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Big Sam bags much-needed win

Everton
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Everton with personnel questions despite rousing start to the summer

If the early stages of the transfer window sent supporter optimism off the scale, the subsequent lull and two sleep-inducing Europa League performances offer a heavy dose of perspective as Everton prepare to face Stoke in their opening game on Saturday.

Preseason promise does exist by way of the youthful summer signings acquired in the first few days of the window. Each of the new recruits has shown enough in their brief time in royal blue to suggest they can be important players as the season develops.

Yet even with summer spending set to surpass the £100 million mark, there is a sense this Everton squad is several quality additions away from the level required to balance a pursuit of the top six with the demands of European football.

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A daunting fixture list also does few favours for a team that has opened each of the last four seasons with a draw. Victory against Manchester United in 2012-13 marks the only opening day success in the last nine seasons. With a hectic August showing five matches in 16 days, Koeman has plenty to ponder while attempting to assemble a starting XI from the much-changed squad at his disposal.

Much rests on whether Everton can fill the goalscoring void created by Romelu Lukaku's £75 million move to Manchester United. Any criticism of his all-round game falls away once compared to his goalscoring exploits. The Belgium striker directly contributed to 31 of the 62 league goals Everton scored last season (25 goals, six assists)

On the evidence of preseason, in the absence of an attacking focal point in the Lukaku mould, current hopes rest on several players interchanging and sharing the goalscoring burden. The identity of those players is the litmus test for Koeman, as a squad blessed with options in central areas is thin in wide areas. This has carried over from last season and at its worst can leave Everton seeming one-dimensional and one-paced in possession.

Admittedly, this absence of width is an issue Koeman inherited. Over time, the full-back role has become a thankless task. Left-back Leighton Baines recently reached 10 years of service at the club. For the last few years of this decade, the 32-year-old has effectively played two positions, operating as both the defensive and attacking output on the left flank with minimal support.

Wayne Rooney makes a pass during Everton's Europa League win against Ruzomberok.
How to deploy Wayne Rooney and how he will fare in his Everton return are two pressing questions.

In the opposing full-back position, the long-term absence of right-back Seamus Coleman means Koeman must decide between a trio of options ranging from the unconvincing to the inexperienced. Supporters are clamouring for the introduction of Jonjoe Kenny. The 20-year-old has impressed in brief cameos but his lack of experience at this level is likely to see Koeman opt for Mason Holgate or Cuco Martina. Width higher up the pitch has been equally hard to find in a preseason mostly consisting of forwards operating in wide areas, with their tendency to drift infield merely congesting an already packed middle third.

Sandro Ramirez, Wayne Rooney and Dominic Calvert-Lewin alternating between attack and midfield have yielded mixed results. Ramirez has shown the sharpest movement and looks a threat within sight of the opposing penalty area. Calvert-Lewin is the youngest of the three and still learning but looks far more promising when used through the middle.

That leaves Rooney, who seems certain to make his second Everton league debut on Saturday. All eyes will be on the former Manchester United striker this weekend but his best position remains unclear. A deeper role off the right similar to that which Ross Barkley occupied last season would appear his likely berth for now. Nevertheless, there is much work to do if Rooney is to show he can contribute on a regular basis.

Everton need to stretch the pitch and move away from an attacking outlook that puts unreasonable expectations on their passing game. The squad is short on speed, both in terms of pace and quickness of thought. Movement off the ball is as much an issue as the lack of pace. As a result, these factors combine to leave players easily crowded out and without sufficient time or space to effectively retain possession and build attacks.

In that regard, a braver and bolder choice would be the inclusion of Ademola Lookman. His impressive exploits at the Under-20 World Cup saw the 19-year-old slowly eased back into preseason. Lookman's 20-minute cameo in the recent Sevilla friendly saw more invention and attacking intent than most of the other preseason games combined.

Without Lukaku and with uncertainty over the future of Barkley, Everton must find alternative means for creating chances and scoring goals. Lookman may lack for consistency and experience but his raw pace and ability to commit players can help unlock opposition defences. The youngster may not always stay out wide but his presence alone and ability to attract multiple players to the ball can open up space for teammates.

When Tom Davies became an ever-present midway through last season, his positive impact and infectious approach helped galvanise the team and shake them from a midseason slump. Lookman could have a similar effect this season, adding much-needed pace and exuberance in the final third.

Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.

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