The Perfect Solution?
Everton welcomed Manchester United to Goodison Park on Saturday - their third match over a congested six-day period following back-to-back defeats at West Ham and Burnley - under substantial pressure. In both of those games, manager Frank Lampard had seen his team play well for long stretches, only to shoot themselves in the foot by committing unforced errors and suffering defensive lapses.
One thing the Blues boss had stumbled across in those two disappointing losses - more due to a lack of available midfield options than by design - was a functioning formation: a 4141, with Mason Holgate pressed into service as a stop-gap holding midfielder. Previously, Lampard had flitted around a number of systems, with varying degrees of success and although he’d seen his side lose to both the Hammers and Clarets, these setbacks were not due to any formational flaws; rather individual errors.
So, with Allan returning from a three-match suspension due to the red card he unjustly picked up in Everton’s last victory against Newcastle United and Fabian Delph finally fit for the first time in four months, Lampard was able to field his new formation with superior personnel.
Delph, making his debut for the new manager and his first appearance since December 12th, was a revelation in a defensive midfield role, displaying a deft touch and game-intelligence that did him proud. His presence in front of a back four that has been often prone to a lack of composure gave a calming effect to the whole team. The ex-Manchester City man registered a combined five tackles and interceptions and also made five clearances, in addition to a team-high 12 ball recoveries as he mopped up in the half spaces between midfield and defence.
The veteran showed the value of a positional specialist, his disciplined approach giving the midfield a stable base from which Allan and Alex Iwobi could pressure and break forward into more advanced areas. United could make no inroads through Everton’s solid centre and were forced wide, playmakers such as Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba having to drop deep to get time on the ball, so taking them away from dangerous areas of the pitch.
It will be vital for Everton to have Delph available in the run in to the end of the season and considering his susceptibility to injuries, it would be worth considering limiting his training. He is clearly a player with footballing intelligence and has shown he can just slot right in and not miss a beat.
A Growing Presence
Vitalii Mykolenko has now made nine appearances for the Blues since joining the club in early January after arriving for a fee of £17m from Dynamo Kyiv. Initially, it is fair to say the young Ukraine international looked underwhelming and certainly a far from adequate replacement for the departed Lucas Digne, who had been one of Everton’s best players for some time. It was always going to be tough for the 22-year old, coming to a new country and a far stronger league than he had hitherto played in, without even considering the ongoing situation in his native land. Indeed, Lampard had occasionally preferred to use right back Jonjoe Kenny on the opposite flank, instead of Mykolenko and there’d been a lot of speculation as to whether he may not be fully up to speed until next season, or even if he was good enough for the Premier League.
However, three straight starts over the past six days have done wonders for the new signing, who has completed 90 minutes in each outing and has grown with each performance. It’s probably helped that the team has set up in the same formation in all three matches, the first time there’s been this consistency in approach from Lampard. After all, without a level of stability in formation and - to a degree - personnel, how will players become comfortable and develop on the pitch relationships with teammates? We are seeing this now with Mykolenko, who seems to be coordinating well with Richarlison on the left flank. In the last three matches, the Blues have favoured attacking down their left and on Saturday in the second half fully 63.7% of Everton’s play was on that side.
The Ukrainian may lack Digne’s polished delivery and obvious class at the moment, but what he’s increasingly demonstrating is a willingness to get forward - whether making clever decoy runs, or offering a supporting option and a surprising degree of athleticism, which is required more than ever from the modern full back. He showed great energy against United, providing attacking support, but hustling back diligently to resume his core defensive duties, in a game where the Toffees were denied the ball for long periods. The left back led his team in touches for the second consecutive game and it noticeable that Richarlison is getting more of the ball also, perhaps proof of a burgeoning relationship between the two?
Defensively, Mykolenko is looking very solid. He led Everton with a combined eight tackles and interceptions, made six clearances and nine ball recoveries. It was noticeable that United gained little traction on his side and focused much of their attacking play on the opposite flank, which is a complement to his performance as much as anything. His passion and delight at the final whistle certainly shows how committed he is to Everton’s cause.
The only real negative for the Blues, in a game where they secured a valuable three points that few had expected given recent results, was the continuing struggle of Dominic Calvert-Lewin. The man who hit a a total of 29 non-penalty league goals for the club over the previous two seasons, sufficient form to propel him into the England national squad, is looking a shadow of that player currently and it’s not at all clear what’s causing this precipitous drop in form. The forward suffered a bad thigh injury at the start of the campaign, resulting in four months on the sidelines but he’s been training and playing regularly since returning to action on January 2nd, is yet to score a goal and worse still is offering little threat. Over three games this past week, he’s managed a combined three shots and has only hit the target once since February 12th, his debut for Lampard against Leeds United. An encouraging cameo off the bench to set up Iwobi’s winner against Newcastle United last month has not heralded a surge in productivity, or performance.
In fact, things seem to be getting worse, to the point where he’s getting a lot of flack on social media from many Blues fans, for a perceived lack of commitment amidst rumours of a summer exit. This doesn’t gel with everything the striker has shown in a Royal Blue shirt to date. He made his name at the club for his effort and industry, even when not a regular goal scorer and being played in an assortment of positions, even - infamously - as a wing back during Ronald Koeman’s tenure of Blues boss. Calvert-Lewin has demonstrated a great attitude to perform whatever role he’s been given, in stark contrast to high-priced forward Moise Kean. It’s for this reason that I feel the former Sheffield United man is not being given a fair shake by elements of the fan base, some whose comments have been unsavoury to say the least.
The forward has publicly commented on the physical and mental challenges he’s experienced in overcoming what is the first really serious injury of his career up to now. He needs to learn to trust his body again and having witnessed first-hand what a similar injury did to teammate Jean-Philippe Gbamin, it is perhaps understandable that doubts may be in his head and affecting his displays on the pitch. There’s been a couple of tweaks since he returned that have kept him out of starting matches, so he clearly doesn’t feel he’s back to being 100 per cent just yet. Lampard is backing his front man and is sticking with him through this difficult patch, despite the significance of every match the team is playing. The manager puts a lot of store on application in training, so we must assume that Calvert-Lewin is showing a desire to regain his previous form, or he simply wouldn’t be getting selected.
It is time for Blues fans to unanimously back the man who has fired the goals for the club before and to trust that these poor displays are the result of recovery from a significant injury and not any off the field distractions.