Sometimes Winning Ugly is Enough
Two home fixtures within four days figured to give manager Frank Lampard the opportunity to develop some impetus, allowing Everton to put a little bit of daylight between themselves and those teams currently residing in the relegation zone, but he watched his charges falter at the first hurdle on Sunday. On paper, his game-plan was not a terrible one and certainly an improvement on what the long-suffering away contingent witnessed the previous Monday, when the Blues had blundered into a Tottenham Hotspur team set up to play on the counter.
Most fans had thought that four points from last weekend’s game against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Thursday’s versus Newcastle United would be the minimum required and although the Geordies are currently the team in better form, Wolves are the stronger outfit overall, so a point on Sunday would have been a reasonable return.
Accordingly, Lampard set the team up to play with a degree of caution, contrary to the progressive front-foot football we’ve witnessed under him at Goodison Park so far. To an extent, this shows that the boss may not be a prisoner to his principles, in terms of getting on the ball and dictating play, even if Everton did attempt to pass out from the back and through the midfield pivots of Abdoulaye Doucoure and Donny van de Beek, with mixed results.
Probably this shift in approach came as result of the destruction in North London, but more of this pragmatism will be needed over the club’s remaining 12 league fixtures, despite falling short this time. Wolves are an exceptionally well-organized and difficult team to play against. They ship few goals and don’t score too many either. However, they do have good players capable of punishing mistakes, so charging directly at them would no doubt have exposed the home side’s extremely vulnerable defence.
In the period following Lampard’s shift to a 4-2-3-1 — with the introduction of Dele Alli for Vitalii Mykolenko — to Jonjoe Kenny’s sending off for a second bookable offence, the team had looked more vulnerable to counterattacks, forced as they were to take the game to their opponents. This game was a tight affair, of few half-chances and was decided mostly by a series of poor fouls that the Blues gave up early in the second period, resulting in a soft goal from play following on from a set-piece; Kenny’s red card essentially killed any real chance of recovering a point. Lampard’s approach wasn’t the problem.
Of more concern was the impression that the team did not appear entirely comfortable, or able in carrying out the manager’s game plan. This was to play out from the back, develop through the middle and build to the flanks, where Everton deployed both wingers and (in theory at least) wingbacks. This should have given the home side a numerical advantage in wide areas, penned back the Wolves wingbacks and allowed some decent opportunities for attacking play. Lage’s team do not press high at all and so the three-man defence had plenty of time in possession, making few passes under pressure throughout the match. The visitors made it difficult in the middle of the park, however, outnumbering van de Beek and Doucoure as they did. Both struggled to get on the ball, combining for only 96 touches, less than what the excellent Ruben Neves managed alone.
The Frenchman in particular looked uncomfortable receiving the ball facing play and was unwilling to turn upfield, opting to return it to the defence frequently, something which raised groans from sections of the crowd at quite an early stage. On paper, the ex-Watford man’s passing stats looked fine as he posted a near 91% success rate, but he was doing almost nothing with the ball. In addition, he wasn’t doing much in possession either, attempting no dribbles and moving the ball up the pitch a mere 22 yards over the 90 minutes. As an offensive, or even supporting force he was completely neutralized. Van de Beek fared slightly better, as despite lacking the pace and mobility of his midfield partner, at least he possesses good spatial awareness and technique and was able to break the lines with two dribbles. Neither were able to do so with passes though, making only one between them that could be classed as progressing the ball up the pitch; by comparison Joao Moutinho managed eleven such passes.
Worryingly, the Blues defenders appeared reluctant to feed their midfielders. Van de Beek would often show for a pass, only to be ignored. Whether as a result of the ineffectiveness of Everton’s central midfield, or lack of confidence the back three would frequently go long, preferring to hit long hopeful balls over the top or down the sidelines. Sometimes these paid off, as with Vitalii Mykolenko’s lovely pass into the left channel for Richarlison to run onto in the sixth minute, but all too often the team resorted to lumping the ball upfield. Wolves’ high line caught Everton players offside six times and this sort of defending is meat and potatoes to their disciplined back three. Mason Holgate in particular was wasteful in this regard.
When a team is losing games and playing inconsistently, as Everton have been since probably the Manchester United match way back on the 2nd of October, it is tempting to change formation and personnel, in the hope that something will stick. Particularly in the case of Lampard, coming into a faltering team mid-season, this understandable. To an extent he is learning on the job, what his players can and cannot do, what works and what doesn’t. However, he is running out of time and games and he has to start getting it right on Thursday. Wolves showed the benefit of a settled system and personnel: their back three, along with Neves and Moutinho have started almost every match this season and it showed on Sunday.
Using a box-to-box player like Doucoure as a deep-lying pivot is a mistake. Van de Beek offers some versatility, but he is not a conventional midfielder and should be utilized closer to the opposition goal. Lampard’s other major signing, Dele Alli, needs to start a game; some players are impactful from the bench, but it is apparent he is not one of them. Right now, the ex-Chelsea boss is wasting the attributes of the two men he was instrumental in bringing to the club.
Defence is another issue. It appears Lampard is determined to play out from the back and for all the errors he’s made this season, Michael Keane is the only centre back comfortable passing into the midfield, or able to hit an accurate long ball. Mykolenko looks uncertain going forward, but in a back four this should be less of an issue. New boy Nathan Patterson clearly seems unfancied by the manager, but at this point Coleman is offering very little, so even if the Scot is not quite ready, he should be given his chance.
Finally, Lampard traditionally prefers a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 and Everton’s available players suit this formation. He needs to quit flip-flopping between a back three and four, because the players are not gaining any familiarity or confidence with constant shifts. Already he and his staff are trying to impose a new way of playing, so swapping formations is adding needless complication and taxing the players’ adaptability.