Finding a Formula
Everton have been appalling away from Goodison Park all season; they’ve been largely shocking at home for much of it. Frank Lampard, appointed manager at the end of January under less than optimal circumstances, has at least steadied the ship somewhat at Goodison, where a more positive approach has engaged a fanbase starved of enthusiasm under the divisive reign of ex-boss Rafa Benitez. However, the results on the road under Lampard do not make for comfortable reading: four matches, all losses, 14 goals conceded and only one scored. They’ve only managed to hit the target five times, despite at least starting all those matches on the front foot. What’s going wrong?
The Blues set up at Selhurst Park with a high defensive line and attempted to press Crystal Palace into errors, in order to spring attacks in dangerous areas of the pitch. It looked initially as if this would reap benefits, as the home side turned the ball over on several occasions, leading to some decent attacking play and corner kicks. But ultimately, no clear-cut opportunities presented and Everton couldn’t finish the chances they did create. The loss after 17 minutes of Andros Townsend, who had been actively working high up on the right side in tandem with Seamus Coleman, affected the team’s intensity.
A few minutes later the pressing from the team slackened off and Palace started getting some time and space to play. As soon as Everton’s energy levels dipped, the game shifted and control was lost. The high line of the visitors was exposed by long balls over the top and into the channels. All too often the defence was turned and ended up running back towards their own goal, the midfield either caught in no-man’s land and bypassed, or struggling to cover gaps in the middle of the park. It all looked very disjointed.
The tight, aggressive marking that had been a feature from the opening kick-off, suddenly started getting beaten by Palace’s quick, athletic forwards and the inevitable ensued. It’s becoming apparent that Everton do not possess a squad with the right qualities to play this way away from home. The defence is slow and positionally poor in space. The attack lacks the clinical finishing to benefit from a fast start, with lost of counter-pressing. What we are seeing repeatedly is a team desperately attempting to hustle and bustle their way into a lead, failing and then falling off badly. When they’re not going full-tilt their personal deficiencies are being exacerbated by the system Lampard is playing and he’s going to have to adjust to something that will screen their flaws, rather than exposing them.
An unforced change was forced on the manager after little more than a quarter of an hour, with Townsend hobbling off with what appeared to be a serious knee injury, to be replaced by Demarai Gray. Normally, this would be considered an upgrade, as the ex-Leicester man has been one of the Toffees’ best performers for much of the season. However the way Everton were set up, pressing high and with energy, Townsend was far more suitable. Gray is faster and technically superior, but the former Palace man works a lot harder defensively. The Blues were defending from the front and there was a definite drop in intensity as soon as this change was made.
At half-time the Blues trailed by two goals and Lampard opted to throw on striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin to add some much-needed attacking threat, removing Jonjoe Kenny, who had cut a peripheral figure during the first 45 minutes. Fans would have expected a shift to a back four, with Ben Godfrey moved out to left back, but instead the manager retained the central structure that the team started the game with, as Antony Gordon found himself replacing Kenny at left wing back. The youngster is a fan favourite and somebody who Lampard thinks highly of, but this was a strange decision. Gordon is an energetic winger who gives his all for the team, but he is no defender and his impact thereafter was minimal. In the 73rd minute another defender was substituted off, this time Coleman and Alex Iwobi, matchwinner on Thursday against Newcastle United was the latest attacker to be shoehorned into a wing-back role.
Quite what the thinking was here is anyone’s guess, but Everton would ship two further goals after these changes, both originating from moves down the Palace left flank. Why wouldn’t they target two out of position wingers on either flank? The team were chasing the game and presumably the Blues boss wanted as many attackers on the pitch as feasible, but there was no balance and little structure. Everton looked a mess from a defensive standpoint in the second period. The back three was forced somewhat on Lampard for this match, due to a lack of senior options in central midfield, but we’ve seen enough of it now for one campaign and I’d like to see the former Chelsea man stick with a back four for the final weeks of the season.
Calling the Team Out
Lampard cut a frustrated figure as the game progressed. For the opening 20 minutes he would have been more than happy with the effort and application shown by his players. Thereafter, things started going wrong and in predictable fashion the team disintegrated before his eyes and those of the more than 3,000 Blues fans that had made the long trek down to Selhurst Park. Most would have feared the worst as soon as Palace opened the scoring on 25 minutes, defender Marc Guehi heading home from a corner, having seen this script play out many times before. Almost immediately, the aggression the team had hitherto displayed faltered. The press became hopeful, rather than decisive. Duels tended to be lost, the team began to lose second balls. Defending appeared panicky and reactive, not calm and measured.
Morale within the squad must be at a low ebb, particularly on the road. At Goodison, the crowd are fully behind them, the manager clearly liked by the vast majority, who desperately want to see him succeed and this is obviously making a measurable difference to performances. Lampard is a straight-talker, a winner, who wants to see his team perform and who refuses to accept players not giving their all. He’s expressed disappointment after previous reverses, but was in no mood to offer excuses for non-performance after Sunday’s debacle. Questioning the character and - to paraphrase - intestinal fortitude of members of his squad could go both ways. Fans have been asking the very same question for some time, so this will go over well with most, but the players themselves? It’ll depend on who he’s calling out, because it is certain he’s done (or will be doing ) this to their faces.
How they react to this challenge will inform the boss greatly on how much faith he’s prepared to put in them for what will now be a gruelling eleven game run to salvage Everton’s season.