Twice Everton jumped into the lead at Leeds United and twice the hosts pulled themselves level as two wily and experienced managers in Marcelo Bielsa and Rafa Benitez pitted wits for ninety minutes yesterday in a 2-2 draw.
It was great to have fans back at Elland Road for a Premier League game, the first time since 2004 when they were last in the top flight and games were not being played behind closed-doors.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin made it two goals in two games while Demarai Gray opened his Everton account with a well-taken dribble and finish, but it was Michael Keane’s latest error and a moment of magic from Raphinha that accounted for all the goals.
Unbeaten in first two since 2011
Everton have almost cycled through as many managers as Watford in the last decade, but no matter who’s been in charge, one thing that has been consistent has been that the Blues have not lost either of their first two games to open the season since losing at Queens Park Rangers to start the 2011/12 campaign.
After collecting six points out of six on offer last year under Carlo Ancelotti, this season the Blues started with a win at Southampton and now this draw at Leeds United for four points.
The Allan-Doucoure Show
A big part of why Everton’s attacking output has seen an uptick has been because of two Carlo Ancelotti signings being used quite differently. Allan was one of the best ball-carrying defensive midfielders in the Serie A for Napoli, while Abdoulaye Doucoure’s offensive output was a lot more at the Hornets than we saw last season with the Blues.
Two not commonly spoken about statistical measures are xGChain and xGBuildup - xG Chain is the total xG of every possession the player is involved in, while xG Buildup is the same minus shots and key passes [xG stands for expected goals, and is a statistical measure of the quality of goalscoring chances and the likelihood of them being scored, so a tap in from the goal line would be about 0.99, as in 99% chance of scoring].
Under Benitez, Doucoure has been more of a box-to-box midfielder, getting himself into attacking positions and making himself available as a late runner into the box or for a cutback from the wings. Allan has started making more forays forward carrying the ball and taking shots as well. Rafa’s two 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 systems don’t actually have a need for a #10 like Gylfi Sigurdsson or James Rodriguez, or even Andre Gomes for that matter, as the ball is progressed vertically a lot quicker than the slow side-to-side buildup we saw under Ancelotti.
Allan’s xGB per 90 min played this season has quickly jumped to 0.55 from 0.37, while Doucoure’s has nearly doubled from 0.25 to 0.45. The Brazilian managed only seven shots last season, his lowest output of his career and already has one in two games and his key passes per 90 min has also jumped from 0.70 to 1.00 [Key passes are passes that result in a shot (without scoring), when a goal is scored that becomes an assist].
For Doucoure, his shots per 90 was only 0.66 last season, also the lowest output of his career and that has climbed to 2.50 this season. He had two goals and three assists in the league last season, but already has picked up one of each this campaign.
Defensive solidity needed
While the improvement in attacking place has been marked from the end of last season, the area that needs work for Benitez is the defence right now. Granted that the Blues do not have their best centrehalf pairing in Yerry Mina and Ben Godfrey available to them yet, but playing the higher backline has cruelly exposed Michael Keane twice now in two games, with both errors leading to goals. Dilly-dallying on the ball was his undoing against the Saints, and yesterday he got wrong-footed and his lack of recovery speed meant he could only watch as Patrick Bamford ran away from him and then set up Matheusz Klich for the first equalizer with the former England defender trailing in his wake.
Benitez will know that he won’t be able to go through a 45-50 game season with four defenders, two of whom can be defensive liabilities. The rumours that Everton are pursuing Samuel Umtiti and Malang Sarr are not surprising with that in mind.
Shots shots shots!
Again, small sample size early in this season but Everton are averaging 15.5 shots per game (6th), versus 10.5 for last season (15th) and 12.3 the season before that (7th). This is partly due to the defensive weaknesses of the two teams the Blues have played so far, but also a product of Benitez wanting his side to get vertical quickly.
Closing out games
Last weekend the Blues won their first game coming from a halftime deficit in six years. Yesterday, the Blues dropped points from a winning position for the first time since February 2020 when they lost a controversial 3-2 game at the Emirates against Arsenal having led early and then pulling level at 2-2 before a disputed Aubameyang winner.
Under Ancelotti last season the Blues had a method - score early, defend in numbers in a low block and grind out results. Everton had an expected goals against (xGA) of 1.32 per game last season, while this season after just two games and not having played any of the top sides yet, it’s already 1.55 per game.
There’s work still to do on this team, but as Benitez said yesterday, he’s only been with the team for six weeks now.