One of last season’s Awkward Squad threatened to spoil Rafael Benitez’s second Goodison Park outing on a rainy Monday night, only to be blown away by Everton’s reaction to falling behind. Three goals from the Blues in seven breathless minutes proved too much for a doughty and aggressive Burnley outfit, as the home side climbed up to fourth in the English Premier League table.
The No.9 Conundrum
With Dominic Calvert-Lewin a surprising omission from the matchday squad due to injury, it was left to Richarlison to deputize in the role of the talismanic #9. It is no secret that the industrious Brazilian sees himself as a central striker and he has played there sporadically for the Toffees, notably last season when DCL was out for several matches midseason. Of course, he typically lines up on the left, though he’s had spells operating as a supporting striker behind Calvert-Lewin, with mixed results.
With the news that Calvert-Lewin is likely to miss the next 3 or 4 matches, the question of who fills his boots (positionally, if not necessarily in terms of goals) needs addressing. With new signing Salomon Rondon short of match fitness, Richarlison is the obvious choice. So, how did he stack up on Monday? He stuck to his task manfully, taking a beating from the rugged Burnley defence, who seemed to be taking turns roughing him up. With Everton short on ideas during the first half, the Brazilian often found himself trying to compete back-to-goal for hopeful lofted balls, typically with little success. Rarely was he able to hold the ball up.
In truth, his stats made for grim reading. He offered only a single shot, had the fewest number of touches all season (28, previous low: 37), had zero SCA (shot created actions) and xA (expected assists) and an xG (expected goals) of 0.1 (0.2-0.4 in previous matches). He attempted only 1 dribble (previous low: 3) and had only 1 progressive carry.
It’s clear at this point that Richarlison struggles as a lone striker and the takeaway from a largely futile 80 minutes here is that he needs to be shifted back to the left side as soon as Salomon Rondon is able to get up to speed and lead the line.
The Fifth Wheel
Benitez opted to go with a back three for the first league game this season and well, it wasn’t exactly on overwhelming success. Until the introduction of Andre Gomes for Ben Godfrey, in the 61st minute, Everton had looked a bit lost, lacking any fluency going forward, struggling for width and failing to shut down Burnley’s crossing threats. Godfrey in particular had a strangely uninvolved match, seeming far from the player that provided so much excitement last season; in fairness, he’s been hit pretty hard by Covid-19 and was making his first appearance of the term.
On Monday night, he started out occupying the centre of the back three, with Yerry Mina on the right and Michael Keane on the left, before swapping positions with Keane in the second, before being withdrawn. His heat-map showed a great deal of overlap with Keane, indicating a certain level of redundancy. A night to forget, but taking the positive view those 60 awkward minutes will be invaluable going forward.
The addition of the impressive Gomes and the switch to a 4-3-3 gave the Toffees improved passing options in midfield, which Burnley were unable to cope with. Everton controlled the match from then on, moving the opposing players around, picking up second balls and interplaying nicely. In the first 61 minutes the Blues coughed up possession 23 times, Burnley only 13, which showed how difficult they were finding it to construct attacks and retain the ball under pressure. After switching to a back 4 the home side gave the ball away only 6 times, compared to 7 by the visitors.
OK, perhaps a little premature, but that thunderbolt strike does kind of deserve some embellishment. What we knew, going in was that Andros Townsend would provide reliable crossing ability, a good left-foot shot from distance (!) and solid defensive work. So far he’s managed all that, but what has perhaps been as valuable is the guy’s attitude, which is top class.
Hearing him relate his post-match exchange with Benitez, with the manager relating positional improvements, rather than back-slapping him for his huge contribution to a memorable win under the Goodison floodlights, was pretty amusing. Townsend himself wore a wry smile, but stressed that this is the sort of management he wants as it strives him to improve his game and that is admirable in a player who’s just hit 30 but who has certainly not showed up at Everton for one last payday. Let’s hope he passes on that balanced, mature and determined persona on to the younger players in the squad.
