A Three, but the Wrong Three
It is a theory that has been pushed by a great many pundits and fans recently: that Everton need to play a 3-man midfield in order to get the best out of the players available to embattled manager Rafa Benitez. In the early games under the new boss, he went with a 4231 or 4411 typically, with a central pairing of Abdoulaye Doucoure and Allan and generally things went well. The team had all its core personnel available, were playing with energy and belief and any structural issues with only going with 2 men in the centre of the park were not exploited. Since those halcyon days it has become apparent that the midfield 2 only functions if the Frenchman is present and only then if he is fit and firing on all cylinders.
Last Monday, against Arsenal the Blues switched to a three in midfield with the introduction of Andre Gomes from the bench and the team looked much the better for it, the formation change acting as a springboard for a memorable come from behind triumph. Most expected Benitez to retain this shape for the visit to Selhurst Park on Sunday and although Allan was ruled out due to a minor injury, Fabian Delph took his place alongside Doucoure and Gomes. Upon kick off though, it quickly became apparent that the Spaniard had not gone with the anticipated 433, but instead had reverted to his more favoured 4231 again. Worse, the Portuguese played in the advanced role, with Doucoure sitting alongside Delph screening the back 4.
Why the manger went this route is entirely unclear. Whilst Gomes managed to get on the end of a low Ben Godfrey cross in the first half to force a save from Crystal Palace goalkeeper Vicente Guaita, he is not a man who has any history of being a goal scorer. Meanwhile, Dourcoure, who uniquely amongst Everton’s midfielders is a true box-to-box player, who does offer an attacking threat, was completely neutralized. Even when a change was made, with the withdrawal of Delph for winger Anthony Gordon, Gomes was moved back into a deeper position, whilst the ineffective Andros Townsend slotted into the central attacking role. This was wrong-headed by the manager, who is swiftly running out of opportunities to get things right.
A Man on an Island
Against Arsenal last week, Richarlison put in a surprisingly strong performance as a lone striker, not something we have seen too much of in all honesty. He was involved in the game, harrying the opposition, getting tackles in, running at defenders and getting shots off - a truly dynamic effort. This gave me confidence that - in the continued absence through injury of star striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin - the Brazilian could actually deputize effectively, but this was not the case at Selhurst Park. He cut an isolated and increasingly frustrated figure until he was substituted after 57 anonymous minutes of fruitless toiling.
In the post-match interview, when asked about his decision to bring off the forward, one which was roundly booed by the Blues fans in attendance, Benitez stated that it was precautionary as the Brazilian was playing with a sore calf. Regardless, Richarlison had been totally uninvolved in almost an hour, managing a woeful ten touches of the ball for all his efforts and had offered zero offensive threat to the Palace backline. What went wrong?
Well, Benitez set the team up differently than he had in the previous match. The defence camped on the edge of their 18-yard box almost all game, with the midfield sitting deep and offering few opportunities to play out from the back. Demarai Gray and Townsend were the two theoretical out balls as the Toffees once more attempted to play on the counter, but Gray’s forays up the pitch were rare and the ex-Palace player’s even more infrequent. Gomes, ostensibly the man to link Richarlison to the midfield did a decent job of pressing, leading the team with 22, but with his limited pace rarely got close enough to the striker to offer much support. The team were unable to progress up the pitch in a cohesive fashion and were reduced to knocking hopeful balls forward for the Brazilian international to chase. He won only 1 of 9 aerial battles, which will surprise nobody.
It is disappointing that lessons from the Arsenal game were not taken forward and applied to this match.
Playing with Fear
However Benitez intends Everton to play and all evidence so far this season suggests it is by ceding possession, dropping back and looking to spring forward with rapid counters, then the players need to be well-prepared and confident in what they are doing. Rafa is nothing if not meticulous in his methods, demanding total compliance from all - as the continued omission of Lucas Digne is evidence of - so there is no doubt that the team are being relentlessly drilled at USM Finch Farm. In order for Everton to have success as a counterattacking team, they must be defensively watertight and to be able to shift seamlessly onto the attack as soon as an opposition move breaks down. This solidity was not on display on Sunday.
The Blues are leaking plenty of goals - 19 in the last 8 league matches - demonstrating a defensive softness not commonly associated with a Benitez team and which is fatally undermining the whole system of play. Last season, Carlo Ancelotti often set up even more defensively than under the Spaniard, but the Toffees were usually resilient. Surely, the absence of Yerry Mina is a factor, but it cannot just be that. The team are full of errors at the moment and the style of play is compounding this.
It is revealing that often in losing post-match interviews Benitez will highlight individual errors as being key factors in the defeat and of course he is correct. But the effect of each mistake is enhanced due to the type of game Everton are setting up to play - one of few chances, with the result often hanging on an error or a set-piece. With such a plan there is little room for manoeuvre; each mistake is amplified in importance. The Blues are playing so deep that poor control or slack passing is coughing up the ball in dangerous areas, as we saw on Sunday. The players look like bags of nerves whenever they receive the ball in their own third and few will play with composure under such pressure, particularly as every blunder is talked up by the manager after the game.
Everton captain Seamus Coleman is particularly prone to calamity and this is no doubt due to the stress he is under, as he is the visible on-the-field representative of the club and someone who is desperate to right the ship.