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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Oumar Niasse's heroics papering over the cracks in Everton's forward line

The victory over Bournemouth cannot hide the lack of options upfront that Ronald Koeman's side have following the sale of Romelu Lukaku.

Everton's Oumar Niasse celebrates the second of his two goals against Bournemouth. Peter Powell / Reuters
Everton's Oumar Niasse celebrates the second of his two goals against Bournemouth. Peter Powell / Reuters

It was arguably the worst substitution of Roberto Martinez’s time at Goodison Park.

It was March 2016. Everton, despite being down to 10 men, were leading West Ham United 2-0.

Off came Aaron Lennon, who had excelled as an ersatz No 10.

On came Oumar Niasse, a new signing who had already had his doubters. Fifteen minutes later, West Ham had won 3-2.

Niasse was not at fault for the disastrous defending in his cameo, but it felt emblematic.

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It was arguably the best substitution of Ronald Koeman’s time at Goodison Park. Everton were 1-0 down to Bournemouth, headed for a fourth straight league defeat without scoring.

Off came Wayne Rooney, supposedly the focal point of their attack. On came Niasse, the man who had been denied a squad number and, allegedly, a locker by Koeman after a 45-minute display in a pre-season friendly.

Thirty-five minutes later, Everton had won 2-1. Niasse had both goals. Some 600 days after joining, he finally opened his league account.

Given how rare sightings of him in an Everton shirt have been, Niasse has largely been a symbolic figure.

He has gone from lost cause to cause celebre, generally without playing. It was about what he represented: when he was picked, he was an indictment of Martinez; when he was frozen out, he was an indictment of Koeman.

That is partly a consequence of the dignified way a seemingly likeable figure has responded to apparently unfair treatment. Yet it also highlights the changing mood and backdrop at Everton.

A club where forceful, scoring strikers have tended to be revered are now strangely short of specialist centre-forwards.

They had Romelu Lukaku, their most potent finisher since Gary Lineker, sold him without securing a direct replacement and the closest equivalent in Koeman’s squad is Dominic Calvert-Lewin, brimming with promise but a veteran of one top-flight goal.

They have accumulated No 10s and tried starting three, Rooney, Davy Klaassen and Gylfi Sigurdsson, against Bournemouth.

It is the second time all three have begun together; the first was a poor display against Tottenham Hotspur and the evidence is that they cannot play together.

That may bode particularly badly for Klaassen, who has been especially unimpressive so far.

Having begun with the supposed creators, Everton ended up with an old-fashioned strike partnership, consisting of two men with the aerial ability to win a header and the pace and determination to run in behind a defence.

Pairing Calvert-Lewin with Niasse brought urgency, something the Goodison faithful understand and appreciate.

Shorn of Lukaku, Everton have looked too old and too slow. They have spent £145 million (Dh720.5m) assembling a side that lacks balance, both in terms of needing speed and width and in terms of fitting physical players alongside more technical ones.

Perhaps it would have been different were Seamus Coleman and Yannick Bolasie fit but Everton knew both were long-term absentees.

Perhaps it would have been different had Koeman picked Kevin Mirallas more often but the Belgian has been marginalised.

Perhaps it would have been different had they succeeded in ambitions attempts to sign Olivier Giroud or Diego Costa to lead the line, but they did not.

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There was insufficient contingency planning, which is made all the more damning as it was an open secret Lukaku was leaving.

Everton have been undermined by bad planning and confused thinking. They have collected some types of footballers while leaving themselves short of others.

Parts of their spending spree should be justified – Michael Keane and Jordan Pickford especially – but Koeman’s decision to pursue both Klaassen and Sigurdsson while the club wanted Rooney remains bizarre.

It all created a void which the deserving Niasse could fill. He probably is not the long-term answer and certainly is not a striker of Lukaku’s stature but a victim of circumstances 18 months ago is a beneficiary of them now.

A man they almost sold to Crystal Palace last month is reprieved and rejuvenated, but that merely underlines just how much Everton botched the question of the succession.