Newfound Confidence Dented
Under new manager Frank Lampard and his highly thought of coaching staff, Everton fans had witnessed nothing short of a dramatic turnaround in playing style and confidence on the ball as the Blues dismantled Brentford 4-1 in the FA Cup at Goodison Park on Saturday. Players hitherto seemingly short of belief in their own footballing ability, appeared reborn. Andre Gomes, so often lost in a Royal Blue shirt was back to his elegant self, pinging the ball about and shrugging off opponents. Lampard, though clearly pleased with what he’d seen the team put into action after only a week’s training - whilst embracing the prospect of a cup run - preferred to focus on the next two league games. After watching events unfold at St James’ Park on Tuesday night, this was a wise approach.
Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe, with 17 days to prepare since his team’s last competitive fixture (they had played a friendly in Saudi Arabia on the 28th of January), devised a game plan designed to negate the style of play that Everton had demonstrated at the weekend. This took the form of a high press if the visitors attempted to play out from the back, in addition to a tight, physical marking job on the two opposing midfielders - Andre Gomes and Allan, who the Blues had played through effectively against Brentford. This strategy bore immediate fruit, as the Toffees coughed up the ball, allowing Jonjoe Shelvey to take a pot shot from range within the first two minutes. Whilst the home side did not threaten Jordan Pickford’s goal again until late in the half, the early chance got the vociferous home Toon crowd going, as did the numerous poor passes and loose control that Everton displayed, often under minimal pressure.
The Toffees, who had largely had things their own way at home against Brentford, looked jittery in possession almost from the first whistle. Newcastle would alternate sitting off, daring the Blues to try and pass through them, before pressing in a coordinated fashion and this paid off with dividends. Despite enjoying almost 61% possession, Lampard’s men created very little through open play.
Time to be Consistent
Lampard’s debut performance in the FA cup match versus Brentford went about as well as he could have hoped for - with the exception of losing defender Ben Godfrey for what figures to be several weeks due to a hamstring injury. The team implemented his preferred method of play, fluid movement and control of possession. They created plenty of chances, gave away few opportunities to the visitors and romped home by a three-goal margin. The new boss was even cheered by the enthusiastic crowd when introduced and at the game’s conclusion. He could have been forgiven for believing this “managing Everton thing” to be an easy gig!
Alas, the Blues reverted to type in front of tens of thousands of raucous Geordies on Tuesday, displaying signs of mental fragility and low confidence that are sadly all-too-familiar to Toffees fans. It took only the exertion of pressure and some physicality from Newcastle for an Everton team that started the game with hesitancy and unforced errors to gradually crumble once they’d conceded an equalizing goal, scarcely a minute after fortunately taking the lead. Late in the match, the scoreline threatened to degenerate to embarrassing levels as the Blues fell apart completely.
Coming into the game, Everton were a little short of match-fit options in midfield and seeing as the 3-4-3 had worked well in the previous outing, it was reasonable for Lampard to continue with this formation. Unfortunately, an inconclusive Covid test result for Vitaliy Mykolenko forced a change and the manager went with winger Andros Townsend at left wing-back, surely a position he’s never lined up in before in a long career.
Injuries to Demarai Gray and Yerry Mina in the first half limited Lampard’s ability to make tactical changes, though possibly when the Colombian limped off with what appeared to be a groin problem after 35 minutes, the boss should have replaced him with a midfielder, instead of like-for-like with Jarrad Branthwaite. By that point of proceedings, it was clear that Everton’s midfield two were being outhustled by the three of the hosts and shortly after the two teams exchanged bizarre own goals, Newcastle began to dominate proceedings. The second half was largely one-way traffic as the Blues goal threat shrunk to only 0.17 xG (Expected goals), whereas the Magpies racked up an xG of 1.79, illustrating how skewed things had become.
It is known that the new Toffees boss favours a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation and there is now no real reason to persist with the 3-4-3 after this debacle in the north-east, particularly as available central defensive options have dwindled to Michael Keane, Mason Holgate and Branthwaite.
Getting up to Speed
The Toffees made five new singings in the January transfer window, bringing in Marcel Brands’ targets Nathan Patterson, Mykolenko and Donny van de Beek - despite already having parted company with the director of football - in addition to Dele Alli and Anwar El Ghazi. Before Tuesday, only the Ukrainian left back had featured in competitive action. At St James’ Park, Dele was introduced for the injured Gray after 25 minutes and occupied the same position, behind and to the left of Richarlison. The ex-Tottenham man had only played about an hour of football over the past seven weeks and understandably looked rusty, but he did show a little of what he can offer; the minutes gained here will help him get up to speed.
Van de Beek has started only four games for Manchester United this season and has barely featured over the past two months. Subbed on for the ineffective Gomes on the hour mark, the Dutchman looked surprisingly sharp, touching the ball more in only 30 minutes of action than the Portuguese had managed in 60 and registering a team-high 95% pass accuracy, compared to a mere 71% by his teammate. The midfielder is a class operator, with a winner’s mentality and surely will be included from the start next time out. El Ghazi has so far not featured in any of the three matches he has been eligible for. Why exactly Everton signed the player on loan from Aston Villa is a bit of a mystery, but the winger is versatile, direct and knows the way to goal, so surely he should be given an opportunity to contribute from the bench?
In Patterson, the Blues have signed another player short of minutes before arriving on Merseyside. The 20-year old had an hour’s run out for the under-23s a couple of weeks ago and is not going to get match fit sitting on the bench. Club captain Seamus Coleman endured another difficult evening chasing around fruitlessly after Allan Saint-Maximin and the argument that his experience is more important to the team than the young Scotsman’s pace, energy and potential grows less convincing with each poor performance. The Irishman gives his all every match, but he is now 33 years of age and the steady decline in his level that has been apparent for the past couple of years is now precipitous.
At this point, it is my belief that Patterson should be given a run in the team, with the full knowledge that there will be some uneven patches. Anthony Gordon rode out some early anonymous efforts this season, but has grown immensely to the point that he is currently one of Everton’s most consistent and best performers. With his pedigree, there is no reason to imagine Patterson cannot do likewise.