On the back of a rough three-game run that has seen Everton garner (not James!) zero points, the team make a welcome return to Goodison Park this afternoon. That the points haul has been...well, non-existent is not all that surprising, considering Manchester United at home is probably a draw on paper, a visit to Tottenham Hotspur has been traditionally a wasteland for the Blues and Newcastle United are a much-improved outfit these days. Still, two or three points from those games would not have been entirely unrealistic given Everton’s form heading into the United match.
Fans are probably more concerned with the performance levels of the team currently, moreso than the results themselves. Across all three matches the side were only behind by more than a single goal for a combined four minutes, so it is not like they were blown away. But the Toffees only really threatened the United goal very late on with a series of set-pieces and failed completely to mount any sort of rally against Spurs, or the Magpies. Everton’s Expected Goals (xG) was only a combined 1.2 across the three games and with such a low level of offensive production it is tough to generate much in the way of results, unless the defence is playing out of this world.
On paper, the next run of four league games, starting with Crystal Palace today are much more palatable and will offer Frank Lampard and his team opportunities to right the ship. Let’s take a look at Patrick Vieira’s Eagles:
Vieira succeeded departing boss, Roy Hodgson at the beginning of the 2021/22 campaign and rejuvenated a moribund fanbase with something of a total rebuild of what had become and ageing, risk-averse squad. The veteran had guided Palace to back-to-back 14th-placed finishes, which was a decent accomplishment considering the team’s lack of financial power, but the football was a tough watch, pragmatism dominating all else.
Under their youthful new manager, spending was relaxed and the new man was backed in the transfer market - which had definitely not been the case under Hodgson. For his inaugural campaign, Vieira was given £77m in new recruits, including a reconstructed central defence, new striking options, the exciting prospect Michael Olise and on-loan Chelsea talent Conor Gallagher, whilst losing only a raft of hitherto dependable types - all over the age of 30. bIn many ways this was a totally new team and it is to the former Arsenal star's credit that he was able to rapidly gel so many new parts into a cohesive team with a defined style of play; even if their eventual finish in 12th place wasn’t all that big of an improvement over what Roy had achieved.
This term, the Eagles have undergone more modest recruitment, adding just Cheik Doucoure as a replacement for Gallagher in midfield whilst seeing a few more veterans depart. Results have gone much as anticipated, with Palace losing to Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea, whilst securing wins over Aston Villa, Leeds United and Wolverhampton Wanderers. They managed a creditable draw against Liverpool, at Anfield and away at Newcastle, but were poor in dropping two points versus a struggling Leicester City last weekend. They arrive at Goodison fresh off their midweek come-from-behind win over Wolves and sitting in 11th place in the table, 3 points ahead of the hosts.
Style of Play
Under Vieira, the Eagles have undergone a revolution in terms of the way they play the game, a far removal from Hodgson’s defensive, old-school approach. Despite the points tally last season not being hugely improved over what had come before, the former midfielder unquestionably has the club heading in the right direction and the side is certainly a lot more of an appealing watch than was the case under the old regime.
The boss wants his team to play in a balanced fashion, although they are actually slightly losing the possession battle this season (44.6%) and not generating high xG totals (10.2, ranking 18th). They are creating good chances (eighth) but are often not taking them (18th position). Not much else stands out from the data except a low number of accurate crosses - just 2.6 per game. They are prone to taking shots from range (36% from outside the penalty area, only 5% within the 6-yard box) and slightly favour their left side. The Eagles are struggling a little to score from open play (only 50% of their goals total so far).
Where they excel is in carrying the ball at speed and beating a man with exciting players such as Zaha, Olise and Eberechi Eze, all of whom are completing more than 2 successful dribbles per 90 minutes. Palace as a team rank second in this metric, behind only league leaders Arsenal; relatedly, the Eagles are drawing more fouls than any other side. Encouragingly for Everton, today’s opponents are more prone to losing the ball than anyone else, being bottom in terms of bad touches and being dispossessed.
Former long-time Blues transfer target Wilfried Zaha is Palace’s talisman. The south Londoner’s star man enjoyed his most productive campaign last time out, scoring a career-high 14 league goals and he’s started this term in similar fine form, hitting the back of the net five times so far. The former French international’s 4-3-3 system is benefitting Zaha enormously.
Palace have a good combination at centre half, in Joachim Andersen and Marc Guehi. The tall Dane is solid aerially and will make things difficult for Dominic Calvert-Lewin, aided by the team’s unusually defensive right back, Joel Ward, who is 6’2 and operates in the 98th percentile for aerial successes. Left back Tyrick Mitchell is also not progressive, but ranks very highly in all defensive metrics (84th or better in all but aerial challenges). Guehi is a modern ball-playing centre half.
Last summer’s major recruit, Doucoure has come in and added some solidity to Palace’s midfield, as evidenced by a combined 5.28 tackles and interceptions won per 90 minutes. Considered a progressive ball carrier and passer, the Malian has not yet translated this ability to the Premier League and consequently the team has failed to replace Gallagher’s threat from central areas, meaning they are reliant more on attacking play from their wide men; Doucoure’s numbers are well down on what he achieved with French club RC Lens.
It’s a no-brainer that Lampard must find ways to break Everton out of the offensive rut they’ve found themselves drifting into. A change of shape could provide the solution, but shifting to a back three is unlikely to provide a result, as the team lacks thrust from wing-back, with the only obvious candidate, Ruben Vinagre being largely ignored since arriving during the summer. Consequently, the boss has to get creative.
Alex Iwobi remains Everton’s only player capable of constructing attacks and the experiment of pushing him further forward and to the right side of midfield has had detrimental effects. The Toffees wide options are misfiring currently, so I would consider moving Iwobi to the left side of the attack and bringing in Dwight McNeil on the right. Both take care of the ball well and combine play better than Demarai Gray or Anthony Gordon are doing.
Midfield also requires a rejig. It looks stale and devoid of attacking thrust currently. Shifting Iwobi to the left and bringing in the marginalized Abdoulaye Doucoure would add box-to-box energy and add a player who will attack the penalty area. Right now Everton have few players who will get into the box and cause trouble for the opposition defence. If Doucoure is not fancied by Lampard, then start James Garner alongside Amadou Onana and in front of defensive screen Idrissa Gueye.
It is time for Frank to shuffle his pack, because the team has become predictable and easily countered by opposing managers.