The Player We Thought We’d Signed
It has taken some time and we are talking just a couple of matches, but Fabian Delph is finally showing the qualities that prompted Everton to sign him for £8.6m from Manchester City back in July 2019. The idea was to bring in a player who had spent 4 years at an elite club, winning the premier league title in 2 of the past 3 seasons to beef up the club’s options in central midfield. After all, this was a 29-year old who Pep Guardiola had praised for his locker-room leadership qualities and who had been Aston Villa captain before arriving at the Etihad in 2015 and who had earned 20 international caps for England, the last only a month before his stint with the Blues started. What could go wrong?
Well, the purchase was, of course a calculated gamble. After all, Delph had only actually played 89 matches for City across 4 seasons, due to a variety of injuries. He had only been deployed 20 times in his final season in Manchester, the last appearance in the premier league being in January 2019. Still, the fee was low, the player technically in his prime years and he offered versatility, having played at left back on numerous occasions for City, in addition to his usual midfield berth. But things at Everton started off how they would continue, as Delph arrived at the club with a calf problem and succumb to 2 subsequent injuries as the season progressed; all told he only suited up on 20 occasions. The following season was even worse, as the Yorkshireman took to the pitch only 10 times in all competitions.
Coming into the final year of his deal at Goodison Park, it was widely reported that the club were willing to listen to offers for the player. A shoulder injury caused him to miss the start of the season, with only a 7-minute cameo at old club Leeds to his name prior to being introduced at the start of the second half against Wolves. He caught the eye in that match, helping Everton rebound from a dismal first half non-performance and earned a start on Saturday. Exactly 60 minutes later, he departed in a pre-planned manner, as Rafa Benitez sought to preserve the midfielder for later games. In that time he was the best player on the pitch, showcasing impressive passing variety, composure on the ball, winning several important tackles (and being unfairly booked for 1 well-timed challenge). His reading of the game in that deep-lying midfield role saw him lead the team with 6 interceptions, despite playing only two-thirds of the match.
Delph is 32 later in the month and nobody is suggesting that the club should extend his contract, but if he can stay fit - which is a huge ask - then he can be a major contributor this season. If he can do that, then when he departs in the summer many fans will feel that maybe his time at the club will not have been a waste of time, in the end.
A Change of Shape
Everton boss Benitez is a stubborn man. You will find nobody who disagrees with this evaluation: he is sure of his methods and backs his judgement, to the hilt. This characteristic offers strength but can also be brittle, so when the team news broke an hour before kick-off on Saturday many fans figured he would be sticking with the 4-4-2, or 4-4-1-1 that he has employed all season, with Delph coming in alongside Allan, after the failure of Jean-Philippe Gbamin to seize the opportunity at Molineux a week earlier. It was a relief to see the manager try something different, in fact adopting the same shape that the team finished the Wolves match with, a 4-3-3 or, more accurately a 4-1-4-1, with Delph sitting in front of the back 4.
This formation had allowed Everton to get control of the Wolves match in the second half - although the home side had bossed the first 45 and cruised to a 2-0 lead at the break, so possibly had trouble responding when the visitors flared into life. Regardless, the team had looked much more stable and so it proved against Tottenham Hotspur at the weekend. With the rarely-seen Delph anchoring a midfield 3, Allan was able to press the ball-carrier at will in terrier-like fashion and also to drift forward in support of attacks. The Brazilian looks much better playing higher as he can play his natural game and not worry so much about staying in position, which is not his inclination. Andros Townsend played to Allan’s right and took up an unusual mezzala role, often drifting wide and into the half-spaces and trying to get into decent crossing positions. This did cause some problems with Anthony Gordon, who was paying a conventional right midfielder role, as the former Spurs man occasionally moved into his space. The two struggled to link up effectively but, at 30 he isn’t suddenly going to adapt to a conventional central midfield role.
The midfield trio worked hard and blocked off approaches to the Everton backline all game. As a result, the central defensive tandem of Ben Godfrey and Michael Keane looked far more confident and composed; gone were the wild clearances and panicky last-ditch defending that has been a worrying feature since Abdoulaye Doucoure succumbed to injury. The Blues were able to play a higher line than we’ve seen of late and even step forward aggressively at times to win the ball and pressure attackers.
It is to be hoped that the influential midfielder will return soon after the current international break, but if he is not yet ready then at least the Spanish manager knows that he has a viable alternative even it it means him abandoning what’s worked for him thus far.
We Have Reached the Time to Cross that Bridge
In Dominic Calvert-Lewin, the Blues have one of the most formidable aerial targets in the premier league, a tall, brave striker who possesses a fantastic leap. Benitez, who had been keeping tabs on Everton for a while, was aware of this asset, hence his insistence on bringing in wingers Demarai Gray and Townsend during the summer. Adding wide men capable of providing quality crosses into the box promised even more goals from the Englishman, lessening the over-reliance on left back Lucas Digne to generate headed opportunities.
The team was set up to play on the counter and to get into good crossing positions when opportunity presented and in the opening match of the season this template was evident, with Everton connecting on 5 of 15 crosses in the opposition 18-yard box. In the following game, away at Leeds, the Blues were starved of the ball and rarely got into crossing positions. Next up, at Brighton once again the team largely played without the ball, but made more of an effort to get aerial balls in, but it was noticeable that Calvert-Lewin was not his usual force in the air, before being withdrawn with a knock after 69 minutes. He has not been available since, due to a thigh problem to add to the broken toe that he had been playing with since the start of the season.
Subsequently the Toffees have placed with less emphasis on wide play, but this has resumed recently, with 19, 22 and 12 crossing attempts in the last 3 home matches. Now, with nominal target man Salomon Rondon leading the line in all those matches except the most recent, this made sense as the big Venezuelan has battled effectively for high balls, even if he has rarely found himself doing so in dangerous positions. But with Rondon firmly rooted to the substitute’s bench on Saturday, Everton were still firing in crosses, completing only 1 all afternoon. The problem is, whilst Richarlison is good in the air he relies more on clever movement and was often the lone player in the Spurs’ penalty area; Allan and Townsend did get forward but neither are valid aerial targets.
Until Calvert-Lewin returns - and no return date for that is forthcoming - then Benitez needs to find other routes to goal. Against Spurs the team passed the ball well generally, but struggled to penetrate a disciplined back 5. With no strong aerial presence in the opponent’s penalty area, it is probably time to de-emphasize crossing for the time being, or at least try and drive the ball in low.