Everton find themselves at a crossroads in their season; eight points off the drop zone and in no immediate danger of being dragged into a relegation battle in the same way they were 12 months ago, and remarkably only six points off the Champions League places.
The Toffees have looked impressive going forward this campaign with the youthful triumvirate of Romelu Lukaku, Gerard Deulofeu and Ross Barkley formidable on their day, but the defensive weaknesses that spread uncertainty throughout the squad last term have resurfaced during a run of very winnable fixtures that has so far failed to garner a single victory.
Roberto Martinez was in the end happy to settle for a point at home to Crystal Palace in between wins chucked away at Bournemouth and Norwich, and then with the potential scalp of a weakened Leicester on offer, Claudio Ranieri’s men rolled up their sleeves and recorded another deserved away win.
Sloppiness at throw-ins replaced frailties from crosses in the 3-2 loss at Goodison Park, and some of the Blues’ brightest stars will certainly be aware of the problems at clubs harbouring title-winning ambitions – one they batted off in the summer and one that has fared slightly better in the past.
Through sheer stubbornness, Everton held onto John Stones amid incremental offers from Chelsea in the summer, and the Stamford Bridge outfit’s toils this season have served to justify why the former Barnsley defender was so ferociously sought after.
Despite the loss to the Foxes being the first since the ageing Phil Jagielka has been out of the side through injury in late October, there is little indication that Martinez’s men can belatedly usurp the tranche of sides enjoying fine seasons in the European places, with the worst defensive record in the top half of the table.
Meanwhile, the sacking of Jose Mourinho as Chelsea manager on Thursday afternoon, coupled with the emergence of Pep Guardiola being available from next summer has heightened speculation surrounding Louis van Gaal’s tenure at Manchester United.
United are without a win in six games – the club’s longest streak since 1998 – and with fans chanting Mourinho’s name midway through Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Norwich at Old Trafford, there is gathering momentum behind the prospect of the Portuguese making an immediate return to management in the Premier League.
Mourinho may have struggled to lure the crown jewel in Stones in the summer, but should he be appointed Manchester United manager, he may just walk away with the whole trunk.
Arguably, a combination of United’s defence and Everton’s swaggering front three would be the perfect mix in this most unpredictable of seasons.
Van Gaal’s problems has far from been in the defensive third, with the side already having kept nine clean sheets this term, but should the Glazers spectacularly turn to the Portuguese to bring the disaffected off their seats in the Stretford End once more, he could do far worse than raid Finch Farm for eligible reinforcements.
The obvious riposte would be to call this Moyes Mk II after he made Marouane Fellaini his first major signing in June 2013, but the so-called ‘Chosen One’ had the right club, just the third best player, behind Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman.
Lukaku and Barkley both underperformed last season, and would have rightly set themselves personal goals in order to be reconsidered as two of the finest players in European football.
With the pair now excelling, they have been let down by the more experienced members of the squad. The lack of leadership at crucial moments in recent games and a soft approach to killing off teams has led to a return of just three points from the last 12 available.
While Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy have been the headline acts at Leicester aptly served by a support cast that will keep those prized assets away from the clutches of clubs in need of desperate additions this January, Everton need to start delivering with the level of consistency expected from them to prevent the ‘golden generation’ that Martinez speaks of from disbanding.
The problems at Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United have dominated the back pages, keeping the the sense of frustration among Evertonians flickering somewhat under the radar.
But with only one win in six, a promising start that had seen a solid return from playing last season’s top eight in their opening 10 fixtures has been undone.
The shadow of Mourinho hanging over his old friend van Gaal is very real, and should the mediocre results continue at Everton, it is one that will loom just as ominously over the blue half of Merseyside.