Benitez Needs to Find the Solution
Once more deprived of the outstanding Abdoulaye Doucoure, Everton boss Rafa Benitez opted to once more to simply replace the Frenchman. Last week, it was Tom Davies who received the call and although he started brightly, scoring a goal in the opening minutes, as the game progressed it became apparent that he was not an adequate substitute for the dynamic midfielder. On Saturday, it was the turn of the forgotten man that is Jean-Philippe Gbamin to fill that vital gap in Benitez’ 4-4-2 formation. In theory, the Ivorian is the most suitable direct replacement, as he is defensively responsible and the most physically imposing of Everton’s midfield options. However, he has almost no first team experience since joining from FSV Mainz 05 for £22.5m back in August 2019, playing only 236 minutes due to a variety of serious injuries.
From the outset it was obvious that Gbamin was not the answer. Along with his teammates he could not get on the ball, managing only 20 touches in 45 minutes. Uncertain of his role, he either sat too deep, or was caught upfield and bypassed easily. He lacks Doucoure’s pace and energy and alongside Allan was unable to cover the centre positionally, or exert effective pressure on the Wolves players.
Benitez switched to a central 3 in the second half, with Fabian Delph replacing Gbamin and sitting deeper as a holding midfielder, with winger Andros Townsend moving inside in a 4-3-3. Delph immediately gave the team a more stable, balanced feel as he has the positional discipline to play that anchor role, allowing Allan and Townsend to press more actively in front of him. The Wolves wide forwards had been cutting in behind Everton’s midfield and causing problems all game but this slackened off after the change.
The Spanish tactician will hopefully settle on this formation whilst the team is deprived of Doucoure’s unique assets.
Time for a Rest
Ben Godfrey was a revelation last season, having been signed from Norwich City for more than £20m after impressing in a relegated team. The then 22-year old was often deployed away from his favoured central defensive position, initially covering for the injured Seamus Coleman at right back, then playing 7 consecutive games at left back after Lucas Digne got hurt. Oddly, the right footed Yorkshireman fared better in the left full back position, than the right side. Of course, he offered little attacking threat, but his strength and raw pace meant that defensively he was rarely caught out and so strong in one-on-one duels that opposing players often gave up trying to take him on.
In addition, Ben bringing the ball out of defence and demonstrating his frightening acceleration was a feature of his game and a sure thing to get the watching TV audience behind him. Many fans considered him to be Everton’s player of the season, though ultimately he lost out to striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
Blues aficionados expected Godfrey to kick on this season and establish himself - probably alongside Yerry Mina - as part of a first choice central defensive partnership. Unfortunately, he fell ill with coronavirus during preseason and consequently missed the first 4 matches of the new campaign, returning for the Burnley game as part of a back 3. Since then he’s bounced around providing emergency cover at fullback and played a few matches in his natural central position. But in all honesty he’s struggled badly, even at centre half. Positionally he is all over the place and his normal pace and power is absent. Last season he was dribbled past only 14 times in all competitions, winning 64.1% of those duels; this term he’s already been beaten on 6 occasions and is only successful 40% of the time. This is an alarming drop-off and a major sign that physically he just isn’t the same player.
It is pretty obvious that Covid-19 has left a major mark on the young defender. Robbed of his athletic advantage and getting shifted about the backline is having a detrimental effect on his development and overall play. He’s going backwards and Benitez has to be wary of pushing Godfrey too much and destroying his confidence. Yes, the Blues have been hit hard by defensive injuries but there is a serious argument to be made to pull the player out of the firing line and resting him for a month, maybe more, to allow him to regain his strength and composure.
The Gordon-Iwobi Conundrum
It is fair to say that one player, homegrown Anthony Gordon is popular with Blues fans, who are eager to see one of their own break through into the first team setup. The other, 25-year old Alex Iwobi gets a lot of stick as he is seen as a poster boy for the club’s perceived failure in the transfer market. At the moment, the two are in direct competition for an attacking spot in the team, so how do the two wingers compare?
Iwobi joined the club back in 2019 and since then has made 76 appearances, scoring 6 goals and providing 5 assists. Gordon has featured only 27 times, has yet to hit the back of the net, but has supplied 5 assists, mostly in cup competitions. This season the Nigerian has been a squad option in the league, starting 5 matches and coming off the bench on 4 occasions. Anthony has made 2 league starts and contributed as a substitute 5 times. Both have played primarily on the left wing.
Looking deeper than the raw numbers, under Benitez the former Arsenal man is generating an expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes of 0.15 and an expected assists (xA) per 90 of 0.20, superior to last season and more in line with those he achieved in his last 2 years in London. Gordon is hitting an xG per 90 of 0.33 and an xA per 90 of 0.14 and so appears to be more of a goal threat, but slightly less creative. Defensively, the less experienced youngster is actually matching Iwobi in terms of pressure exerted and is more active as regards actions (tackling, interceptions and blocks); in fact the winger is also winning tackles at a higher rate than his teammate also. The Liverpool native is matching Alex in possession but is getting on the ball more frequently.
Overall, fan clamour to see more of Gordon and less of Iwobi appears justified, with the data indicating that the 20-year old is exceeding his compatriot's output as far as generating goal threat, getting involved in the game and being a more active defender and matching him otherwise, except in terms of chance creation. Whether the manager will agree with this interpretation remains to be seen.