It was against Burnley last season that, even in a campaign of few peaks and countless troughs, Everton fell to one of their lowest ebbs.
They took the lead at Turf Moor early on through new signing Cenk Tosun’s first goal for the club, but would soon succumb to a thoroughly-deserved defeat.
First came the Clarets’ equaliser early in the second half, as Ashley Barnes brushed aside his former team-mate, Michael Keane, with embarrassing ease, before beating Jordan Pickford at his near post.
Then, with ten minutes left, came Burnley’s winner; Chris Wood escaping the advances - if that - from Ashley Williams from a corner, before heading past Pickford. Williams, Everton captain that day, would then be sent off in the final moments for elbowing Barnes, and has not played a minute of competitive football for the Blues since, having spent this term on loan at Championship also-rans Stoke City.
Fast-forward to Friday night, when Sean Dyche’s side visited Goodison Park and were comfortably disposed of by Marco Silva’s Toffees in a routine 2-0 win, and the difference could hardly been starker from that dark day in Lancashire.
Everton’s win on Friday marked the penultimate chapter in a remarkable change in fortunes; from looking a porous, disjointed shambles in January and early February, they have now kept eight clean sheets in their last ten games. Only Manchester City have conceded fewer than their five goals in that time.
Silva deserves great credit, of course, but the contribution of Kurt Zouma, the central defender whose loan spell from Chelsea will end after Sunday’s final game of the season at Tottenham Hotspur, to the recent run should not be overlooked, either.
Of Everton’s two loanees, he and midfielder André Gomes, many fans would say, perhaps understandably, that they would rather secure the permanent signing of the latter than the former.
With his elegance on the ball and eye for a devastating pass, the like of which Evertonians have not seen with enjoyed with such regularity since Mikel Arteta left in 2011, Gomes has been an enormous success since leaving Barcelona, who seem to be keen to show the door permanently this summer.
But while Gomes may be the more attractive option, Zouma, simply, is the more essential signing of the two.
He will doubtless cost an eye-watering fee; with four years remaining on his deal at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’ two-window transfer ban set to imposed from this summer and fellow centre-half Gary Cahill departing, Zouma will surely never get a better chance to establish himself as a mainstay in Maurizio Sarri’s defence.
But Everton will almost certainly be in the market for a centre-back anyway, with Williams’ contract expiring, and Phil Jagielka and possibly Mason Holgate also on their way. And for all the arguments that, in signing Zouma, the Blues would be spent a heft amount to merely retain what they already this season, sometimes continuity can go a long way in football.
Considering the defensive frailties which have continually stymied Everton’s progress in recent years, it could prove to be a huge retrograde step should a new partnership have to be established at the start of next season.
That defeat at Burnley last term rather characterised and encapsulated Michael Keane’s difficult first season; though he played through the pain barrier, under three different managers, alongside an ageing Jagielka or a hapless Williams for much of it, the £25 million signing from the Clarets looked worth a fraction of that fee for much of 2017/18.
This season, though, Keane has looked a man reborn, helped in no small part down to starting 21 games in a four-man defence with Zouma. The Frenchman is not the only reason for Keane’s renaissance this campaign, but is impossible to ignore the partnership which is blossoming at the heart of Silva’s defence between the two.
Yerry Mina, the £27 million purchase from Barcelona, has shown promise but has been sidelined by injury too often and his mere 14 appearances, spread out sporadically across the season, have put paid to any sort of extended run in the side for the Colombian. Were Zouma not to be signed, it would be, to a certain extent, back to square one for the manager.
This is not to say Everton should sign Zouma instead of Gomes; both would, ideally, be Everton players next term, and though Morgan Schneiderlin has impressed in the Portuguese midfielder’s absence lately, Silva will need more than him, Tom Davies, James McCarthy and Idrissa Gueye - assuming the Senegalese does not depart - in that area.
It’s just that, at long last, Everton have a back line which has looked, at times, almost impenetrable. It would be a shame, and possibly hugely detrimental, were that to be jettisoned this summer.
For all of his failings, Roberto Martínez, who could not organise a defence if his life depended on it at Goodison, wasted little time in tying down Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku from Manchester City and Chelsea respectively after the pair’s loan deals at the end of Everton’s record-breaking 2013/14 season.
Silva has had many unfair comparisons drawn between him and the Spaniard this season, but a similar determination to sort out permanent deals for his loanees would be among the more desirable ones.
For now, though, the more indispensable of the two has to be Zouma.