Everton should use Sigurdsson's injury as an opportunity
The latest attempt to escape a continuous loop of home wins and away defeats takes Everton to relegation-threatened Stoke on Saturday. Results in the last six league games offer a microcosm of the season, with three home wins and three away defeats.
Positives from home games disappear when the next away match rolls around as Everton struggle to replicate their Goodison form on their travels. No clean sheets on the road since December helps explain how the Toffees have won just one of their last 23 away league games. Only a West Brom side on the brink of relegation have fewer away points this season.
Manager Sam Allardyce claimed that the issue is a mental one, and five wins from the last 40 away matches under a succession of different managers lends some weight to such a theory. But current form showing six successive away defeats and 16 goals conceded in that time appears more about negative tactics than a mental block within the squad.
Everton's present setup in away matches is still too reactive and too focused on the opposition. Allardyce sending his team out to avoid defeat turns winning into a mere afterthought. This caution has no merits either as 31 goals conceded in 15 away games defines a team ill-equipped to cope with such a defensive-minded setup.
Even in recent weeks, against a string of teams either below Everton in the table or suffering their own crisis of confidence, the approach has not changed. Despite holding a half-time lead in their last away outing at Burnley, Everton's inevitable attempt to sit on the one-goal advantage saw three points surrendered without any real fight. After gifting wins to Watford and Burnley, two teams desperately out of form at the time, Everton must avoid a hat-trick when facing a Stoke team amid a six-game winless run of its own.
Allardyce must also adjust to life without injured midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson. Injury striking just as Sigurdsson started to feature more often in his preferred No.10 role sums up the frustrating nature of this season. After a disrupted preseason owing to his protracted transfer from Swansea, Sigurdsson had overcome a slow start and begun to prove himself before injury struck in the 2-0 win against Brighton.
At the heart of his influence on the team is a tremendous work ethic that adds to his other qualities on display. Despite injuring his knee midway through the first-half against Brighton, Sigurdsson still completed the full 90 minutes and covered more ground than any of his teammates. This determination has also been evident in the way Sigurdsson has adapted to a season mostly wasted on the left flank: all three managers occupying the Everton dugout this season have used him on the left side of midfield.
Allardyce now has to weigh up how best to overcome the loss of the club-record signing. Sigurdsson has created 38 chances this season, 13 more than his nearest teammate. Sigurdsson ranks 29th in the league on chance created this season; Wayne Rooney sits 68th and no other Everton player is in the Top 100. Four goals and three assists in the league seems an unfair reflection on the performances Sigurdsson has delivered, though such statistics also highlight the wider issue of creativity within the team and the collective season-long struggle to give enough service to often-isolated strikers.
One such option to fill the void is Davy Klaassen, who returned to first-team action with a six-minute cameo against Brighton, his first Premier League involvement since September. Everton spent more than £25 million on Klaassen in the summer, and the remaining matches offer an opportunity to see some return on investment as 196 minutes of Premier League football is not nearly enough time to judge the former Ajax captain.
While his complete lack of football in the past six months makes Klaassen an unlikely starter in this match, the Sigurdsson injury should at least see the reintroduction of Nikola Vlasic to a matchday squad still low on creativity. One of the brighter players in the final weeks of the doomed Ronald Koeman tenure, Vlasic has barely featured since, playing in none of the last six matches. Weeks of inactivity have been punctuated by the occasional outing, with his last three appearances stretched across 16 matches. And yet in spite of his sporadic and barely adequate playing time, Vlasic (1.1) ranks behind only Sigurdsson (1.4) on chances created per game among Everton players this season.
With league status all but assured, Allardyce has little to lose in opening the door to those who have spent too much of this season on the fringes, watching on while other more experienced teammates continue to underwhelm, particularly away from home.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.