Everton make the short trip to Burnley on Saturday desperately seeking to recapture their sparkling early-season form that seems to have deserted them in recent weeks.
The Toffees slumped to a fourth defeat in five against Leeds last week to fall to eighth in the table, though it was the kind of ding-dong battle that could have gone either way.
Leeds were very impressive and carved out numerous chances, but Everton were also dangerous, especially in the first half when they had two goals marginally ruled out for offside and forced Whites goalkeeper Illan Meslier into several smart stops.
The Toffees did fade after the break and offered nothing once Leeds had scored, but it wasn’t the one-sided rout some commentators made it out to be.
Had Everton taken the three points they would have moved into the top four, so it is important not to get too despondent, while recognising that every point is precious in what is turning out to be one of the most tightly contested Premier Leagues in years.
It’s clear sides have begun to exploit the Toffees’ weaknesses, while a worryingly porous defence has failed to keep a clean sheet since the opening day of the season.
Everton’s first-choice XI is good enough to compete with anyone, but there is little depth there, meaning even a couple of injuries can cause things to fall apart. You only have to look at the sight of Alex Iwobi and Tom Davies as wing-backs as evidence of that.
It’s imposing to say the least and will be a true test of the side’s ambitions this season. It also makes the need to claim three points at Turf Moor on Saturday even more important.
Burnley are enjoying their longest run in the top flight since the 1960s, but they face a real fight if they are to secure a sixth successive season in the Premier League.
Sean Dyche’s side have stayed up comfortably in each of their last four seasons, finishing 16th, seventh, 15th and 10th, but find themselves second bottom with just five points.
Dyche, who will take charge of his 200th Premier League game on Saturday, was left frustrated in the transfer market over the summer, with key players moving on without being replaced.
Dale Stephens from Brighton was the only new recruit, though they did manage to keep hold of defender James Tarkowski, while young winger Dwight McNeil signed a new deal.
The result was a run of six defeats from their opening nine games, their worst start to a season for nearly 40 years, while their tally of four goals is the joint-lowest across England’s top four divisions so far this season.
A gritty 1-0 win over Crystal Palace steadied the ship, before a 5-0 thrashing by Manchester City last week brought them back down to earth.
Reports of an imminent takeover suggests brighter times lie ahead for the Clarets, but in the here and now, it looks set to be a real scrap between now and the end of the season.
Everton 1-0 Burnley, December 26, 2019
Carlo Ancelotti’s first game in charge ended in victory thanks to a late diving header from Dominic Calvert-Lewin on Boxing Day last year.
Leeds (H) Lost 1-0
Fulham (A) Won 3-2
Man Utd (H) Lost 3-1
Newcastle (A) Lost 2-0
Southampton (A) Lost 2-0
Man City (A) Lost 5-0
Crystal Palace (H) Won 1-0
Brighton (A) Drew 0-0
Chelsea (H) lost 3-0
Tottenham (H) Lost 1-0
Everton will still be without Seamus Coleman despite the Toffees captain resuming individual training after a hamstring injury.
Lucas Digne hopes to be back within three months after successful ankle surgery, while Jean-Philippe Gbamin is edging closer to a return.
What they said
Everton boss Carlo Ancelotti: “It is important to have consistency in our results.
“In this period, we want to stay in touch and prepare well for the second part of the season.
“Burnley have a strong identity and strong organisation.
“It will be a tough game, they are better now compared to the start of the season.
“We know what kind of game to expect.
“We haven’t found balance yet; we are really good offensively but had problems defensively.
“We have tried to solve this problem and every game is a test to see how we are.
“Against Burnley, I hope we can be better in this [defensive] aspect.”
Burnley manager Sean Dyche: “They have an incredibly experienced manager and a strong group of players.
“I think it shows the strength of the Premier League
“In a strange way it is pleasing to see that bigger clubs and top managers have those tough spells and that it can happen to anyone
“They are a very good side. We have to take on the mentality on from the Palace game and make sure we look after ourselves.”
I can’t see this game being very pretty. I reckon it will be a tight, gritty battle of attrition, even with our ropey defensive record.
With that mind, I would happily take a scrappy 1-0 to get the season back on track.