Rafa certainly appears able to get offensive productivity from Townsend. Including their stint together at Newcastle United, the winger has 9 goal contributions (goal/assist) across 17 league games, compared to only 34 in 158 league appearances at Crystal Palace. Whereas his shot-creating actions per 90 (SCA90) with the Blues is similar to his first 2 seasons with the Eagles at 3.74, his goal-creating actions per 90 (GCA90) is far higher than anything achieved at his former club (1.36 compared to a high of 0.33), indicating perhaps a higher level of finisher at EFC than he has been working with previously.
Action Man Doucoure
Though something of a fan favourite last season, giving the kind of honest, energetic and committed performances beloved of any Evertonian, it has to be said that this Abdoulaye Doucoure is the version that we believed we were signing last year. We’d watched enviously as he strutted his stuff as a true box-to-box midfielder force for Watford, racking up 12 goals and 9 assists over the period 2017-19, before a less impressive final season as they succumbed to relegation.
Without sacrificing any of of his defensive effort, under Benitez’s more compact and active system, he is providing a thrust and attack from central midfield that mostly eluded Carlo Ancelotti last season. Already he has doubled the number of ball carries into the opposition 18-yard box (only 1 last season). His SCA90 (shot creating actions per 90 minutes played) is at 4.0, compared to only 1.5 last term and even better than he managed at Watford. With the entire last season’s numbers in parentheses, he’s already managed 15 passes leading to a shot (36), a GCA90 (goal creating actions per 90 minutes played) of 0.75 (0.18), 19 completed passes in the final third (69) and 20 progressive passes (65).
Given a licence by Benitez to get forward into threatening areas, he is averaging 2.00 shots per 90 minutes, by comparison to 0.66 under Ancelotti. Granted, the stats for this season are a small sample size, but if he can carry on in this vein then there’s no reason that Doucoure - who almost bagged a goal on Monday, just drifting offside in the build-up - can’t surpass his best totals at Watford and hit 15 or more goal contributions this season.
Abdoulaye Doucoure's stats against Burnley:— EFC Statto (@EFC_Statto) September 13, 2021
Touches - 64
Assists - 2
Successful passes - 39
Successful forward passes - 15
Successful attacking third passes - 13
Chances created - 2
Pass accuracy - 75%
Recoveries - 9
Interceptions - 3
Successful tackles - 2#EFC #EVEBUR
The Managerial Effect
There’s an argument to be made that a team is very much the sum of its parts, in terms of the ability of the players and their individual characteristics, with the manager just adding (or detracting!) from that base. Certainly, that claim has been aimed at former Blues boss Carlo Ancelotti, who many considered someone able to get the best performance levels out of elite players, but who was perhaps unsuited to the job that awaited him at Goodison Park (or, more specifically USM Finch Farm). There, he found few elite players and it was noticeable that the two new signings that could definitely be attributed to Ancelotti - James Rodriguez and Allan - were of that type. Most of the squad needed active guidance and instruction on the training pitch and for that, everything so far suggests that this is Benitez’s area of speciality.
Not only does the team appear to be better drilled, with a better shape and idea of how to implement the manager’s ideas during the game (Monday’s back three experiment notwithstanding), but the fitness levels seem way up. This, allied to rarely-seen levels of grit and determination are putting Everton in the unfamiliar position of staging successful comebacks after falling behind, already winning 2 matches after conceding the first goal, as many as in the last 3 seasons combined.
Rafa’s men are looking stronger than the opposition in the last 30 minutes of a game, a tribute both to his fitness methods and improved levels of focus and belief. In 3 of the 4 league matches under Benitez, we have managed 9 or more shots in the second half, something achieved under Ancelotti only twice in his last 37 games in charge. The players are lasting the pace far better, retaining concentration and will to win, outrunning and outlasting the opposition.
This also plays into the crowd, who will tolerate a subdued or unconvincing opening, as has happened in both home games this season, if they get the chance to roar on a team that’s full of vigour and attacking threat later in the match. Far better than a team starting brightly and finishing with a whimper.