Everton and Morgan Schneiderlin need a Europa League lift
Eight matches into the new season is no time for panic, that much is clear, but it feels like Everton need a momentum change after dispiriting league defeats to Chelsea and Tottenham.
Losing those two matches was not entirely surprising -- Everton are winless at Stamford Bridge in 23 years and without a win against Tottenham in 10 league meetings -- but the lack of resistance offered caused concern.
The minimal attacking threat was perhaps the main worry to emerge from the two matches. Everton possessing more yellow cards (eight) than shots on target (seven) is a damning indictment on the football served up in the first four league games. Some players in the division have had more shots on target than the entire Everton team.
Such unflattering statistics need quick attention. In that regard, the start of the Europa League group stage and a trip to Atalanta on Thursday is an opportunity to begin this recovery. With their Italian hosts favouring a system similar to the one Tottenham used to such devastating effect on Saturday, the onus is on both manager Ronald Koeman and his players to show they have learnt from that defeat.
Among those seeking improvement are midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin. Since putting on a midfield clinic on his full debut at Stoke in February, completing 71 of 74 attempted passes, the French midfielder has generally impressed alongside the indefatigable Idrissa Gueye.
Yet seven months on, while Gueye continues to show remarkable consistency, Schneiderlin is facing his first significant test as a sluggish start has some questioning his place in the team. Off the pace and somewhat culpable for two of the three goals conceded, there were times when the Tottenham midfield left Schneiderlin chasing shadows. Even the customary telescopic slide tackles proved elusive as the visitors cantered to victory.
With the departure of Gareth Barry to West Brom, there is added pressure on Schneiderlin as the only central midfielder capable of playing the same deep-lying playmaker role and delivering a much-needed attacking platform.
Unfortunately, none of those traits surfaced against Tottenham. In possession especially, the 27-year-old appears to be suffering a crisis of confidence, shying away from this responsibility, taking the safe option or refusing the ball entirely. Too many passes went sideways or back to the defender playing the initial pass.
To look at this loss of form, though, it is only fair to reflect on how difficult a task Schneiderlin faces at present. Confidence may be a factor, but this seeming reluctance to play telling forward passes also owes to a system making effective football nigh on impossible.
When Schneiderlin picks up possession, there are scant passing options ahead of the ball. Even simple passes become a test of endurance due to the lack of width and movement in front of the passer. Centre-back Michael Keane is often seen gesturing to his teammates when bringing the ball out from the back.
There is not enough passing football and most of it is in the wrong areas. Due to the absence of an attacking focal point and midfield width, defenders are monopolising the ball as Everton struggle to move out of their own half in possession.
Koeman opted for Gylfi Sigurdsson, Davy Klaassen and Wayne Rooney in the three advanced midfield roles against Tottenham. In choosing three slightly different versions of the same player, with all three wanting to occupy the No.10 role, the narrowness of the setup left the remainder of his team with nowhere to go on the ball.
It is no coincidence the best Schneiderlin display in this campaign arrived on the one occasion Koeman opted for genuine width on the flanks in the 2-0 win at home to Hajduk Split in the previous round of this competition.
In the end, an early booking and slight knock saw the midfielder withdrawn at half time as a precaution, but those 45 minutes remain the most enterprising display served up by either Schneiderlin or Everton in the first eight games.
Opening up the pitch, creating space for teammates and dragging opposing defenders out of their comfort zone, the threat provided out wide allowed the former Manchester United midfielder to dictate play in a manner replicating last season. The use of width also serves as an effective means of pinning back opposing full-backs or wing-backs, something Everton failed to do against Chelsea and Tottenham.
Remedying the problems evident in possession can help reboot Everton after two anaemic outings, and it might also be the key to returning Schneiderlin to his playmaking best in front of the defence.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.