This game was a frustrating watch on TV and must have been infinitely worse for the thousands of dedicated Blues fans who made the long trip up to the north-east to witness their team offer a curiously punchless display at St. James’ Park on Wednesday evening. To carry on the boxing motif, after falling behind courtesy of Miguel Almiron’s wonder-strike in the 30th minute, the visitors somehow managed to spend more than an hour chasing a one-goal deficit, yet fail to land a single blow. So reluctant to have a crack were the Toffees that ex-Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope could have brought a folding chair with him and enjoyed a relaxing read, perhaps catching up with the stunningly awful political shenanigans besetting the UK at the moment.
Everton’s lack of attacking threat is something to behold currently and a cause for alarm. The side failed to have an effort at goal during the entire second half at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last weekend and left St. James’ with just a solitary inaccurate header from Dominic Calvert-Lewin, from a corner during the first period of what passed for “action” by the Blues’ strike force. That they failed to generate any chances at all during the second period is hard to understand. The xG (Expected Goals) posted by Frank Lampard’s troops ranged from a generous 0.17 according to fotmob.com, to a pitiful 0.06 by the calculations of understat.com.
Really, though the numbers don’t matter, because it was apparent to the naked eye during the second 45 min, which Everton dominated in terms of share of possession (58.2%) that the team had no idea how to construct meaningful attacks. This is worrying. Newcastle have been very solid defensively so far this campaign but, even so it is to be expected that a side having a sizeable chunk of ball possession and only behind by a single goal, to be able to generate some offence, even token pot-shots or similar hopeful attempts. Look at Tottenham’s late, second goal last weekend: Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s effort was relatively unthreatening (xG of 0.10), but beat Jordan Pickford due to an unfortunate deflection off Alex Iwobi. Why could no Everton player just chance their arm at any point?
Confidence appears to have drained away.
Everton’s failings in front of goal aren’t anything to do with players blowing opportunities, being unlucky, great opposing goalkeeping displays, heroic blocks, or anything like that at all. They are just not taking any chances to shoot. This is partly down to the Blues attackers not combining well: Demarai Gray and Anthony Gordon are too similar and play their own game, separate from what their teammates are doing much of the time. They run down blind alleys, try to do it all themselves, ignore the runs of comrades. But it also systemic. The team is either sitting too deep and knocking hopeful (hopeless?) balls long to an isolated striker, or being forced into wide areas, where a lack of thrust from their fullbacks and tendency of the wide men to run into harmless areas of the pitch just kills off any attack.
In theory, the return of Calvert-Lewin should mitigate some of the problems constructing attacks that the team is having, but given his long absence due to injury we are likely to reach the break for the world cup before he really hits his stride. But, even if he were match fit, there’s only so much the player can do. He can win aerial challenges, flick the ball on and hold it up, but where is the support arriving from? And where are the crosses that he thrives on coming from? Losing Nathan Patterson to injury has wiped out anything from the right flank, as the ageing Seamus Coleman cannot get into advanced positions anymore and Gordon does not play well as a conventional right winger. On the left, Vitalii Mykolenko is struggling to have an impact in the attacking third and the quality of his deliveries just has to improve. In front of him, Gray cuts inside, although he did put in one decent cross during the second half which missed everyone.
Failing any threat from the flanks then, the Blues have to offer something through the middle, but this is not happening. Partly, this is due to the opposition making it difficult to play through the centre. Only about 20% of the visitor’s play came through the middle, which is highly unbalanced. Worse, with ample possession and play diverted to the wings, Everton only attempted eight crosses during the match and won just a single corner. This is predictable stuff and no wonder the Magpies looked remarkably unthreatened by what was happening in front of them. More than 55% of Everton’s play during the first 45 minutes came down the right side, usually consisting of Gordon trying to run around the enormous Dan Burn. Otherwise, it was Idrissa Gueye or the defence recycling the ball and failing to find a way to pass it forward.
For unknown reasons, Lampard has moved Iwobi to the right side of midfield and into a higher starting position and this is robbing him of a chance to impact matches as he had previously. The Nigerian has been an orchestrator from central midfield all season, but has now gone consecutive games with no Shot-Creating Actions, after generating a combined 25 across the opening nine league matches. His touches are also well down as his teammates are finding it more difficult to find him (only 73% of passes intended for Iwobi were completed). In theory, playing someone with his creative ability higher up the pitch is a good idea, but it is not working. The player also seems less impactful on the right side of a midfield trio also. Time to go back with what was working.
Gueye has been getting criticism recently and although some has been justified, it continued after Wednesday’s match. This was completely off the mark in my view. Yes, he made an error, but dealt with it and it didn’t cost the team. I felt he was one of the few Blues players to emerge with any credit and at times was the only one staving off pressure on the backline. The former PSG man led the team with 78 live touches, was the team’s most accurate passer (90.8%), won four of five tackles, was not beaten on the dribble (from two attempts), blocked five passes and made a team-high 16 ball recoveries.
Everton’s attacking trio of Calvert-Lewin, Gordon and Gray coughed up the ball a combined 21 times which, excusable in the former’s case, was a major factor in the visitor’s inability to construct meaningful attacks. Lampard has to shake things up and drop one of Gray or Gordon and reinstate Dwight McNeil, who at least takes care of the ball and looks to combine with teammates. It wouldn’t be undeserved to drop both underperforming wide men and play Iwobi on the left, perhaps with a free role and bring forgotten man Abdoulaye Doucoure back into midfield, as he is a stronger attacking presence from deep than either Gueye or Amadou Onana. If Doucoure is not fit, or Frank doesn't trust him, then use James Garner instead. But shake it up.