What a Response
Following the euphoria of Everton’s thumping 4-1 FA cup triumph over Brentford at Goodison Park, came the let-down of a sluggish and passive loss to Newcastle United on the road just three days later. Of course, there were mitigating circumstances for that poor performance last Tuesday. Frank Lampard had stuck with the same team, except for changes required by injury or illness, which is understandable, but possibly asking too much physically and having to use two substitutions in the first half due to players picking up knocks was disruptive, limiting the boss’ capacity to make tactical shifts. No doubt many fans could have been thinking “oh, here we go again” as the same old problems of sloppy play, nervy defending and a lack of mental toughness reared their ugly heads once more. Was this a signal that the new man’s honeymoon period was over already?
The signs were not good. Spirits appeared low for the visit of Marcelo Bielsa’s high-energy Leeds United to Merseyside on Saturday. There’d even been critical comments by pundits as to the negative effect the home crowd can have on their own team, should they struggle early in a match. A coordinated effort was made by many supporters’ groups in order to generate a positive atmosphere in the stadium and thereby help the Blues on the pitch. Lampard sent his players out to jump on Leeds from the outset, disrupt their attempts to play out, force turnovers in possession high up the field and get bodies forward to capitalize.
This approach bore immediate dividends, with Anthony Gordon played in on goal within the opening two minutes. Although a touch allowed a defender to pressure him and so robbed the youngster of a chance to test opposition goalkeeper Illan Meslier properly, notice had been served; the crowd was up for it and the Toffees were producing the type of high-tempo progressive football that any fan can get behind. Everton continued to press Leeds and their energetic, positive approach paid dividends ten minutes in as captain Seamus Coleman! - and the ball - ended up in the visitor’s net. The attitude the Blues demonstrated, which continued throughout the match and the fantastic support by an enthusiastic support which had been starved of many highlights during former boss Rafa Benitez’s reign, ensured there would be no way back for the well-beaten Yorkshire outfit.
Second Chances Seized with Both Hands
Only two matches after taking over at Everton, the manager entered Saturday’s game - his league debut at Goodison - shorn of a number of players that would normally be considered starters in Yerry Mina, Demarai Gray and Ben Godfrey; in addition the club’s only specialist left back, Vitalii Mykolenko was once again unavailable due to Covid. Lampard had looked a little crestfallen during Friday’s press conference, explaining that the big Colombian, who he described as a leader, would be out for between ten and 12 weeks. Certainly, squad members would need to be utilized to plug the gaps and in stepped Jonjoe Kenny, only under contract at the club until this summer and one of Everton’s most criticized players, Alex Iwobi.
Kenny was deployed at left back, up against arguably Leeds’ best, most dangerous player, Raphinha. The Liverpool native, now 24 and still at Everton largely due to a lack of success in finding a club willing to make a bid for him, has seen occasional game time the last couple of months, in addition to appearances in the various cup competitions. He’d put in a competent showing on the left of a back five, coming off the bench for Mykolenko for the last 18 minutes of the Brentford game. Still, dealing with the talented Brazilian winger was an entirely different proposition. Fans needn’t have worried. The defender has always shown commitment to the cause but alongside that, there was composure and assuredness. Raphinha was neutralized to the point of being a virtual spectator, such was the extent that Kenny man-marked him out of the game and he was hauled off by Bielsa after an ineffective 45 minutes. The player tied for joint second in amongst Blues for combined tackles and interceptions. Surprisingly, the full back also broke forward in support on occasion, completing all three dribbles and even attempting a left-footed cross. This was an impressive 90 minutes for a man on the very fringes of the team.
Now in his third season as a Blue, Iwobi set up on the right side of midfield in Lampard’s fluid 442. The former Arsenal man had missed the dying days of Benitez’ reign due to his participation in the AFCON tournament with Nigeria and this was his first real opportunity to impress the new boss, having played only a few minutes of the Brentford cup tie, during which he’d assisted the Blues’ fourth goal. The attacker has disappointed so often that few expected much on Saturday; however the Nigerian turned in probably the best game of his career in Royal Blue. A player that has been criticized for drifting around the periphery of a match, this time Iwobi was a presence, leading the team in combined tackles and interceptions with ten and also putting his body on the line to make seven blocks, also a team high. His defensive contributions no doubt enabled Coleman to enjoy his most comfortable outing for Everton in some time. Additionally, the wide man contributed fully to the attack, creating five chances for his teammates and being an available outlet in the final third with his clever movement.
Both players stepped up, showing that they can be called upon and be ready to contribute.
A Flexible Approach
Lampard undoubtedly surprised old adversary Bielsa with his formation at the weekend, putting out a 442, with Richarlison deployed as a striker alongside the returning Dominic Calvert-Lewin. The former Chelsea boss typically favours either the 433 or 4231 and in the opening two matches of his career as Everton manager, he’d gone with a 343. Not too many of the supporters at Goodison would have anticipated this shift beforehand and the wily Argentinian veteran certainly appeared caught out.
Everton had often fielded a midfield pairing under Benitez and it rarely worked well and even then only in the early games of the season, with Abdoulaye Doucoure playing alongside Allan. With the Frenchman either not fully fit, fatigued due to being overplayed or - as is currently the case - injured, any combination of a central duo without him involved has invariably looked short of pace and been overrun. Although fans were eager to see Donny van de Beek, signed on loan from Manchester United, play, many would have been concerned to see him and the Brazilian up against a hard-running Leeds team, as neither are particularly quick or athletic.
As it played out, Lampard’s version of the 442 helped both out enormously, being highly fluid and reminiscent of Brighton and Hove Albion’s approach at Goodison early last month. Wingers Anthony Gordon and Iwobi adopted narrower positions than under a conventional 442, tucking inside and blocking passing routes through the middle, particularly in the second half, when Leeds were trying to get back in the game and the Blues had less of the ball for long stretches. In the final 45 minutes, only 9.1% of the visitor’s attacks came through the centre, a combination of effective positioning and situational coordinated pressing forcing the opposition back and wide. The two midfielders gelled perfectly; van de Beek’s assured passing and movement alongside Allan’s hustling and ability to drive upfield with the ball.