On Saturday Everton were exposed by injuries and a lack of squad depth and went down to a sobbering 3-0 loss at Aston Villa ending their unbeaten start to the season.
After that fine start to the campaign with Everton playing some exciting and energetic attacking football, Saturday’s defeat brought Blues fans back down to earth.
The Toffees have again suffered a succession of injuries depriving them of both their main strikers, their right-back and captain and England international goalkeeper when they faced Villa. Frankly most teams including those with better talent, would struggle with that kind of bad luck.
So perhaps inevitably Everton were lacklustre and dis-jointed and didn’t have the quality to really threaten their hosts eventually succumbing to a second half blitz from the home team.
It looks as though the Blues will be without both their starting forwards Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison for the next two or three weeks creating a massive problem up front for Rafa Benitez.
In addition, Seamus Coleman’s latest injury exposes an issue which has become a running sore, the lack of alternatives in his position.
All this gives the manager some major headaches to deal with.
Thinking about it in some ways this weekend’s match was very similar to many the Toffees played last season under Carlo Ancelotti when all the old frailities surfaced.
In particular chronic injuries compounding defensive issues that are never far below the surface and the lack of an ability to respond to adversity meaning the players essentially capitulated once they had lost the lead.
Before Saturday Benitez had been able to play in a very positive and attacking way using his new signings Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray to very good effect, something that was a pleasent surprise from what might have been expected from the Spaniard before the season started.
However, that is now going to be thrown into doubt because of all these frustrating but it seems so predictible, injury problems. So how will Benitez respond?
One possible approach would be to do something similar to what Ancelotti did when he as faced with a slew of injuries, particularly to his forwards and full-backs and plumeting form midway through last season.
In a very pragmatic move, the Italian decided to revert to a back four made up of central defenders with Mason Holgate and Ben Godfrey moving across to play at full-back alongside Yerry Mina and Micheal Keane.
This worked well for a while and it certainly made his Everton side hard to beat. On the downside though it meant that the team struggled to score goals and was not very entertaining to watch to put it mildly, although that was in part because he lacked the wide attacking options Benitez has.
I’m not saying Benitez should necessarily adopt this approach, but he appears not to have a lot of alternatives as moving to a back three doesn’t seem to work.
He’s also pragmatic himself and is going to find it tough to play the way his team has done without both his international forwards and a not yet match-fit new centre-forward in Salomon Rondon, who is still getting used to his team-mates.
Another reason why reverting to this sort of approach might be worth considering in the short-term, is the endless problems he has at full-back.
Obviously, Coleman’s current injury is simply the latest in a succession of injury problems he has suffered with for years now.
It’s clear that the 32-year-old is not the player he once was and is in his final few seasons at best. Everton should by now have found a long-term replacement for the Irishman allowing him to be a really useful reserve, something that will also help prolong his career.
Of course, the club again failed to address this issue in the last transfer window and now predictably this failure is coming back to bite them. Saturday’s game also again seemed to show that Godfrey is not comfortable playing right-back in Coleman’s place.
But it’s not just this seemingly endless problem that Benitez might have to sort out. At left-back Lucas Digne has also been a shadow of himself for perhaps a year or so becoming an increasingly less effective player.
It might seem a radical step but to be honest on current form I would be tempted to drop the Frenchman and put Godfrey back into this position where he did very well last season.
If Benitez did try something like this four centre-back solution, one possible way to try and make the tactic work in a more attacking way would be to use for example Alex Iwobi or James Rodriguez as a number ten behind Rondon and get Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend to join with them as much as possible on the counter-attack. Because he has the two wingers it doesn’t have to be as relentlessly defensive a system as it was under Ancelotti.
But there are more rumours Rodriguez might leave this time for a middle eastern club and this would mean Benitez has even fewer options in attack at a time when he’s dealing with all these absences. Would it be better to have the Colombian stay put at least until January?
At any rate whatever happens with Rodriguez, Benitez cannot afford to see his team regularly concede goals with the ease they did against Villa or things could unravel quickly. This is what happened last season when after a really good start the wheels came off and Everton never recovered eventually finishing mid-table.
And for Benitez the stakes are much higher than for his predecessor as if results turn against him, his so far solid relationship with the fans might well turn sour in double quick time.
So without his first-choice strike pair Benitez may be forced to take a more defensive approach to try and ensure his teams can stay in games even when they are under the cosh. This will be particularly inportant in tough fixtures like Manchester United away in two weeks time when he’s not likely to have either Calvert-Lewin or Richarlison available.
Well there are plenty of difficult issues now for the manager to wrestle with as the Blues face several important matches starting with a league cup tie against Queens Park Rangers tomorrow.