While the fine-tuning of this Everton squad is a continuous process needing time and several transfer windows, the attitude and application of the players appears to have changed for the better since a dismal 3-2 defeat at Watford in December.
Sandwiching an inert team display between two Romelu Lukaku goals, set piece problems and defensive frailties handed Walter Mazzarri's team an easy three points and left the Blues on a run of one win in 10 matches. FA Cup defeat to Leicester City was the latest reminder of a team in transition that is still prone to lapses, but there has been a general uplift of late as players grasp the work ethic which manager Ronald Koeman expects.
This steady improvement has seen four wins in the last six league games and culminated in the 4-0 thrashing of Manchester City last time out; this run also includes a comeback win at home to Arsenal as well. These two matches stand as the best performances to date from a managerial tenure still in its infancy.
With Everton youngsters grabbing the headlines against City, the debut of £20 million signing Morgan Schneiderlin went largely unnoticed as the midfielder eased his way back into action from the substitutes' bench after a long spell on the sidelines at former club Manchester United. The main reason for Schneiderlin's debut passing as a mere footnote was the star turn from Tom Davies orchestrating the victory. The young midfielder continues to develop and has much to learn but his involvement is a factor in recent progress, covering more ground than his teammates in the last two league games.
What was pleasing against City was the manner in which Everton clinically converted the openings their pressing and work rate generated. While clear-cut chances remained scarce, four attempts on target brought four goals. There was also encouragement in how Lukaku received more sustained support from those around him as Kevin Mirallas excelled in a more central role, operating as a withdrawn striker behind Lukaku. Mirallas' quiet resurgence has gathered pace amid this improved run of results.
The match also saw veteran midfielder Gareth Barry and the defensive unit behind him respond to fresh criticism with strong showings. The back-three system is narrow and not with teething problems but adds an extra body in central defence and central midfield. Both units look better for the added personnel.
Continuing to adjust to this new formation (if Koeman sticks with it) is one of the challenges Everton face for Saturday's trip to Crystal Palace. From a Pep Guardiola team to a Sam Allardyce team in the space of six days, this represents a much different but equally demanding examination. Everton must demonstrate the consistency that often eludes them -- Sunday's win signalled back-to-back league wins for the first time since September. A generally favourable fixture list until a tough away test at Tottenham in March is a chance to change the status quo and produce momentum.
Confidence will understandably be high, but there can be no room for complacency. Even though Palace are still searching for a first win under Allardyce, taking one point from a possible twelve in his first four matches, they have lost just one of the last seven league meetings between the two teams. A poor recent record should ensure Everton maintain focus.
This focus has to translate to another convincing performance as Palace pose alternative threats than Manchester City. While City monopolised possession to an almost absurd extent, Allardyce's team are sure to adopt a more aggressive and direct style that plays to the strengths of top scorer Christian Benteke. Everton need to be heeding the warning delivered in the reverse fixture when a towering Benteke header earned Palace a point.
This contrast in styles means Everton are likely to enjoy considerably more possession than the meagre 29 percent afforded them in the win over Manchester City. Along with just 42 percent possession in the home win over Arsenal, the best displays under Koeman have materialised when pouncing on opposing mistakes and playing an aggressive counter-attacking style. Able to press and force mistakes Everton capitalised on exposed defences in the two aforementioned matches.
When Everton tend to struggle, though, is when these roles reverse. When Everton and Palace met in the corresponding fixture in September, Everton dominated possession but struggled to fashion opportunities beyond those from set pieces as Palace finished the stronger of the two teams. When the opposition form a rigid defensive structure, when the onus is on Everton to dictate the game and boss possession, the edges sometimes begin to fray.
These are the matches when a quick tempo and sharp movement with the ball are imperative, especially if the home side employ a conservative setup. Three points against City count for nothing if the same result is not forthcoming against a Palace team only out of the relegation zone on goal difference. Everton must express ability to string results together as they attempt to move away from the underachiever tag haunting this squad in recent seasons.