The irony was heavy in the air at Villa Park. All game long the Aston Villa right back Matty Cash had been raiding up and down the right flank, pouring crosses into the Everton box. On the 66th minute, he sighted Douglas Luiz standing on the ball and set off on a run behind the Toffees backline. The Brazilian’s perfectly weighted ball was pulled in neatly by the fullback, who then took a step in and fired off a powerful shot that evaded Asmir Begovic’s despairing attempt at the near post to put the hosts ahead.
The guilty party in the Everton defence was primarily Lucas Digne, who had allowed Cash to get in behind him. Digne has not quite been his usual self for long phases to begin this season, despite having been handed sole setpiece duty. His deliveries have been off and it’s looking like he’s not quite synced up with whatever tactics Rafa Benitez has been teaching.
Things got worse for Digne minutes later. The left back usually does a decent job in the air, winning at least 65% of his aerial duels for the last three seasons for the Blues. This campaign though his rate is only at 53%, and his intervention to cut out a wickedly inswinging corner only ended up guiding it past his own goalkeeper to make it 2-0.
Meanwhile, Everton’s own starting right back and also the club captain Seamus Coleman didn’t even make the trip to the Midlands struggling with a hamstring injury picked up during international duty. He was replaced on the day by Ben Godfrey who is a centrehalf by trade but is a solid enough defender with pace to burn and can do a shift or two as a fullback when needed.
The only other right back in the squad was not trusted to start, with Benitez rightly surmising that Ollie Watkins would tear Jonjoe Kenny to shreds. Everton fans longingly watched Cash scoring the kind of goal Coleman should be scoring for us, or Denzel Dumfries, Mehmet Zeki Celik or any number of starting calibre right backs that the Blues have been linked with but have not signed for whatever reason for the last half a dozen transfer windows.
We would probably have been fine at the right back spot if the Godfrey of last season were playing. However, the young defender has not quite been himself since returning from COVID-enforced isolation, likely having recovered from a bout of COVID himself. Unofficially voted the fastest first team player in training, Godfrey has looked slow at times in the couple of games he’s played, and was beaten for pace badly for Villa’s third goal, scored by Leon Bailey.
That name should be very familiar to Evertonians, as the player has been widely linked with the Toffees for a number of transfer windows now. The Blues unfortunately were unable to pull together the funds needed in previous windows to purchase the player from Bayer Leverkusen and today watched him rule the roost on the left touchline. His inswinging corner was deflected for the second goal, and the final goal was a statement run and finish from Bailey that will only have plunged the knife deeper into Evertonian hearts as this is exactly the characteristic wing play we have needed for years.
While the situation is somehow ameliorated with the signings of Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend who once again had good games, it surely still leaves Blues with the sense of what could have been watching Bailey come in and immediately be a success.
It does not have to be repeated that Everton’s abysmal transfer record for the last few years continues to haunt the present side. The squad still does not have the quality in depth to overcome the absence of a few starters, and that is what doomed the side last year in their futile run for a European spot, and is already causing problems early on this campaign.
Unless Benitez and Marcel Brands can unearth more unsung heroes like Gray and Townsend in the January transfer window, it’s already difficult to see how Everton can make Europe again barring a bizarrely fortunate injury-free run for the core members of the squad from now until May.