Blues frontman Dominic Calvert-Lewin was absent again for Sunday’s trip to the Etihad, marking the 10th match he has missed since picking up an injury against Brighton way back on the 28th August. Initially, the team coped adequately without his services, as other players - notably, newcomer Andros Townsend - chipped in with goals, but those days seemed a long time ago as the final whistle sounded in Manchester and the well-beaten Blues trudged forlornly off the pitch. The big Englishman is not an easy player to replace, given his combination of attributes - aerial presence, hard work, pace and solid hold-up play - and none of the alternatives that beleaguered manager Rafa Benitez has tried so far have come close to providing a viable alternative.
Against City, it was again Richarlison’s turn to provide a focal point for the team and as in his two previous attempts, against Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers, he was ineffective. The Brazilian has repeatedly stated his preference for playing through the middle, as a central striker but it is becoming increasingly apparent that he is a more influential player when operating in his more familiar wide left position.
In the last three games against City, Spurs and Wolves, he has been starved of the ball, with comfortably less than 30 touches in each match and has mustered only 1 shot on target - against Wolves. He has a pitiful combined xG (Expected Goals) of 0.1 from the last 2 games and created no chances for his teammates either. He cut a frustrated figure at the Etihad, which no doubt contributed to him picking up a dumb yellow card, his fifth of the season, ensuring the team will not have him available for their visit to Brentford at the weekend.
The team needs Richarlison on the pitch, but in a position where he can showcase his talent, running with the ball at pace, carving out opportunities and helping out defensively. As a striker he is wasted, chasing wild clearances or battling for high balls against bigger centre halves (winning only 1 of 9 aerial challenges on Sunday). Going off Benitez’ post-match comments, Salomon Rondon will likely replace the Brazilian against Brentford, though he has so far shown nothing in an Everton shirt and it is optimistic to expect this to change. Still, unless the manager rolls the dice and trusts a youngster such as Ellis Simms, the fans will be faced with watching Richarlison or the big Venezuelan struggling up top.
Caught in No Man’s Land
As anticipated, Benitez opted for a pragmatic approach against the defending Premier League champions, emphasizing structure and defensive responsibility. He deviated from the 4-1-4-1 that he’d implemented since the second half of the Wolves game, reverting to a 4-4-1-1, with Fabian Delph playing alongside Allan and Townsend pushed ahead as a nominal no.10. The game plan presumably was to cede possession to City, soak up pressure and then attempt to break with pace whenever opportunity presented; such tactics had served the team well enough earlier in the season. After a reasonable start however and in particular after the withdrawal through injury of Demarai Gray on 17 minutes robbed the Blues of much of their attacking threat, Everton found themselves effectively boxed in, the home team able to probe patiently for openings at will.
Starved of the ball - between the 15th and 30th minute City posted an amazing possession stat of 94.3% - the away side adopted a strangely passive stance, camped in their own half and unable to turn the ball over with any regularity. Everton’s defensive numbers looked pretty decent, but this was more a factor of how much defence they were playing, rather than a measure of its effect. Whether by inclination or instruction, the Toffees would put in an ineffective half-press, stopping well off the player with the ball, who consequently had ample time to play a probing pass, or simply recycle possession. It appeared as if the players were concerned with either being pulled out of position, leaving gaps to be exploited, or turned and beaten for pace. Either way, this method of play contributed to Pep Guardiola's men racking up a stunning 92.2% passing success rate. Substitute Riyad Mahrez, introduced after 58 minutes ended up with more touches than any Everton outfield player, a humbling statistic.
Whenever Everton pushed up their back line, the Mancunians would simply play balls over the top. The Blues became slowly mesmerized, unwilling to press actively, so concerned were they in maintaining a rigid shape and offering no significant threat during those rare and brief periods of transition.
Few Blues fans will have been surprised by the loss on Sunday, even the manner in which it unfolded. This is a measure of the gulf in class that exists between the two sides and also the current funk that the team finds itself in. The display on Sunday continued the worrying trend of a faltering attack and it is unclear when, or if this slump will correct itself. There is yet no firm date given for Calvert-Lewin’s return. Richarlison is being totally wasted as a centre forward and is suspended for the next match. Gray is now injured, with initial reports suggesting he could be out until the New Year. Abdoulaye Doucoure is nearing a return as is Yerry Mina.
On Sunday and last week against Spurs, Townsend was sacrificed in a central position, deployed more for his work rate and ability to follow instruction, rather than for his attacking threat. To an extent this is out of necessity, as Everton’s options in midfield have steadily dwindled. If Delph had not somehow managed to be available for 3 consecutive matches, then things would be looking even bleaker. The upcoming game against an out-of-form Brentford side is absolutely vital, as beyond that the Goodison Derby looms, followed by tough fixtures against EFC old boy Mikel Arteta’s youthful Arsenal side, Patrick Viera's vibrant Crystal Palace outfit and Thomas Tuchel’s commanding Chelsea, the reigning European champions.
With a patched together midfield and anaemic forward options, what on Earth is Benitez going to do? Barring a miracle early return for one of the club’s many injured players, it appears the manager will simply replace Richarlison and Gray with Rondon and Alex Iwobi and retain either the formation deployed at the Etihad, or the 4-1-4-1 fielded against Tottenham and during the second half at Molineux. Of course, Rafa sees these players every day in training, but desperate times may call for desperate measures and perhaps he should roll the dice and give a couple of the youngsters, such as towering striker Ellis Simms, or promising midfielder Tyler Onyango a chance? Or call on Jean-Philippe Gbamin to play in a midfield 3, with Delph and Allan, freeing up the influential Townsend to resume his role on the right flank? True, the Ivorian struggled mightily against Wolves a couple of weeks ago, but he was hardly alone in that regard and will not regain his form by staying rooted to the bench.
Whatever Benitez decides, this moment is pivotal and he must get it right this time, both in terms of personnel and approach.