With leaky defence mended, Everton must now focus on toothless attack
The first order of business when Sam Allardyce walked into Goodison Park at the end of November was shoring up the defence. A month on, there is no doubting the impressive speed with which the new Everton manager has achieved that, overseeing a string of clean sheets and an unbeaten run to match.
As Everton prepare to close out the year with a trip to Bournemouth on Saturday, Allardyce has successfully navigated a daunting December as his team travel south unbeaten in seven games this month. Including a meaningless match in the Europa League against Apollon Limassol, there have been five clean sheets in seven matches under Allardyce, with just two goals conceded in that time. Factor in the final game under caretaker manager David Unsworth and Everton are unbeaten in eight matches in all competitions with six clean sheets.
Alongside wins against Huddersfield, Swansea and Newcastle, the latter the club's first away win in 11 months, Allardyce has gained battling draws against Chelsea and Liverpool. Except for the goalless draw at West Brom on Boxing Day, which felt like the first genuine misstep of a tenure still in its infancy, Allardyce has delivered the necessary results. After months of nothingness prior to his arrival, Allardyce has done exceptionally well to get the players to buy into his approach. There have been occasional moments of fortune along the way, but there are at last signs of this team being able to withstand pressure and grind out results.
The next step, then, after tightening up the leaky defence, is to begin remedying some of the issues in the opposing final third. After mending the defence, the natural progression is to work on an attack that has gone almost 200 minutes without a goal thanks to successive 0-0 draws against Chelsea and West Brom.
One player perhaps able to impact that is the returning Wayne Rooney, with the 32-year-old fit again after missing the past two matches. Hitting double figures for the first time in three seasons, Rooney (10) has twice as many league goals as any of his teammates, with Oumar Niasse next nearest on five. But Rooney is just one part of any solution and Everton need contributions throughout the team as only six different players have a league goal to their name this season.
Allardyce has seen his team score seven goals in six league games, with two of those penalties and another a rebound from a saved penalty. Such worrying attacking figures are why the overly defensive approach against West Brom felt like a missed opportunity as Everton reverted to a five-man defence that has caused nothing but trouble this season. Familiar issues resurfaced as the visitors failed to create a worthwhile chance until Niasse forced a double save from Ben Foster in the 89th minute. Five Everton defenders and a holding midfielder babysitting a West Brom attack with 14 goals all season, the second-worst tally in the division, felt entirely unnecessary.
Allardyce faces a similar choice on how to approach the match on Saturday against Bournemouth, a team in the relegation zone and winless in eight matches. Everton should be confident in their own defence and looking to exploit a Bournemouth back line conceding three or more in each of their past three league games. Eddie Howe has seen his team go seven matches without a clean sheet.
That should mean the end of the five-man defence employed to questionable effect on Boxing Day. The formation may have been a product of several injuries in midfield, a move to add security to the defence, but aside from dubious defensive benefits, the system remains a poor fit for this group of players. Former manager Ronald Koeman found that out to his cost earlier in the season.
With the five-man system employing so many defensive-minded players, there are not enough options in front of the ball, too few players able to receive a pass. This means the chosen creative players face an almost impossible task as most of their teammates are behind play, forcing Everton to either go backwards or go direct, and neither option is conducive to solving the creativity problems evident in recent matches.
Allardyce has talked about improving the goal output, with the need for a striker apparent from the moment Romelu Lukaku left for Manchester United in the summer, but improving the players already at the club is just as important, particularly the numerous attacking players signed in the summer. Simply throwing money around caused many of the problems Allardyce has spent the past month fixing.
While the defensive work and glut of clean sheets has been very impressive thus far, the next challenge is finding goals and creativity within this group of players. Allardyce has questioned his players' use of the ball after most matches, but it is his job to provide them with the framework and tactics in which to play the more eye-catching and effective football that he is demanding.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.