The Mentality Game
New manager Frank Lampard has assembled a great backroom staff in short order and they have already, in a week, got the message over of how they want the team to play, to the players. What cannot be overlooked is the positivity that appears to have been conferred onto the entire team. Morale would have been rock-bottom after four months of woeful results allied to poor performances from most of the squad. Typically, such an effect can only be reversed by improving the results on the pitch.
Occasionally a new manager can invigorate a team, leading to the “dead cat bounce” (aka “new manager bounce”) that is often seen, but which rarely lasts. We saw that a couple of years ago, when Duncan Ferguson took over as caretaker and was able to motivate a struggling outfit into a memorable 3-1 victory over Chelsea (at the time lead by Lampard). Sadly, this would not be replicated when the Blues hosted Aston Villa the weekend before last, as Ferguson took over the reins temporarily in the wake of the firing of the hapless Rafa Benitez. Then, the team did show a higher level of energy and tried their best to get back into the match after falling behind, but confidence and composure was not on display.
Saturday was very different, however. We witnessed an Everton side come out onto the Goodison Park pitch psychologically primed to implement all that they’d worked on through the week, in training. From the first whistle the team showed a confidence to get on the ball and a desire to play attacking football, to ask questions of the visitors. Under Benitez and - it must be said - Carlo Ancelotti, the players had been told that they are not good enough to play with possession. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, so we’ve seen the team routinely outplayed by the vast majority of opponents since those early months of last season, when Carlo had a fit and firing James Rodriguez and the Blues were operating with a bit of swagger; since, it has been negative, reactive and mechanical fare.
Against Brentford, the self-imposed mental shackles were removed the players showed that, given the chance to express themselves, that they are not actually terrible footballers, at all. Whatever happens during the rest of the season, this is a welcome change.
A New Way of Playing
With the proviso that Saturday’s FA Cup triumph, Lampard’s inaugural game in charge of the Toffees, is just one match, the change in approach and tactics was nothing short of astounding. Many of us had heard the soundbites from the manager and watched the small amount of video footage from the midweek USM Finch Farm training sessions, showing the team being told to “enjoy the ball” and “play through the six”, in addition to encouragement to break the lines with progressive passing and movement. I expected to see the Blues attempt to put some of this into practice against Brentford, but was not anticipating radical improvements, just the desire to modify patterns of play. It was a pleasant surprise to see Everton not just want to change things up, but to execute the game plan. Of course, not everything worked as intended, as Lampard himself readily admitted in his post-match interview, but the degree of success, the sheer progress, was so encouraging.
I guess what this demonstrates is that most of the Everton squad are technically better than they’ve shown for a very long time and also much more adaptable and intelligent footballers than they are commonly given credit for, to be able to pick up so much in such a short time. The much-maligned (by me, as much as anybody) Andre Gomes, alongside Allan as a double pivot in midfield were transformational. Gomes, a man who when starting a game is often a peripheral figure, touched the ball 97 times, orchestrating many of the team’s moves and demonstrating the wonderful technique and control that made him something of a fan favourite following his loan move from Barcelona back in 2019.
Alongside him, the Brazilian appeared every inch the class operator that was a core part of a strong Napoli midfield for several years. For most of his Blues career, Allan has been wasted, charging around the pitch like a bulldog, rarely able to show his footballing qualities, such as his chipped assist for Richarlison’s goal. He’s been in Royal Blue for 18 months now, halfway through his contract, but the best may well lie ahead of him.
It was time for Benitez to go, we all knew that. Truthfully, the end of his tenure at Everton was probably a month overdue, at least. One concern I’d had following his welcome exit was, amidst the awful performances and abject results, how would his absence affect the few players that had performed - notably Anthony Gordon, Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend? Two of those had been signed by the Spaniard and the former Crystal Palace winger is known to have a good relationship with the man who took him to Newcastle United six years ago; homegrown youngster Gordon has also come on remarkably this season. These concerns proved redundant as both the academy product and the ex-Leicester City man started Lampard’s first game in charge and continued to shine under the new regime. Gray was his usual direct, mobile self and registered an assist for Yerry Mina via a quality corner kick delivery. Townsend, introduced from the bench after 73 minutes, showed his consistency by firing home his seventh goal of the season in added time.
Everton’s fluid front three of Richarlison, Gray and Gordon tormented Brentford’s back five throughout, employing a lot of movement and interchanging positions often. The Brazilian enjoyed one of his strongest outings as a central striker and grew into the match as it progressed, taking his goal adroitly. The high press of Everton’s forward line, as the visitors attempted to play out from the back, harassed the opposition into errors and occasionally forced turnovers of possession.
Gordon, in particular excelled in this regard and this is one more vital aspect of the winger’s game that is making the player almost undroppable from the starting line-up. One aspect that could improve - and that will doubtless be addressed at USM Finch Farm - is the tendency of the Blues attackers to sometimes ignore better-placed teammates in favour of taking shots themselves; with better interplay the home side could easily have scored more than the four goals they put past Brentford goalkeeper David Raya Martin.
It is true that Brentford are not a particularly strong team, even if they did field their best available starting eleven, but Everton have frequently failed to open up even the weakest of opponents at Goodison Park in recent seasons. On Saturday, this was not a problem and at times the visitors looked at something of a loss as to how to deal with the home side’s movement and incisive passing.