When Everton welcome Burnley to Goodison Park on Sunday, there can be no room for the litany of excuses offered up in the aftermath of a disappointing draw against 10-man Apollon Limassol on Thursday. No English team has begun the Europa League group stage with fewer points after two games.
Another poor European outing and two wins in nine matches in all competitions adds pressure ahead of a fourth successive home game this weekend. A considerable change of tactics seems imperative, with manager Ronald Koeman gradually morphing into a carbon copy of his predecessor at present.
Both Roberto Martinez and Koeman built early optimism with words and actions, freshening up the style of play and recording encouraging debut seasons that seemingly setting the foundations for future success. Unfortunately, similarities between the two extend to their respective second seasons. In refusing to bend from stagnating principles, Koeman is showing the same stubbornness that contributed to Martinez's downfall. Those previously punchy sound bites are also growing tiresome.
Koeman attracted praise for his forthright approach in his first term, exhibiting a clarity and honesty when commenting on individual or collective underperformance. As scrutiny switches to the manager, however, those same traits are gone. In the aftermath of Thursday's 2-2 draw, liability fell on injuries, individual errors and players scared to play football. While those aspects may form part of the bigger picture, the recurring theme at the centre of this troubled start is the inflexibility of the man in the dugout. Supporters can see straight through the meek justifications and finger-pointing in other directions.
Everton had eight first-team players absent for their Europa League match, but with the exception of Oumar Niasse, a player who only returned to first-team contention once the transfer window ended, Koeman had the same squad on Thursday as the 2-1 win against Bournemouth six days earlier. Absentees cannot excuse the failure to dispatch organised but limited opponents.
Refusal to shift from a narrow and broken setup undermines Koeman's ongoing and perplexing defence of his team selection and chosen creative options. Rotation occurs only between a small pool of players, while those potentially able to add unpredictability or inject pace and width mostly warm the bench or fail to even make the matchday squad.
Koeman has gone to great lengths to highlight how often the ball moves backwards but neglects to address the reasoning behind it. If there is caution and wilting confidence within this team, it stems from a rigid and unbalanced system that causes chaos at both ends of the pitch.
The flaws attached to these tactics are evident in the numerous early substitutions made this season. A half-time change in six of the past 11 matches in all competitions explains a manager frequently having to rectify the failings of his starting XI. However, any hope of those interventions heralding a turning point dissipates once team news breaks for the next match, and the same tactics and personnel resume.
A withering summary of confusing summer recruitment is how Everton presently look better with less of their big-money signings on the pitch. The use of too many similar players at the expense of those actually impressing continues to hold the team back, and midfielder Tom Davies is a prime example of this obstinate approach. Davies injected life into the team last season after a run of one win in 11 matches from September to December. Upon starting a 3-0 home win against Southampton in January, Davies featured in all 20 remaining matches in all competitions, starting all except one of them.
Along with other less-heralded members of the squad, the 19-year-old midfielder faces a similar challenge, as the overuse of more expensive but underperforming alternatives limit his involvement. The irony of the mishandling of Davies and the shoehorning of others into the starting XI is that the young midfielder offers the dynamic style and proactive approach that Koeman is demanding from his players.
Nikola Vlasic has also demonstrated his potential in several displays, adding width and invention to an otherwise one-paced midfield. His introduction against Apollon on the left with Gylfi Sigurdsson moving into his preferred No. 10 role stood as two of the plus points on the night.
The hope is that these fleeting positives eventually become permanent solutions rather than occasional acts of desperation surfacing to rescue matches. When there is width, mobility, and players in their preferred positions, Everton offer signs of the quality expected from a team beginning the season with big aspirations.
This situation calls for accountability and lessons learned, but only excuses exist at this point. Koeman bizarrely talks like a man watching Everton from a distance, one unable to influence the things going wrong, but these are his players struggling with his stifling tactics. Fixing this is entirely his responsibility.