A Small But Crucial change
I’ll admit to being disappointed to see no changes in the Everton team for the Saturday afternoon traditional 3 o’clock kickoff against Crystal Palace, after watching the Blues show so little at St. James’ Park in their previous outing, or at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last weekend. In those matches, the visitors had been pitiful in their attempts to go forward into dangerous areas, most notably against Newcastle United, when they failed to attempt a shot after falling behind by just a single goal in the 30th minute. The Toffees were kept at arm’s length and away from dangerous areas despite being gifted a lot of possession by the home side. It was almost too easy for Eddie Howe’s outfit to cruise over the line and collect all three points and a dispiriting watch for Blues fans.
Seeing Alex Iwobi take up position on the right side of Everton’s midfield three, I had to suppress a groan and hope for the best. The Nigerian schemer had looked ineffective and uninvolved following Frank Lampard’s decision to shift him across from the centre-left, where he’d been highly impressive all season. Thankfully, the Blues boss and his staff had worked to correct this problem, whilst continuing the base setup from the Newcastle game. Iwobi was given a roaming brief and it made a huge difference. Starved of the ball against the magpies three days earlier, Everton’s early candidate for player of the season was heavily involved in all facets of the game this time around. Out of possession, Iwobi stayed in shape, but when the hosts had the ball he was popping up everywhere and Palace had no idea what to do with him.
The former winger ended up with two Shot-Creating Actions (SCA) - assisting Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Dwight McNeil - eight ball recoveries and pressured opponents with a 36.8% success rate. He showed the running ability and stamina of an elite 10,000 metre runner and led by example. Iwobi is the key to Everton playing good football through the thirds - Lampard’s ultimate intent - and the effectiveness of this new role that was devised for him led to him touching the ball 50 times in open play and teammates finding him with an 88.6% success rate, up from 73% at Newcastle, where he managed only 34 touches. Fulham boss Marco Silva, next up for Everton on Saturday, will surely devise a plan to try to shackle the influential midfielder.
Intensity and Aggression
Everything Everton have lacked during a three-game losing streak, admittedly against strong opposition, they demonstrated on Saturday. Palace are no mugs: they had lost only to Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea before getting hammered at Goodison Park, but they are a long way off the level of Manchester United and Spurs - probably even the Magpies, given the level of investment on Tyneside these days. Strangely passive and apparently devoid of confidence over the past week or so, the Blues came out firing and on the front foot against the Eagles. The high press (41 of 162 attempts to pressure an opponent took place in Palace’s third of the pitch) and efficiency (32.1% success rate) put Patrick Vieira’s side on the back foot right from the off and for much of the first half, causing them to squander possession. The hosts’ opening goal came as a result of Calvert-Lewin bullying Luka Milivojevic off the ball. Whether the team can bring this positivity and aggression with them away from the bear-pit that is Goodison remains to be seen.
Anthony Gordon was particularly active, harassing Tyrick Mitchell throughout, as shown by his 24 pressing attempts (29.2% success rate). The 21-year old was back to last season’s best and showed no signs of fading early that has been apparent recently. The academy graduate’s effort (ten ball recoveries, three tackles and eight progressive carries) and alertness saw him earn his tap-in goal, following in Vitalii Mykolenko’s shot, which was spilled by Vicente Guaita. With Everton pressing high and winning fifty-fifty’s all over the pitch, Calvert-Lewin showed what an asset he can be if not isolated, as the big man bullied defenders (winning four of seven aerial challenges) and linked play effectively.
Mykolenko pushed up high in support on the left and though nothing really stands out from the game data his performance was very solid overall. The Ukrainian is a great athlete and rarely seems to tire as he bombs up and down the flank, even when his overlapping or underlapping runs are regularly ignored by Demarai Gray! His delivery still needs work but his appetite to get forward led to Everton’s second goal as he got into position to fire a shot at Guaita. It wasn’t the best hit, but sometimes even a decent keeper like the Spaniard (or Jordan Pickford against Spurs) can spill a relatively soft shot and result in a goal. This is why the team’s reluctance to have a crack has made for a frustrating watch during the last couple of outings. If you don't shoot, you can’t score.
Seamus Coleman enjoyed his best outing since replacing the injured Nathan Patterson. Targeted by Palace throughout, the veteran more than held his own, winning six tackles and shackling dangerman Wilfried Zaha to the extent that he seemed to have gotten inside the Ivorian’s head. Coleman apparently has the forward’s number and invariably plays well against him. The Irishman stuck to his defensive duties, rarely venturing into enemy territory and this suits his current capabilities. As a consequence he managed his gas tank well, lasting the full 90 minutes and was never caught out of position.
It must be noted that the visitor’s engine-room was a botch-up job consisting of a natural attacking midfielder, in Eberechi Eze, forward Jordan Ayew (who got away with some egregious fouls against the Blues, once again) and the ageing Milivojevic, who is no longer a regular. Vieira missed the energy and defensive abilities of the suspended Cheick Doucoure and Everton overran Palace in the midfield at times. Much sterner midfield challenges await the Toffees.
Amadou Onana played a more subdued role than we’ve been seeing in the last few outings, sitting deeper, alongside Idrissa Gana Gueye, rather than pushing up high. He can be exciting when he stretches his legs and drives forward, but vacating his position can leave Everton’s centre hollowed-out if he happens to be dispossessed, as happened at St. James’ Park for Newcastle’s decisive goal. Consequently, he put in a mature, disciplined effort and gave added structure to the side. His passing accuracy of 91.4% led the team and he was behind only Iwobi in progressive passes (four). Defensively, he won six tackles - some those trademark snaking leg challenges which the fires up the Goodison faithful.
One negative was Everton’s continued poor delivery from set-pieces and crosses, only one of 14 attempts finding the mark. There was some excuse for such poor numbers when the Blues were playing without a specialist striker, or with the short Neal Maupay, but with a fit Calvert-Lewin in the side, they must do better.