Squad Depth Concerns
With Everton recently struck down by injury problems to significant players, the possibility of an early Carabao Cup exit loomed large on Tuesday. A midweek away trip to a decent Championship team such as Queens Park Rangers will always present a challenge for a team keen to rest players, prior to an important league match only four days later. When the team news broke an hour before kick-off however, many fans would have been pleasantly surprised to see the team that manager Rafa Benitez had chosen to navigate a potentially tricky tie. However, in the aftermath of an underwhelming performance and avoidable cup exit, there’s been a lot of criticism of the team selected, the narrative being that is was too weak.
So let’s take a look at who lined up:
Two players who are nailed-on for Everton’s starting 11, in Lucas Digne and Andros Townsend.
Two who were signed exactly for this sort of game, backups that would probably have played irrespective of injury absentees in Asmir Begovic and Salomon Rondon.
Five that are in contention for starting berths, or at least would be expected to provide solid depth off the bench in Andre Gomes, Tom Davies, Mason Holgate, Alex Iwobi and Ben Godfrey.
Two fringe players, who are either marking time until leaving the club, in Jonjoe Kenny and the other a prospect, in Anthony Gordon.
Is it unreasonable to suggest that this team should be able to beat a Championship outfit? That this ultimately proved beyond them will be concerning for Benitez.
There’s been suggestions that the Blues should have fielded a full-strength team, in order to kill the tie, then make substitutions to give some a rest. But Everton’s best team at the moment is probably the one that went down to Aston Villa three days earlier. On the evidence of that game, would there have been any guarantees that QPR would have been dispatched within the hour?
It’s never a great idea to make knee-jerk decisions on what a player has to offer based off of a single match, but with the first half debacle on Tuesday, followed by an unconvincing revival in the second period, the end is surely drawing near for several.
A midfield pairing of Tom Davies and Andre Gomes looked a flawed partnership and so it proved. Offering little threat with the rare opportunities they had on the ball, run past as if they were not there and passed around with little difficulty, the pairs weaknesses were magnified when fielded as a duo.
Gomes is now 28 and has 86 appearance for the Toffees since arriving on loan from Barcelona in the summer of 2018. His attributes of neat passing and press resistance would be best served in a team that controls possession. Without the ball, he is a liability and he offers little goal threat or creativity. Rumoured to be available for transfer this summer, it is thought Rafa changed his mind and decided to retain him. The Portuguese will likely stay at Everton this season but his race is run at Goodison Park and he needs to be shipped out in the summer.
Since breaking through into the first team in 2016, academy graduate Davies has played 154 matches for the Blues. He’s had to learn as a senior player whilst appearing in some woeful and unbalanced Everton teams, occasionally played out of position and under 5 permanent managers. Throughout, Tom has been the target of some unfair criticism, being written off several times. Now 23 years of age, Davies should be approaching his peak years, but appears to have plateaued in his development and at this stage is is not entirely clear what his strengths are. He was truly awful against QPR and it uncertain what status he will have in Benitez’s squad going forward. Unless there is a major turnaround in his form, it is difficult to see him still being here much longer.
Fullback Jonjoe Kenny is out of contract at the end of the season and his time at Everton will soon be over. Sadly, the Liverpool native seems to have regressed since breaking through into the first team during Ronald Koeman’s chaotic second season, having made his debut 2 years earlier. He looks to have lost the fire and tenacity of those early appearances, whilst adding little polish and knowhow. At 24 and with over 120 senior appearances to his name, including 51 for the Blues, his poor effort in the cup match kills any remaining hope that he can provide competent cover at right back.
With the cup run torpedoed before it really got going, Rafa Benitez can now focus his attention and resources entirely on the league. After a promising start to his tenure at manager, injuries have mounted up and now threaten to derail proceedings. The good news is that knocks to key players Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison, Jordan Pickford and club captain Seamus Coleman are relatively short-term and all should be available for selection after the next international break.
This leaves two games to be navigated: home against strugglers Norwich City at Goodison Park on Saturday, followed by a daunting visit to Old Trafford to face Manchester United a week later. With a depleted squad, it is tough to anticipate getting anything against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men, making it vital to secure three points against Norwich. Going into the break with no wins in four games would not only deplete all of Everton’s momentum after a bright start, but would start to bring unwelcome attention on Benitez. Already, after the cup exit we are seeing recycled stories and opinions voiced regarding the Spaniard’s position at Goodison.
Whatever happens over the next nine days, Rafa must manage the next 15 league games with the current squad (assuming no punts on free agent signings are made), one that has already demonstrated major deficiencies and is dependent on a core of maybe ten reliable and consistent quality operators. QPR on Tuesday demonstrated starkly that there is a serious drop-off from the first 11 to the squad options and backups.
Everton’s shocking financial position has handcuffed the manager right from the off. A little leeway has been obtained with recent departures - Moise Kean to Juventus on a loan with an obligation to buy and latterly the transfer of James Rodriguez for an undisclosed fee. Both departed too late to allow reinforcements to be brought in, but there can be do doubt that Benitez will seek to use all available headroom to sign at least a couple of players when the transfer window reopens in January. Who can reasonably be targeted and what positions strengthened will depend upon what funds are now available and which players could be prised away from other teams halfway through a season.
Whatever happens, Benitez is sailing through stormy seas towards an uncertain shore.