David Unsworth hung out to dry as Everton stumble over new boss
Everton travel to Southampton on Sunday ruing the two-match suspension handed to Oumar Niasse for simulation. A player who spent much of the past year with the Under-23 team has become the one beacon of hope for fans in this miserable season.
As recently as a few months ago, the idea Everton would rue the loss of Niasse felt incomprehensible, never mind that he would also be top scorer at the time. The fact that his absence is a genuine blow speaks volumes.
While Niasse embarks on a stirring resurrection, after former manager Ronald Koeman discarded him for most of his tenure, Everton are nursing a swift European exit and dismal league form.
This season of lows reached a new nadir with 5-1 defeat at home to Atalanta on Thursday. Faced with a meaningless European tie before a trip to Southampton and successive home league games, caretaker manager David Unsworth made nine changes and challenged those on the fringes to stake their claim. The result was quite the opposite as a crowd of barely 17,000 witnessed a shambolic performance and the heaviest home defeat in the club's European history.
This latest collapse in a season full of them saw three goals conceded in eight minutes at the end of the match. Whereas teams tend to regroup and re-establish a foothold in the match after conceding, Everton tend to wither and lose grip on the basics.
Such fragility leaves Unsworth desperately searching for a remedy as a squad low on confidence continues to leak goals at an alarming rate, conceding two or more in their past eight matches in all competitions. A season that began with four successive clean sheets in all competitions has seen just one clean sheet and 42 goals conceded in the 19 matches since.
Part of the problem, though, is that Unsworth has gradually started to repeat the same mistakes and the outlook has not changed in the way many hoped it would. Even accounting for the changes in personnel, the Atalanta defeat demonstrated many of the issues that eventually saw Koeman sacked: with players out of position, there was neither organisation, structure nor any sign of a clear formation, particularly in the second half.
Unsworth has seen his long-term prospects for the job fade amid a run of four defeats in six matches and 16 goals conceded.
In truth, Unsworth has seemed out of his depth in recent matches, but the blame for this situation lies with a club hierarchy that once again leaves supporters despairing at matters on and off the pitch. Stumbling from one misstep to the next has often felt like the default state for Everton in recent years. This entire situation is unfair on Unsworth and the longer it goes on, the more attention turns on those tasked with deciding on a long-term replacement.
Everton are now more than a month on from sacking Koeman, following the 5-2 home defeat to Arsenal and an immediate run of four games in 12 days preceded a two-week international break. With Unsworth overseeing those matches, the subsequent lull offered time to identify and appoint a successor, but that window came and went without resolution, or even an update from the club.
Instead, this lack of activity, lack of communication with supporters and an entirely unsubtle chase of Watford manager Marco Silva, has left Everton looking amateurish.
It took until last Thursday for the silence to break, with majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri revealing that the club's shortlist consists of three managers and that Everton are close to an appointment -- although those two statements rather contradict each other.
That this announcement and a misguided vote of confidence for Koeman earlier in the season both arrived through the bizarre medium of Sky Sports broadcaster Jim White is another point of contention and reflects poorly on the club. Everton have often felt like a comedy of errors off the pitch and releasing statements via notes sent to an unaffiliated presenter, rather than over official club channels, merely adds to that view. Along with frequent criticism over the years for a lack of clarity and interaction with supporters on key issues, this perplexing method of communication does little to help matters.
All of this adds up to a situation that sees Unsworth in an unwarranted and unfair position, while preparing for his seventh match in charge this weekend. Effectively doing the club a favour, stepping in to hold the fort, the U23 boss has instead been hung out to dry and, in light of the Moshiri statement, somewhat undermined.
Preseason optimism feels like a lifetime ago. Everton are living in a mess that is all their own making, as the poor planning and decision-making evident during a summer of wanton spending repeats itself during this clumsy search for a new manager.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.