Work in Progress
Everton set up in familiar fashion on Saturday. Fans gathered at Goodison Park for this late kickoff could have expected a similar performance to the one that dismantled crystal palace two weeks ago. After all, despite opponents Leicester City showing signs of improvement recently, course-correcting to a degree, following a terrible opening to the campaign, they had not looked particularly formidable, even so. It is fair to say that we did not see what we’d anticipated. The side started aggressively enough, pressing high up the pitch and even forcing an error in possession by Leicester in the first five minutes, leading to a great chance for Alex Iwobi to put the Blues in the lead, which was unfortunately not taken; goal-scoring, however is not really the Nigerian’s forte. He is, though Everton’s only real creative hub and therein lies the problem, or at least one of them.
Frank Lampard and director of football Kevin Thelwell plotted over the summer, working hard within a budget to address the many and varied issues which beset the club. Other than goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, the other major areas of the squad were bare and not fit for purpose. The pair have to be commended for their efforts in attempting an almost complete rebuild. That the side that took to the pitch this weekend contained only five starters that were at the club last December, in Pickford, Seamus Coleman, Iwobi, Demarai Gray and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, is testament to the work that Lampard and Thelwell have carried out. The central defence and midfield have been totally reconstructed, while the full-back positions have added capable younger players that arrived just before the new regime took over. It is true that these areas are not yet the finished article, but it is possible to see improvement and hope for the future.
Where Everton are lacking - and where the management team were able to make only limited alterations - is the attack. Efforts were made in adding an additional wide man in Dwight McNeil and forward depth in Neal Maupay, but most observers could see that this was a weak spot as the season progressed through the early weeks. Major targets were not obtainable during the summer. On Saturday’s evidence, it is to be hoped that bids for reinforcements are being prepared for January, because the side as it stands lacks goals, creativity and individual flair. If Iwobi is shackled, or misfiring, then it is not easy to see where else vision and precision pass execution exists within the squad. McNeil has some promise, but he’s a long way off offering what the team urgently needs.
Punchless and Vulnerable
Watching the team attempt to attack Leicester an analogy came to mind: the Blues resembled an aggressive boxer with little ability and no power wading forward against a skilled opponent and walking onto increasingly hard, hurtful counter-punches. Time and again the side blundered into the opposition third, only to lack much of an idea what to do when they got there. Offensive success mostly arrived as a product of Everton’s energetic high press, which caused turnovers and lead to the team’s best chances. When the Toffees had to actually attempt to penetrate the Foxes from open play, it was quickly apparent that they had few options but to recycle the ball around the edge of the final third and lump in a hopeful cross, which was invariably easily dealt with.
The side became increasingly open as the game progressed and Leicester were able to break to great effect. Chasing the game, the Blues left big gaps in midfield and down the flanks as the defence became increasingly disconnected from those pushing forward, or attempting to press the Foxes. Connor Coady and James Tarkowski have been stalwart operators for Everton, bringing a combination of old-school yard dog defending and character to a side lacking those qualities. Neither, however are well-rounded players. Mobility and pace are an issue and they can be exposed by rapid counter-attacks, clever balls over the top if they push up high and being turned by runners into the channels. Both are best suited to defending deeper, in front of the penalty area, but this is not conducive to the aggressive pressing favoured by Lampard, which requires a higher line.
Since the team struggles to find the back of the net and has not yet been able to score regularly from set-pieces, then they need to be watertight in defence. Once they concede it is difficult to make a convincing argument for them subsequently going on to actually win a game. This lack of firepower will start to become a problem if not addressed, as it could begin to sap morale and conviction if the team lets the first goal in. Opponents will gain confidence against Everton if they take the lead. It is a vicious cycle. Currently, other than maybe Calvert-Lewin, who would opposing managers be concerned about? This is a big problem for Lampard going forward. Thankfully, he and Thelwell will get an opportunity to put fixes in place after only three more league games. They cannot fail in this endeavour.
Everton remain very vulnerable to counterattacks. They entered this match having shipped five goals via this route - the worst team in the league - and added another with Harvey Barnes’ late goal. This is clearly a structural problem, though the team’s personnel are somewhat vulnerable to rapid attacks following turnovers in possession high up the pitch.
The injury to Calvert-Lewin presents a big problem for Lampard if it is as bad as initial indications suggest. He is fundamental to Everton's play currently, though maybe not for the future if the boss wants to play more of a passing game on the ground. Everton launched 26 crosses on Saturday and although the striker won six of seven contested aerials, he was contained very well, particularly by the impressive Wout Faes. With the awful prospect looming of a second consecutive season being wrecked by repeated injuries, the Blues have to plan for a future without their key target man.
Idrissa Gueye was vital in the early part of the game as the team sought to play out from the back. Defensively, he was a shield for the back four, as evidenced by his three tackles, three interceptions and five ball recoveries. Twice, he sprung important counters for the hosts. Gana’s play suffered after he picked up a knock, which caused his withdrawal at the interval; his presence was missed in the second half. The 33-year old is attracting criticism from some parts, but without him Everton were wide open.