Back to Basics
Everton’s dismal failure against a Norwich City side that were, at the time of kick-off, propping up the table in 20th position and without a goal in six matches, proved the final straw for beleaguered manager Rafa Benitez. The Spanish veteran, never a popular appointment, was out of ideas - unable to turn the tide of negative results for the Blues and his sacking was, in truth long overdue. Stepping into the breach, as the club embarked on a search for a replacement for Benitez, was Toffees icon and Assistant Manager Duncan Ferguson. A little over two years ago the Scotsman had steadied the ship in the wake of Marco Silva’s sacking, storming to a memorable win over Chelsea and grinding out a couple of tough draws against Manchester United and Arsenal. With the club in turmoil entering the post-Rafa era, passion and fight was the order of the day and who better to provide that than Big Dunc?
The caretaker manager had only a couple of training sessions to get his ideas over to his stricken charges, so revolutionary changes were always going to be unlikely. What the fans expected to see was a more positive approach, plenty of hard-work, players putting a foot in and generally making things uncomfortable for the visiting Aston Villa side. Certainly this is what we saw, to an extent. Deploying a conventional 4-4-2, Ferguson appeared to strip things down to the basics, with a compact shape prioritized and presumably the intent being to focus attacks down the wings. Defensively, despite ceding possession to Steven Gerrard’s Villa outfit, the team did look more solid, conceding few genuine chances to the visitors. There was plenty of honest endeavour on display and the players stuck manfully to their assigned tasks, even if the formation allowed few to truly shine.
However, the offensive game plan barely got on track in the first half. Everton started the game in a lot more lively fashion than has frequently been the case under Benitez, but outmanned as they were in midfield struggled to get hold of the ball, particularly in those all-important opening ten minutes. When they did gain possession, The Blues had few clear passing routes forward beyond hopeful punts up the pitch, or trying to find left winger Demarai Gray. For all the effort on show, the team were easily contained and trudged off the field of play at half-time a goal down having failed to get off a single shot in the process.
Ferguson made a number of changes to the team that flopped so badly against Norwich, as many would have expected. Personally, I’d anticipated that he would likely go with a 4-4-2, as he had during his previous spell as caretaker manager, but some of the players he selected for his first side in charge were surprising. Dropping Michael Keane and Seamus Coleman was a bold shout, with the centre back having started every league game this season and the Irishman being club captain. Their surprising replacements were Mason Holgate, a known Ferguson favourite in central defence and Jonjoe Kenny, who is out of contract in June. Both played reasonably, as it happens, but Holgate is not aerially dominant and neither uses the ball very well. In addition, the pair are not the future of the club, so were strange inclusions. Certainly, young right back Nathan Patterson, recently signed from Rangers for a fee of £12.6m could have at least made the bench, as he offers more going forward than Kenny and will need to be integrated into the team at some point.
In the midfield, the manager went with a two, as favoured by his predecessor, this time Abdoulaye Doucoure and Andre Gomes. This was infuriating to most, as this area of the field has been exploited time and again by various different opponents, home and away. So it was again, as Villa went with a 433, with both nominal wingers - Emi Buendia and Philippe Coutinho - frequently drifting inside, creating a big numerical advantage in the centre of the park. Brighton had utilized similar tactics at Goodison Park a little while ago, albeit with a highly fluid 442, with both wingers and one of their forwards causing overloads instead. In both matches Everton did plenty of chasing but were unable to get possession of the ball for any length of time and establish any rhythm to their play. Doucoure battled gamely, easily leading the team in combined tackles and interceptions (eleven) before being withdrawn through injury but Gomes was again exposed, being beaten on the dribble four out of five times by Villa players and rarely exerting effective pressure. Things improved a little with the introduction of Allan but combined touches by the four players the Blues deployed in midfield during the game added up to a mere 86; by contrast Villa’s 19-year old Jacob Ramsey alone racked up 67.
Finally, Duncan chose to leave out Anthony Gordon, despite the youngster arguably being the most impressive of Everton’s players over recent games, in favour of Andros Townsend, who had not played in a league fixture since the mid-December due to a broken foot. True, the veteran had hit the back of the net as the Toffees scraped past Hull City two weeks ago but his early season form has faltered over the past few months and his inclusion was a left-field choice by the manager. The ex-Crystal Palace man offered little threat and frequently gave the ball away, either by being dispossessed or by posting the lowest pass completion rate of any Blues player, except for goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. Gordon’s introduction gave the home side new impetus and he quickly became a major attacking outlet, generating two-thirds of the team’s expected assists (xA), despite only playing about 35 minutes. Starting him on the bench was a serious error of judgment by Ferguson.
Attempting to Rally
Everton emerged for the second half a goal down but with renewed fight, even if saddled with the same formation and personnel that had battled away honestly without troubling a composed Aston Villa side throughout the first period. Big Dunc - as the caretaker manager is affectionately known by Blues fans - presumably demanded more from his charges during a doubtless passionate half-time team talk. Possibly not seeing what he expected from the ineffective Gomes, he threw on Allan, who has been recovering from a bout of Covid-19, to add a bit of industry to the midfield and this had some effect. However, it was only when winger Gordon was substituted on after 56 minutes, that we saw the Blues put any sustained pressure on the Villa backline.
The Toffees did rally and managed to get off 15 shots after the restart, in stark comparison with the zero efforts beforehand and overall probably deserved to share the points with the Midlands side, who were competent and organized, rather than offering much quality themselves. The form that’s Everton’s attempt to get back into the match took, whilst testing Villa’s defensive resolve, was probably the easiest to repel, consisting as it did of a lot of crosses, set-piece situations and generally direct, unsubtle play. There was no evidence of any genuine creativity from the home side, no clever movement or passing interplay to open up the opposition, who were happy to sit on their lead and make things awkward. Dealing with deep crosses and high balls is meat and potatoes for the likes of Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa and even Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who is renowned for his aerial prowess, could make little impression.
More sophisticated attacking play would likely have garnered better results, but the Blues are sorely lacking in players with both the vision and technique required to unlock defences at this level. With the search for a new manager continuing in haphazard fashion and no supporting structure in place to operate independently, this crucial deficiency shows no sign of being resolved any time soon.