Facing a team on Saturday that is - by any measure - inferior in 19th-placed Championship outfit Hull City, Everton once more lost the battle for possession. At this stage of the season, it is almost redundant to point out that under Rafa Benitez control of the ball is neither actively sought out, nor seemingly valued overmuch. Now, this assumption may be misrepresenting the Blues boss’ preferences; he’s never been noted as someone who emphasizes possession football, but he’s not some long-ball relic from yesteryear either. Although his most recent stint in the premier league was with a very ordinary Newcastle United, who he had to set up pragmatically, Benitez has of course helmed quality teams in the past. He has commented that Everton are not particularly well suited to getting on the ball and dictating play, echoing his predecessor as Goodison Park hot seat incumbent, Carlo Ancelotti.
We can presume that both Carlo and Rafa have a good understanding of the capabilities of their players and it can’t be doubted the team ofttimes do not look comfortable keeping the ball, or stringing passes together. Still, it is humbling to consider that the Blues seem incapable of outplaying almost any level of opposition. After all, Everton are - or maybe were - the School of Science! Under Benitez, the Blues have been focusing on being compact - not with notable success, it must be noted - and breaking with pace and the intent to set up scoring opportunities with as few passes as possible. I can’t help but feel that insufficient attention is being given at USM Finch Farm to ball retention, off the ball movement, creating passing triangles and structuring attacking play.
In all probability, given Everton’s shaky league position and poor form over the past few months, we are going to have to wait until next season to see if there is any meaningful intent to progress towards developing a more controlling, ball-playing style of football. Sitting back and counter-attacking can be great fun to watch, if implemented successfully and against certain teams this will be the only way we can play, but surely we should be capable of building a side that can control a match and dictate off the front foot, at least some of the time.
Ebb and Flow
As has been commonplace this season — right from the opening match of the season against Southampton at Goodison Park — Everton started this FA Cup tie as if the opening 20 minutes were part of the pre-match warm-up. We are now in January and this timid, torpid beginning to matches is almost expected, as is conceding an early goal, though surely not even the most cynical fan of the Toffees anticipated Hull City finding the back of the visiting teams’ net within the opening minute!
Other than the usual exchange of “what just happened there?” glances from the Blues players and an exasperated-looking wave of the arms from beleaguered manager Benitez, there was little reaction from a Premier League team that was right on schedule to be embarrassed by relatively lowly opponents in a evening game being shown nationally in the UK on free-to-air TV.
The home outfit, currently on decent form but still languishing near the bottom of the Championship, proceeded to dominate the lacklustre Merseysiders until near the mid-point of the first half. Cup upsets are part and parcel of the mythology of the cup competitions in England, particularly the FA Cup and Everton have been the victim of more than a few of those over the years, most recently losing embarrassingly to Millwall in the fourth round a few season back. Aborted FA Cup runs are nothing new either, the Toffees having exited at this stage (the third round) three times in the last five attempts. Hull could and - barring an excellent save from backup goalkeeper Asmir Begovic - possibly should have extended their lead further; almost all top tier teams would surely have finished the tie before the Blues even started playing.
Everton woke up at the 21-minute mark, with Demarai Gray and Anthony Gordon combining smoothly for the Blues’ belated response. A second goal, an uncharacteristic header from the unmarked Andre Gomes followed then minutes later and the visitors were suddenly in control and looking likely to finish off their hosts. Benitez’ men were the better team for long stretches of the match, but were somewhat wasteful and the gritty Championship team battled back throughout, scoring an excellent equalizer from range, hitting the woodwork and forcing Begovic to pull off a cracking point-blank reaction save in the closing minutes of extra time. The Blues enjoyed spells where they looked like a team operating at a higher level, but struggled to finish off Hull and often looked vulnerable themselves.
Assessing the Squad
We all know who the players are in the squad who have a future at Everton, whether short or long term. Equally, it is clear who is surplus to requirement. Some of those who lined up in Royal Blue on Saturday may have played OK, such as right wing-back Jonjoe Kenny, who added his second assist in two games, but will be exiting the team during the summer. Andre Gomes, paired with Allan as part of possibly the slowest central midfield Everton have put out in recent memory, scored a rare goal and looked stylish on the ball, but his defensive liabilities are well-established and have often been exposed in the Premier League. He could work out in a three, but Benitez does not appear to favour this approach and anyway, the squad lacks a specialist sitting midfielder (other than the rarely fit Fabian Delph). Barring a fundamental shift in formation, Gomes’ future appears limited, particularly as he amongst the most highly-paid players at Goodison Park. In a more precarious position is Jean-Philipe Gbamin, who looked competent against Hull, but is clearly on the fringes of the first team.
The void at left back, caused by the imminent departure of Lucas Digne has been filled by the arrival of 22-year old Vitaliy Mykolenko and Seamus Coleman can now be relieved of some of the burden at right back with the signing of Nathan Patterson from Glasgow Rangers. Benitez cannot be entirely happy with his underperforming central defence. Yerry Mina is rarely fit and a valuable asset, so surely the club will be looking into moving him on before he enters into the final year of his contract. Michael Keane seems to enjoy his manager’s trust, but is he the man to structure a defensive unit around? Ben Godfrey has been employed as a utility man, surely to his detriment. Neither have looked secure and a dominant centre half will be needed to add some steel and leadership, though likely this will have to wait until the summer. Mason Holgate’s days at Goodison are surely numbered.
In attacking areas, Alex Iwobi is off an international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations for the next few weeks, but has hardly been a starter under Benitez. Salomon Rondon has the manager’s backing but he has been short of premier league quality since his arrival. Youngsters such as Lewis Dobbin and Ellis Simms have little experience and may best be served with short-terms loan moves. Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin certainly should be major factors over the second half of the season, but beyond that who knows? Wingers Gordon and Gray continue to impress and Andros Townsend, who hit a trademark winner on Saturday adds experienced support.
If nothing else, the 20-odd games Benitez has taken charge of will have allowed him to form a strong opinion as to the worth of each of his charges, who he trusts, who is surplus to requirements and what positions are in need of an urgent upgrade. Perhaps one or two of the talented youngsters lining up in the colours of Saturday’s opponents may be worth a closer look?