In Search of a Plan
When, an hour before kick-off against Brighton & Hove Albion the team sheet dropped, more than a few Evertonians would have been confused as to how manager Rafa Benitez intended to set his side up. Not many had anticipated a continuation of the 3-4-3 that had been employed against Chelsea 17 days ago. Then, fielding as many defenders as possible in a squad devastated by coronavirus and injury and going up against the defending European champions on their home turf had seemed the pragmatic approach. The Toffees had soaked up pressure and ridden their luck, but emerged with a valued point, unlikely as it had seemed beforehand.
Quite why, facing a good but hardly dangerous outfit such as Brighton and with a much stronger pool of players to select from, Benitez chose to again go with a back three is something few can understand. Worse, the veteran tactician opted to deploy 33-year old career right back Seamus Coleman, a predominantly right-footed player (83% of his passes are made with his right, according to FBref.com) at left wingback; Jonjoe Kenny, a willing but limited player whose contract expires in the summer slotted in on the opposite flank. Lucas Digne - in theory Everton’s first-choice left back - was back, albeit on the bench, after being dropped for the previous three matches and his deputy, Ben Godfrey was fielded alongside Mason Holgate and Michael Keane in a three-man central defence.
It was heartening to see the long-absent Dominic Calvert-Lewin leading the line after more than four months out with injury, but where was he supposed to find any service? Neither wingback is renowned for their crossing ability and with Coleman on the left there was going to be nothing coming from that side at all. The striker did his best to link up play but the setup left him largely isolated. Graham Potter’s Brighton are a side that enjoys getting on the ball and playing, as they did to great effect against Chelsea last Wednesday. Faced with a strangely passive and dormant Everton, the Seagulls dominated the first half with ease and despite tiring, were able to ride out the reaction from the home side in the second period.
The Vast Void in the Centre
If starting the game with a back three — in reality a back five, considering both wingback positions were occupied by fullbacks — baffled Blues fans, the decision to persist with a central midfield pairing of Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure was even more disappointing. It’s become a motif of Benitez, one that he returns to resolutely. If it showed any promise, one could understand this preoccupation, but time and again this deployment merely shows up the deficiencies in the involved players and gives every chance for the opposition midfield to showcase their talents. Benitez has now taken charge of twenty competitive matches and should have a good understanding of the attributes of the players at his disposal, certainly the likes of Allan and Doucoure, who have been available for most of those games.
The Brazilian is a solid all-rounder, busy if not quick, technically competent and able to carry the ball forward at times. He enjoys actively pressing the opposition but is lacking in positional discipline. The Frenchman is a classic box-to-box midfielder, possessing lots of energy, an eye for goal and an ability to find decent spaces in the attacking third. What he lacks is technical quality. Together they are two-thirds of a strong midfield combination. Against Brighton, once more they were pulled apart as they attempted to plug gaps in the centre of the park, caused by the fluidity of Brighton’s play as their forwards and wide attackers drifted inside.
Occupied as they were by defensive duties, particularly in the first half, neither were able to contribute much going forward. In particular, this is losing Doucoure’s major attribute, his ability to join the attack and overload the opposition defence. The ex-Watford man had a poor game: his passing in particular was abysmal, completing only two-thirds of the short passes he attempted. If the duo offered little in support of the team’s attack, then once again they did an awful lot of running to very little effect defensively. True, they did pressure the visitors, but a feature of Brighton’s play under Potter is their press-resistance and their passing in the first half was largely unaffected.
Another recurring feature of Everton under Benitez manifested itself during the game: despite the best efforts of the two hard-working midfielders, the Blues again gave up chances from central areas. For the first goal, Doucoure fails to track Mac Allister as he cuts inside and then directly into the box to score from close range. The Argentinian’s second was a fabulous strike, but he is given far too much time and space to pick his spot from 20 yards out. Again, an opposition midfielder, this time Yves Bissouma, put in a strong performance. Now, the Malian is a terrific talent, but an opposition player bossing the Toffees in midfield is something that has been noted many times this season and the embattled Blues manager seems to have no solutions, or indeed to realize that this is a problem.
Fighting all the Wrong Battles
It has been an open secret now for weeks that Benitez has fallen out with defender Lucas Digne and that the rift is irreconcilable. Dropped for three straight games, even in the midst of an injury crisis at the club, the Frenchman is apparently up for sale, with his replacement Vitaliy Mykolenko presented to the Goodison Park crowd on Sunday. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, in terms of who is being professional and who stubborn and/or vindictive, the situation became very public and very ugly this weekend. Restored only to the bench against Brighton, the France international could only look on and watch stand-in Coleman toil unconvincingly. With the team 2-0 down and floundering, Digne was summoned from the bench to warm up in the closing stages of the half, giving hope that the manager was about to make a welcome halftime change and put the club captain out of his misery.
It came as a surprise then, to see the team emerge from the dressing room unchanged and Digne would not be one of the two substitutes that Benitez saw fit to use in a losing cause, despite the obvious need for some quality left-footed crosses for the struggling Calvert-Lewin. In his pre-match notes, the Blues boss made some comments about signing players who want to play for the club, which appeared a possible snub to the French left back and sometime Everton captain. If perhaps this was a case of reading things too literally, the manager dispelled any doubts in a quite extraordinary post-match interview, in which he justified his decision to play Coleman at left back and to select Kenny, whilst leaving the ex-Barcelona man on the bench, emphasising that both of those players want to play for Everton, the point being that Digne does not.
The manager is free to select whoever he wants in his team and does not need to justify this decision to anyone outside of those involved, but this episode does him no favours. Even if the Frenchman wants out, he has served with distinction for 3 and a half seasons and has always played with commitment. It is very likely that we’ve seen the last of the classy attacking fullback in Royal Blue and he deserves a lot more than his Everton career ending in this tawdry fashion.