As Everton prepare for their final home game of the season, the visit of relegation-threatened Southampton on Saturday, attention will soon turn to next season. For eight players, their first campaign at the club is drawing to a close. Some might not last much longer at Everton.
Sandro Ramirez joined with his potential widely touted but left for Sevilla on loan in January after just three starts and 277 minutes of Premier League football. Another expected to contribute was Davy Klaassen, but the former Ajax captain has featured even less than Ramirez -- 196 minutes, with only six since September as a late substitute against Brighton in March.
Along with Nikola Vlasic, the hope was that these players could replenish an attacking unit shorn of the creativity of Ross Barkley and the goals of Romelu Lukaku. Vlasic has featured more than Ramirez and Klaassen, but this has been a season of toil as his 75-minute outing against Huddersfield last time out marked his own first appearance since September.
An abrupt indicator of Ramirez, Klaassen and Vlasic's struggles is how free transfer and makeshift left-back Cuco Martina has played over 800 minutes more football this season than those three players combined. While Martina's prominence owes much to the injuries afflicting first-choice left-back Leighton Baines, it also underlines the travails of those three summer signings.
The decision to sign Klaassen appeared a sensible one, but the later return of Wayne Rooney for a second spell and signing of Gylfi Sigurdsson for a club-record fee left Everton with three No.10s. Sigurdsson looked to be finding form before injury struck in the game against Brighton in March, but the £45 million-man spent too much of this season on the left flank.
Elsewhere, Michael Keane was the main defensive signing of the summer, yet his first season has been mixed. Keane has been the most used of the six central defenders currently at the club, but the aim for next season must be cementing his status as the primary centre-back in a defence still heavily reliant on 35-year-old Phil Jagielka.
Rooney and Jordan Pickford, the two summer signings leaving the greatest impression, dominated the club's end-of-season awards on Tuesday night. Pickford deservedly collected the Young Player of the Season, Player of the Season and Players' Player of the Season, while Rooney picked up the Goal of the Season and Individual Performance for his hat trick against West Ham in December.
Pickford is one of the few positives in a season short on them. He kept Everton afloat in the opening months of the season, ensuring they remained in contention in matches in which they were comfortably second best. The former Sunderland goalkeeper is the only Everton player to play every minute of every league game this season.
Rooney is an anomaly among the summer signings, though, as despite his status as top scorer, his role within the team remains the subject of debate. While Pickford has not missed a minute of action, Rooney has been substituted a club-record 24 times in all competitions.
The former England captain scored in his first two league games, but the sheen has fallen off both his output and his performances and he has not scored or assisted a goal since doing both in the 3-1 win against Swansea in December. Three yellow cards, a missed penalty and a succession of substitutions are the story of his 16 appearances since then.
Rooney has appeared in every conceivable midfield and attacking role but the search for his best position continues. Creativity was one of the main selling points for his Goodison return but Rooney has as many assists as Martina this season (two). Yellow cards (five) outweigh assists.
Central midfield has been Rooney's home of late, but 28 tackles and 16 interceptions in 31 starts shows his difficulty in getting to grips with an unfamiliar role. Opposing teams have been able to exploit this, notably Manchester City and Liverpool in recent weeks.
Rooney trudging off around the hour mark is a familiar sight with only one full 90-minute outing in his last six matches. A factor in this has to be carelessness in possession as erratic passing is a constant feature and no Everton player has been dispossessed more times than Rooney this term (57).
Everton must learn from this batch of summer signings as Pickford is the exception to an otherwise mixed summer window. Finding a position and use for Rooney is also a priority, as a central midfield on a regular basis is not the answer for him. That the Rooney conundrum remains unsolved and his best position unclear says much about his Everton return.