The release of Everton's team-sheet an hour before their Premier League meeting with Newcastle United on Sunday prompted more raised eyebrows than a Carlo Ancelotti-themed Halloween party.
Ironically, the Everton manager was probably the only person who wouldn't have shown any visible signs of surprise when he listed no fewer than five central midfielders in his starting XI. Yet, despite an abundance of midfielders Pep Guardiola would envy (the sheer quantity, more than the personnel), Everton desperately struggled to create any chances worthy of the term against a well organised Newcastle side.
On the face of it, Everton didn't fair too badly. Dominic Calvert-Lewin took his league tally to eight in seven games, they fired off 15 shots to Newcastle's 11 and were ultimately separated by a penalty as the Magpies held on to win 2-1.
However, this was a match where every road was a cul-de-sac for Everton, and it's the quality of those chances which will raise Ancelotti's famous brow.
11 of the 15 efforts Everton manufactured against Newcastle had less than a 7% chance of scoring according to UnderStat's expected goals (xG) model. Yet, Everton's early season surge to the summit of the Premier League has been in stark contrast to their blunt performance on Tyneside. Going into the weekend's fixtures, Everton's efforts have been twice as deadly - the Toffees boasted an average of 0.14 xG per shot, the joint-best record in the division.
Calvert-Lewin's 91st-minute consolation was the only decent opening the Toffees could muster and came the 23-year-old's way thanks to a deflection, rather than an incisive pass.
The renewed goalscoring vigour of Everton's number nine over the past year has largely seen the newly capped England international capitalise upon chances a handful of yards out, between the width of the goalposts. However, if Everton don't have anyone to present Calvert-Lewin with opportunities of this quality, his impact will be limited to his excellent hold up play.
With Gylfi Sigurdsson and Andre Gomes - perhaps the two slowest players in Everton’s roster - nominally starting on the flanks, immediately the eye was draw to the attacking personnel that weren’t available for the trip to St James’ Park.
James Rodríguez - 90min’s player of the month for September - was an obvious and huge loss. Despite concerns surrounding his match sharpness before his arrival, James has slotted seamlessly into his new side, peppering each game with a flurry of probing passes which were noticeably lacking on Sunday.
His fellow South American Richarlison was also sidelined. Incredibly, Sunday's loss means Everton still haven’t won a single Premier League game without their number seven since the Brazilian joined the club in July 2018. As well as his creativity and goal threat, Everton have missed his dogged defensive work in recent weeks, particularly during the 2-0 loss to Southampton.
However, they weren’t the only notable absentees.
Ancelotti may have fielded five central midfielders but Allan was the only one of that quintet who actively stayed in the centre of midfield. While Sigurdsson and Gomes laboured out wide, Abdoulaye Doucouré and Fabian Delph dropped into the right and left back slots respectively as their defensive teammates were tasked with bombing forward.
With a full-strength squad, this would have been a much more threatening tactic. Yet, as well as his first-choice wide men, Ancelotti was without both Seamus Coleman and Lucas Digne, both of whom have proven to be ample providers so far. Jonjoe Kenny and Niels Nkounkou didn't look particularly out of their depth as replacements, but did fail to muster a single key pass between them while they were on the pitch.
All told, Everton’s four key absentees accounted for eight of the 11 league assists the squad has registered so far this season. And it showed.
Ancelotti, with his typically calm and circumspect outlook still in tact after match, admitted 'it was not a good performance' but stressed that although his side had created little, Newcastle were equally unthreatening before the penalty ten minutes into the second half.
While that isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of his side, it conveys the lack of an overreaction one performance from a heavily depleted starting XI against a well-drilled and resolute Newcastle deserves.
With James and Digne set to return when Everton host Manchester United on Saturday - and Richarlison due back for the following fixture - Ancelotti won't have to field a team stripped of his creative quartet. Yet, in a season as compressed and riddled with fixtures as the 2020/21 campaign, this unfortunate scenario may rear its ugly head once again.