When Theo Walcott volleyed his second goal past Kasper Schmeichel on Tuesday night, the Goodison Park faithful could have been excused a double take. His match-winning contribution against Leicester City meant that in his first two games for Everton, Walcott had scored twice, and assisted a game-saving equaliser for Oumar Niasse against West Brom.
After such a dismal, directionless six months for the club there was, at last, the sense of something going right.
Nothing about this season has gone as Everton wanted. This was supposed to be the year they closed the gap, adding the stardust needed to become part of the leading pack. The funds of Farhad Moshiri and player-spotting expertise of Steve Walsh -- coupled with an opportunity to reshape a side that had been reliant on the goals of Romelu Lukaku -- should have dovetailed to raise them from also-rans. In came Gylfi Sigurdsson, Wayne Rooney, Davy Klaassen, Jordan Pickford and Sandro Ramirez; the wider world nodded appreciatively at their intent, around £150 million of it, but things turned sour almost instantly.
"Last summer is generally viewed as a disaster by most people," said David Downie, owner of The Blue Room, an Everton website. "It was very easy for fans to get carried away with the unprecedented level of spend, but the reality quickly dawned that there was a scattergun approach to recruitment by Walsh and Ronald Koeman that resulted in a severely unbalanced squad."
Everton sit 11 points behind the top six. Klaassen, who cost £23.6m from Ajax, would have joined Napoli before this week's transfer deadline had it not been for what Sam Allardyce -- Koeman's successor -- described as "something about a sporting contract ... with a sporting company." Ramirez was successfully shipped off to Sevilla on loan while Allardyce admitted after the West Brom draw that Rooney and Sigurdsson might be too slow to regularly start games together. Pickford, an outstanding prospect in goal, is arguably the only summer signing to have shown his worth so far, and it has left Everton with an almost absurd sense of needing to start from scratch.
"It feels like a complete state of limbo now, given the lack of direction and identity engulfing the club," Downie said.
It was never meant to be this way. The appointment of Walsh as director of football shortly after his previous club, Leicester City, had remarkably won the league in 2016 was supposed to signal a long-term strategy based on sensible acquisitions that would, hopefully, match the impact the previously unknown N'Golo Kante had at Leicester City. Instead, Everton find themselves lumbered -- in Klaassen, Sigurdsson and Rooney -- with three costly No. 10s, no proven solution at centre-forward and clear weaknesses at left-back and in central midfield.
There appears to have been a disconnect between Walsh's idea of squad building and the needs of Everton's managers.
"Walsh needs to work with the manager on establishing the club's playing style and philosophy in order to recruit players that fit the model, as opposed to the reckless approach last summer," Downie said.
To some extent, that appears to have happened since Allardyce's arrival in December. Allardyce sanctioned the signing of striker Cenk Tosun from Besiktas for £27m and certainly pushed for Walcott's signature, aware that Everton lacked legs and energy. Added to the loan arrival of Eliaquim Mangala, it means Everton have emerged from the January transfer window looking stronger -- but the wider problem remains obvious.
Everton's dealings since sacking Koeman have been born of necessity -- sticking plasters to arrest a slide caused by serious misjudgements. That includes the arrival of Allardyce himself, who Downie describes as "a manager nobody wanted but one Everton needed and deserved, given the situation." He is contracted to the club until summer 2019 and, at 63, there is little expectation or appetite for his tenure to be long-term.
The club were unable to tempt Watford into letting go of manager Marco Silva in November, despite offering a sum reported in some quarters to be as high as £20m; Silva now is available for far less having been sacked by the Hornets and that is unlikely to have escaped the attention of Moshiri and the club's board.
Everton have picked up 16 points from Allardyce's 11 top-flight games in charge. He has steadied the ship, even if his pragmatism has not always gone down well, but the sense in breaking with him this summer would be obvious. He will keep them up and, aided by the quality of Walcott in particular, will probably see them through to a respectable league finish -- but what about that long-term planning?
"The club needs to establish an identity over the summer and they should be working on that right now," Downie said. "Nobody appears to know what or who Everton are nowadays."
For all Walcott's fine early form, there is bemusement that Ademola Lookman, the impressive young winger lured by Walsh from Charlton, was allowed to join RB Leipzig on loan as a result. That was surely not the idea at the start of the season; Everton have, through their own lack of foresight and loss of direction, ended up feeling obliged to lean on experience -- stymying the development of their young players and bloating the squad further.
There are issues at boardroom level, too. When Moshiri made his ill-fated, ultimately destabilising approach to Watford for Silva, there were reports that he did not consult some of his more experienced colleagues, again pointing to a lack of joined-up thinking and an eagerness to barrel on regardless of consequence.
It has to change if Everton, who plan to move into a new 50,000-seater stadium in 2022, are to realise their potential. In the long run, it would be best to chalk this year off as an expensive failure -- taking the lessons, moving on and finally installing Silva in place of Allardyce with a long-term brief after the season concludes.
"I think his man management and progressive style of football could be a great fit for Everton," Downie added.
That was how many perceived Koeman until last summer's fiasco; Everton have the time and resources to put it right this time and equip a manager properly, but a failure to learn from this season would be intolerable.