League with two group games to spare.
With caretaker manager David Unsworth unable to turn the tide, Everton turned to survival specialist Allardyce. Quickly plugging the holes in a leaky defence, Allardyce has had an immediate impact and all concerned can at last start to look up the table rather than over their shoulder.
Rooney has found his form in front of goal lately, overtaking his league tally for each of his past two seasons at Manchester United, but there was also a spell out of the team beforehand as performances faltered. For consistency and sheer weight of contributions across the season, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford gets the nod following his £30 million move from relegated Sunderland in the summer.
Quite where Everton would be without Pickford is a scenario not worth thinking about. Earlier in the season, he was a man on a mission, often the only hope for Everton remaining in contention in matches. While embarrassingly so for his teammates, his excellent distribution carried more attacking threat than the so-called creative players did at times.
Everton conceded five at home to Arsenal in Koeman's final game and Pickford was still the best Everton player on the day and the only reason the visitors did not hit double figures. Pickford also provided the overdue turning point for this season, making a crucial penalty save at home to West Ham in November. Despite a two-goal lead, Everton were beginning to wilt once more after conceding nine goals in the previous two matches. Pickford kept the penalty out and spared his teammates from a West Ham onslaught that they were in no fit state to repel at that stage.
A high turnover of players in the summer added to preseason excitement but also created some uncertainty. Such an overhaul needs time to click as new signings adjust to their surroundings. Unsurprisingly, those with previous Premier League experience settled quickest. For those adjusting to the English game for the first time, the fact Everton quickly began to struggle only exacerbated the situation. When Koeman departed, it suddenly became easy for Unsworth and Allardyce to discard these new signings.
One player enduring a particularly torrid time is former Ajax captain Davy Klaassen. Paying the price for inept summer recruitment that left his preferred position overcrowded, the midfielder has failed to make the matchday squad in recent months and been restricted to appearances in meaningless European ties. Excluding Europa League qualifiers earlier in the season, Klaassen has made just 10 appearances in all competitions, three Premier League starts and provided no goals or assists. Klaassen has seen a meagre 190 minutes of Premier League football and none since a 55-minute outing in the 2-1 win against Bournemouth in September.
Aided by the money recouped when Romelu Lukaku swapped Merseyside for Manchester, Everton went full steam ahead with the biggest spending spree in their history during the summer, outlaying upwards of £140 million on a glut of new signings.
However, as time ticked on and defeats stacked up, the folly of the summer transfer window became clear once combined with the stubbornness of Koeman in the dugout. Spending too much on unnecessary positions while neglecting those in urgent need of reinforcement, these mistakes saw Everton unravel at an alarming rate while injuries and inept tactics compounded matters.
The onus in the forthcoming January transfer window is for Allardyce and director of football Steve Walsh to begin repairing the considerable damage inflicted on this unbalanced squad in the summer. Allardyce should also consider trimming down this group of players, because while some areas are thin on numbers or quality, others are overcrowded and the deadwood needs cutting adrift.
The form of Mason Holgate may have lessened the need for additional centre-back cover, but the left-back and centre-forward positions, the two biggest oversights in the summer, still require immediate attention.
Premier League: 8th.
FA Cup: 3rd round.
Where Everton go from here most likely rests on the outcome of successive away games over the festive period and a daunting start to January. A trip to Anfield makes FA Cup progress a tough ask.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.