Knowing Your Limitations
One of the problems Frank Lampard faced after joining Everton at the end of January, was how to imprint his desired style of play onto his new team. What this would be was made clear very early on: progressive football, an energetic high press, playing out from the back and through the thirds; we all saw the training videos released through the club website where this pattern of play was being emphasised. After some spectacular reverses, most notably away from Goodison Park, this approach would be quietly shelved for the remainder of the campaign in favour of a much more pragmatic set-up, emphasising defensive solidity, sometimes in a back five system. This shift was an acknowledgement that the new boss realised that the players he had available to him were not up to the task of playing the way he’d envisaged.
He wouldn’t be the first Everton head coach to come to this realisation: Carlo Ancelotti had stated that the players he was working with were not of the required level to play possession football - and the Italian tactician had James Rodriguez. During his short-lived, ill-fated tenure Rafa Benitez had the Blues play as a counterattacking side. Upon Lampard’s arrival, the Toffees were at a very low ebb in terms of flair, creativity and technical skills and though steps were made at a complete squad rebuild last summer, the attacking areas of the side took a step backward; the additions of Neal Maupay and Dwight McNeil not even counterbalancing the loss of Richarlison, let alone actually improving matters in the final third.
Nevertheless, this restructured team has started the season trying to do what the manager and his coaching staff desires and they’ve been exposed. Bringing Alex Iwobi into the centre has added a certain level of control, but neither of the summer’s big midfield signings, Amadou Onana and Idrissa Gueye are particularly technical footballers, or creative forces, so it is left up to the former winger to provide all of Everton’s playmaking presence. It’s not as if there’s anything coming from the wings to supplement Iwobi’s efforts; Demarai Gray, Anthony Gordon and McNeil are not fashioning chances for their teammates on anything like a regular basis. This all makes for a very predictable side trying to push up, press the opposition into errors that the Blues lack the finishing instincts to capitalise on, only run out of ideas and leave themselves exposed.
We’ve Seen This Movie Before
As has been the case on a number of occasions this campaign - and more than a few times last season - the Blues started Saturday’s game promisingly enough, but it all fell rather flat about ten minutes in. The visitors had pushed up high, pressed Bournemouth and got bodies forward in support of attacks that, sadly typically ended up going nowhere. Everton are blunt at the top end of the pitch: Gray can (very) occasionally score a magical goal, whist Gordon and - to a lesser extent - McNeil will rarely make a good run and get on the end of something, but there’s no consistency. Maupay, unfortunately looks like the sort of player that can only make an impact within a certain type of system; one that Everton either don’t, or can’t play.
So, whilst the visitors enjoyed a lot of the ball, as they would do all match (they commanded 64% possession), the Cherries were happy to allow this as they were not being punished. I’ve heard and read some claiming that Everton just play sideways and backwards passes, but I have to disagree. The team are looking to play forward, but either through lack of movement in front, or failure to execute pre-planned sequences, the player in possession will look to recycle play. Great possession team such as Manchester City do this constantly and the idea is to wear teams down, pull them out of their shape and wait for errors, or lapses in concentration. Unfortunately, the Blues are not Pep Guardiola’s side, so the hosts sat back in their own half and waited for opportunities to regain the ball and then catch Lampard’s team out. This started occurring around the ten-minute mark and continued throughout.
Too often a turnover in possession saw the visitors scurrying back towards their own penalty area as Bournemouth flooded forward. Playing a high line and having the midfield and fullbacks pushed up supporting the team’s possession, seeking to recover the ball high up the pitch when an attack breaks down, is a good idea in principle. But if those players are bypassed, miss a tackle, or are just out of position, then the defence is horribly exposed. Bournemouth are, by any measure, a poor team in terms of chance creation, ranking dead bottom amongst all 20 Premier League teams in most categories, but they looked genuinely dangerous at the weekend. A side that has been leaking goals appeared pretty watertight, also. These are big problems for Lampard. For a team such as the Cherries to be so comfortable keeping Everton at bay and to be able to create big goal-scoring opportunities themselves is an indictment of the way Frank is setting the team up.
It was left to Gueye to again try to stem the flow of counterattacks through Everton’s wide-open midfield singlehandedly. The veteran did his best, leading the Blues with seven tackles and 13 ball recoveries. He tried to progress the ball from his single pivot position but the hosts were well set-up to prevent this, which no doubt impacted his passing accuracy (a poor 76.1%). The 33-year old can be a major asset if used alongside a midfield partner, but is being hung out to dry by the way the midfield is being structured.
I have no idea what was going on with McNeil and the shape of the right side of the team. The 22-year old, nominally deployed on the right wing was very narrow and deep. Iwobi, in right-central midfield roamed about, appearing on the left frequently. It was left to Nathan Patterson to provide something from the right, but the young Scot was left exposed to turnovers in possession. It was no surprise that almost half of Bournemouth’s play came down his side of the pitch (an amazing 67.9% in the second period). Everton lack a valid right-sided winger anyway, but this arrangement compounded the problem.
Onana was deployed high up on the left-central half-space again and all this does is empty out Everton’s midfield, removing a major defensive asset who contributes little offensively at this stage of his development. The young Belgian tried to make things happen as evidenced by his five dribble attempts (only one success), but he appeared unsuited to the role he was being asked to perform. In his 74 minutes on the pitch, Onana was found by a teammate’s pass only 24 times, managed 39 touches and demonstrated poor control on five occasions. He attempted just 22 passes (one progressive), the fewest of any starting midfielder from both sides.
Why was Ruben Vinagre not on the bench Saturday? The rarely-seen Portuguese was one of the few to emerge with any credit from the midweek EFL Cup fiasco, showing that he can potentially add decent delivery from the flank, but when Vitalii Mykolenko was forced off early in the game, the only option Lampard had on the bench was right back Seamus Coleman. Call me a traditionalist, but the ideal replacement for a left back is another left back. Instead we had two (unused) central defenders sat watching events for 90 minutes, in Yerry Mina and Michael Keane (who was awful on Tuesday). It’s not like Conor Coady and James Tarwkowski are injury-prone, so why have two extra centre halves sat on the bench?
Maupay is either being poorly served, or is just not at the expected level. The Frenchman managed just 20 touches and won a single aerial challenge from three attempts, which doesn’t tell the full story, as he would not even attempt to compete for the many high balls pointlessly punted up to him from the backline. This is not his game, but he did poorly in terms of hold-up play also, taking three bad touches and being easily dispossessed (three occasions). The ex-Brighton man attempted a mere eight open-play passes with a 66.7% accuracy rate and fluffed his only effort on goal, when the ball fell fortuitously to him deep in the Bournemouth penalty area.