A Way Forward
Since Everton lost the services of primary centre forward Dominic Calvert-Lewin to injury in September, the team has been attempting to find a replacement until such a time as the Englishman can return to action. That point seems to be getting no closer, with the striker likely to not be match fit until the New Year, going off latest reports. In the meantime, manager Rafa Benitez has turned to new recruit Salomon Rondon and more recently Richarlison to plough that lonely furrow up at the top of the team, with less than optimal results.
Rondon was thrown in with no preseason in his legs and, although he has struggled manfully he has been found wanting as a Premier League calibre striker, failing to hit the back of the net in ten matches, seven of those as a starter. Allowance was made for him initially as he got up to speed, but sadly that speed has turned out to not be very fast, although in fairness to the big Venezuelan his overall game has shown some signs of improvement recently. But a striker succeeds or fails, ultimately on his goals.
Richarlison has also been tried in the position, one which is favoured by the player himself. I’ve commented in the past that I don’t think this is the most effective use of the Brazilian as he is best using his mobility and ability to run with the ball when cutting in on his right foot, from the left wing. When fielded as a striker, he often fails to impose himself on the match and to get involved in play - not helped by Everton routinely losing the possession battle (intentionally or not) and generally poor passing in the final third. When deployed as a striker this season, Richarlison has failed to get on the ball and been reduced to playing back to goal and competing for high balls against physically bigger central defenders. He has cut a frustrated and ineffective figure and the team has sorely missed his work rate and defensive tracking back.
On Monday however, the Brazilian enjoyed one of his best performances in a Blue shirt - despite once again playing as a central striker. What changed? Well, we cannot discount the fact that the player was on inspired form and at times seemed to be trying to will his side to victory. Despite seeing two goals chalked off for marginal offsides, he showed no signs of letting his head drop and just battled away for 90 minutes and beyond, eventually getting the goal his efforts deserved. Benitez went once again with a 4-4-1-1 formation, but Richarlison frequently dropped back into an advanced midfield position, giving the Arsenal centre backs a torrid time all night, rather than being an easily-marked target man with his back to goal. Consequently, he saw a lot more of the ball, was able to run at the defence and get involved in passing movements. Additionally, he helped disrupt the opposition during the long stretches that they controlled possession.
If Richarlison can play this role consistently, then not only will the Blues fill the void up front, but we shall also see the Brazilian regain his status as one of the key players in the team.
The Shape of Things to Come
Benitez lined up with his favoured 4-4-1-1 on Monday night, with Andros Townsend deployed behind Richarlison in an attacking midfield position. At times the Londoner pushed ahead of the striker as he attempted to press the Arsenal backline. He grafted, as per usual but was somewhat peripheral, managing only 20 touches before he was withdrawn after more than an hour. His major contribution was the free kick delivery for the first Richarlison goal to be ruled out by VAR for offside. Once again, the Blues lost the possession battle, but were able to stay compact, disrupt the visitors and break regularly. It was nothing radically different to what we’ve seen before, being similar to how the team played in the early weeks of the season.
Things only really changed with the introduction of Andre Gomes for Townsend on 66 minutes, the Portuguese slotting in alongside Abdoulaye Doucoure in midfield, with Allan dropping back to play as a lone pivot. Now, this is not the best use of the Brazilian, who prefers to chase and harass opponents, rather than staying disciplined and screening the back four, but he did decently enough this time around. This change of shape allowed the Frenchman to break forward with those signature lung-busting runs of his with more regularity and he is indeed a handful when this part of his game is prominently displayed.
Gomes, not renowned for being switched on defensively, is a far more effective performer when deployed further forward, where he can use his technical qualities to better effect. He took a little while to get up to speed in the game and we must consider that he has been out of action for a little while now, but once there he was a major factor in Everton turned this one around. He was involved in three actions which led to a shot on the Arsenal goal and he demonstrated the close control and resistance to the press that were highlights of his early career on Merseyside. His game gave the Toffees an element of control that they’d previously not enjoyed and gave the visitors something to worry about in the centre of the park, when paired with Doucoure’s thrusting runs.
Surely, this is the way forward now? Ostensibly Benitez has his strongest midfielders all available (with Fabian Delph and Jean-Philippe Gbamin also fit) and just analysing Monday’s game he and his coaching staff must see that a three-man midfield is the best way to set up.
Turning Things Around
Back in the autumn, Blues fans looked with some trepidation at the fixtures stretching out before the team, commencing with a visit to Old Trafford to face Manchester United on October 2nd and extending through to a home tie against Leicester City on December 19th. It looked a tough 12 match run, with only Watford, Brentford and Crystal Palace considered less taxing. Of course, things rarely play out as envisaged and so far Everton have blown 2 of the 3 “easy” games and find themselves up against a Crystal Palace team on Sunday that are winless in 4, having suffered 3 defeats on the bounce. However, Patrick Vieira has put together a very competitive unit that plays some decent football and even when losing have not been badly beaten since a 3-0 loss to Liverpool a couple of months ago. This will be a major test for Benitez and his troops.
After Palace, a daunting visit to Stamford Bridge, to face reigning European champions Chelsea is next up, but beyond that the Blues do not face a truly dangerous opponent until they welcome Manchester City to Goodison Park at the end of February. Two months back, a home tie against Leicester City would have appeared difficult, but the midland outfit have looked shaky themselves this term and this must now be considered a very winnable game. Beyond Chelsea, the Toffees have a 10 game period in which they should be able to pick up plenty of points and generate some much-needed momentum for the final push to the end of the season. To achieve this, the team will have to demonstrate the attitude, energy and determination that were so on display under the floodlights on Monday.
Following the departure of Everton’s Director of Football Marcel Brands last weekend, it seems Benitez will have full control regarding transfers. Hopefully there will be some room to manoeuvre and a couple of gaps can be filled, in order to give the squad more options and greater capacity to deal with injuries over the second half of the schedule. Calvert-Lewin should be back and hopefully firing in the New Year.
If the Spanish tactician can absorb the lessons from what has been a bruising and tumultuous period at the club’s helm, make the necessary adjustments and set the players up in such a way as to give them the best chance of success, then the campaign may not be a complete write-off after all.