With the ongoing injury to Everton’s primary centre forward, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, the breaking news before the match that his likely replacement, Richarlison would be absent with a knee problem sustained against Burnley, came as a bit of a shock. Despite only having 10 minutes of action under his belt since joining Everton on transfer deadline day, Salomon Rondon was chosen to lead the line on Saturday, alongside Demarai Gray in a 4-4-2 formation.
It was readily apparent that the Venezuelan was never going to last the whole game in what was his full debut. He was dead on his feet when eventually hauled off after little more than an hour; in truth he had done well before that point. This forced a radical change on Rafa Benitez, who had only the raw Ellis Simms as a striking option from the bench. He decided to bring on Andre Gomes instead, leaving the Blues short of a focal point up front, Alex Iwobi being shunted up top as a nominal forward, with substitute Andre Gomes in support.
How this new arrangement would play out was still up in the air when Aston Villa struck, scoring only 3 minutes after the shift was made. The hammer blow of a second goal, inadvertently glanced past Asmir Begovic by Blues defender Lucas Digne essentially decided the match as a contest a few minutes later.
With early indications that Richarlison may miss two or three weeks emerging, it is vital to get minutes into Rondon’s legs as he is currently the sole striker in the first team. He showed glimpses of what he can offer the team yesterday, in terms of his hold-up play and natural instinct to get on the end of chances, but is clearly well short of match sharpness. The collapse at Villa Park shortly after his exit had little to do with Everton’s lack of a no.9 on the pitch, but any chance of a fightback virtually disappeared. Whatever his attributes as a player, relying on Iwobi as an auxiliary centre forward for 30 minutes cannot be a Plan B.
It has been hanging over Everton like the Sword of Damocles since the transfer window slammed shut (it never just closes, it always slams ominously): the inability to provide competition for Seamus Coleman at right back. Inevitably, the Irish veteran picked up a minor hamstring concern on international duty and although able to play 90 minutes on Monday against Burnley, he was unable to recover for the Villa match five days later. All this was entirely predictable, given the club captain will soon be 33 years old and has long-standing hamstring problems, which affected him only last season.
Unlike the last campaign, the Blues do in fact have another senior right back available - Jonjoe Kenny. However, rumours abound that the Liverpool native is not favoured by Benitez and so central defender Ben Godfrey was pressed into service against Villa, with Kenny relegated to the bench. Godfrey stuck at his task manfully, but he is obviously not comfortable in the position. Other than one overlapping run early in the match, where he fired in a low cross for Rondon, he offered little going forward. Defensively, he navigated 75 minutes with just one noticeable error, being caught in possession near the touchline in the first half, which he got away with.
Having been hit hard with Covid-19, causing him to miss the start of the season Ben is not yet performing to the high level Evertonians had come to expect from him. Noticeably, his astonishing burst of pace does not seem to be there: he was left trailing in the wake of Danny Ings at one point. Additionally, after playing an hour on Monday, he looked to be tiring down the stretch in the match yesterday. Mental fatigue may explain his appalling positioning for Leon Bailey’s goal, being well into the left half of the pitch and leaving a vast expanse for the Villa winger to run into unopposed. Initially, he did not seem aware of the danger as Ings’s ball sailed over to Bailey, almost as if he expected someone else to be covering over there. Not great and maybe a natural fullback would not have been so exposed.
A lesser problem, but Lucas Digne is not playing particularly well at the moment. In yesterday’s match he often drove forward with the ball and got up well to support attacks, offering the overlap to Gray and did fire in one dangerous cross towards Rondon. However, despite his efforts, this season has seen a decline in Digne’s offensive output. In his 5 league games this term his expected assists (xA) is sitting at 0.50, a significant drop off from his first 3 years with the Blues. Normally a major strength, his crossing has been below-par, often being blocked by the closest defender. Only 1 pass and no crosses at all have found a teammate in the opposition box. Digne’s progressive and final third passing are way down, though his shot-creating actions per 90 minutes (SCA90) are at normal levels.
Defensively, he was badly beaten by Matty Cash for Villa’s first goal, though in fairness no other Everton player reacted to stop the rampaging wing-back’s run and shot. He was unlucky with the own goal; arguably Begovic could have done more to claim the cross. This season he is making far more interceptions but far fewer blocks and tackles and is pressing less, except in the opposition third. Likely, this is due to Rafa’s tactical instructions and the way he is setting up his team, rather than any sudden decline in the player’s ability.
Whatever is the problem with Lucas, with Niels Nkounkou sent out on loan, Benitez has no options to spell the French international, so he will have to play through this rough spell in an effort to rediscover his form.
Benitez opted to go with a standard 4-4-2 on Saturday, with Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure manning the midfield. Both have started the season very well and for most of the match yesterday, they played well enough. Doucoure in particular did a great job defensively, getting in plenty of tackles, blocks and interception but offensively his numbers were well down and for the first time in 5 league matches, he failed to register a shot. Allan too put in his usual stalwart defensive effort, but he is not the box-to-box player that Doucoure is and had his hands full staunching Villa’s attack, offering a season-low one progressive pass, before getting subbed off on 71 minutes.
Villa went with a midfield three and the Everton players were just outnumbered, limiting their offensive contribution. The Toffees sorely lacked Doucoure’s presence in the final third. When Gomes was introduced, he took up an advanced midfield position but the game was decided before he could make a difference.
Benitez obviously figured that Rondon would need Gray’s pace and energy alongside him and so gambled with a midfield duo, but this removed an aspect that has been a revelation so far under his tenure, the attacking thrust that Doucoure has been providing. It is easy to look at the loss and make a judgement that the manager got this wrong, but it was an understandable call to make, given the last minute change up front and Rondon’s lack of match fitness. It will be interesting going forward to see what formation Rafa goes with as he learns more about his players and deals with the inevitable loss of key components in a wafer-thin squad.