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Fulham defeat highlights how far Everton still has to go

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The Cottagers refused to play into the Toffees’ hands

Fulham FC v Everton FC - Premier League Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

Everton’s victories over West Ham United and Arsenal the last two weeks shared one common thread — while the Toffees played well in both matches, both the Hammers and the Gunners made tactical decisions that allowed Everton to thrive by playing its preferred style.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to take a look at what I wrote after the victory over West Ham two weeks ago and against Arsenal last week, because what happened on Saturday at Craven Cottage has a lot to do with what I discussed from those matches.

Marco Silva and Everton found success utilizing relatively high pressure in both of those matches. They managed to force turnovers in the midfield and quickly turn opponent’s mistakes into chances.

West Ham and Arsenal both played systems with three center-backs and wing-backs pushed pretty high up the field — which played right into Everton’s hands. Idrissa Gueye and Andre Gomes feasted on the opponent’s two-man midfield, and then knocked the ball behind the wing-backs, setting Bernard and Richarlison free in behind the opponent’s backline.

Fulham played a similar system in each of its last two matches before this weekend, but interim manager Scott Parker wisely moved his team into a 4-2-3-1 against Everton. Fulham played more direct than either West Ham or Arsenal, and its three-man midfield meant more potential passing lanes for the Cottagers when they did elect to play through the midfield.

Gana and Gomes, then, were unable to create the volume of turnovers in the midfield that were so integral to the Toffees’ victories over West Ham and Arsenal. And even when those turnovers came, Fulham’s four-man back-line didn’t allow for as much quick-strike space in the wide areas at Everton had grown accustomed to in recent weeks.

So, Everton was forced to build its attacks through long periods of possession — and as we’ve seen pretty frequently this season, the Toffees don’t really know how to do that. The attack was stagnant, with players frequently standing still and looking around for someone else to make the key pass, dribble, or shot.

The result was a failure to score a goal against a Fulham defense that is historically bad — one that hadn’t given up fewer than two goals in a Premier League match since December 29 against fellow relegated side, Huddersfield Town.

There’s blame to go around for this utter disintegration. Marco Silva’s complete inability to find a workable Plan B has been his downfall for most of the season, and it was clear that once his preferred style wasn’t going to work against Fulham, he didn’t know what to do.

That said, the players looked absolutely resigned to a loss the moment Fulham scored early in the second half. Against an opponent of miserable quality and with European football still very much in play, the Toffees kept waiting for someone else to take charge in the match and lead the attack.

Gylfi Sigurdsson didn’t do it, Bernard didn’t do it, Richarlison didn’t do it, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin didn’t do it. All are good players who have had impressive performances over the last month, so the sky isn’t falling here. But criticism must be levied against attacking players for such an uninspired performance in such a winnable match.

Silva and Everton will have a chance to bounce back immediately next weekend, with Manchester United coming to Goodison Park. United plays a style more similar to that of West Ham and Arsenal, so Silva will surely be hoping that the team’s high-pressing style can earn him another three points against a quality side.

But with matches against Crystal Palace and Burnley still on the fixture list before the season ends, he’s going to need to figure out a consistent plan for matches like these — and I just don’t think he has one yet.