In the aftermath of Everton’s 2-1 loss to Norwich City on January 15th, the plug was finally pulled on the ill-fated reign of Rafa Benitez, which had been on life support for six weeks following the team’s embarrassing home capitulation to Liverpool. With no time to waste, the club did just that, only announcing the appointment of Frank Lampard on the final day of the winter transfer window, January 31st. The Blues had already sold one key player in Lucas Digne and signed three others by then, but the new man was able to bring in a couple of new additions in the hours remaining to him, Donny van de Beek on loan from Manchester United and Dele Alli on an initial free transfer from Tottenham Hotspur.
The Chelsea legend has had almost two months in the Goodison Park hot seat, taking charge of seven league games (two wins, five defeats) and three FA Cup matches to date. So how do we evaluate his time at the club so far, or - in other words - what is Lampard getting right and what is he getting wrong?
The new boss arrived with a track record of favouring a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation and added two central attacking midfielders in van de Beek and Dele on transfer deadline day, so most anticipated that he’d likely be going with what he knows and is familiar with, but it hasn’t turned out that way at all. In half of the manager’s ten games in charge, he’s sent the team out in a 3-4-3, twice in a 4-4-2, also a 4-2-3-1 twice and just once fielded a 4-3-3, for the creditable and unfortunate 1-0 home defeat to Manchester City.
This is puzzling to some extent as an analysis of the Blues current squad reveals it to be somewhat lacking in the appropriate personnel to convincingly play a three at the back system. None of the fullbacks have a track record as wing-backs, a role that requires a different skillset to that of a traditional wide defender. Of the central defenders, only Michael Keane could be considered to possess adequate passing range and it’s a struggle to view any of them as having the ability to pick the ball up and push into midfield. Again, Keane is probably best suited but his lack of mobility and recovery pace would lead to disaster if he was caught in possession (see last season’s finale at the Etihad, where Keane attempts to take the ball through midfield and loses it, leading to one of Manchester City’s goals).
Everton have been leaking goals all season and an extra centre back can give the illusion of improved protection, but they’ve shipped nine in the four matches they’ve set up this way (ignoring National League minnows, Boreham Wood). In this configuration, the Blues are forced to deploy only two midfielders, leaving them routinely outnumbered in this crucial area of the pitch. Allan is the strongest overall central midfielder in the squad, but his primary weakness is a lack of pace and this is exposed when he and his partner are having to cover so much space. A back four and some variation of a three in midfield would make the team much more difficult to play through - a major issue away from Goodison Park - yet still allow Lampard to utilize his many wide options. Going forward, he has to go back to what he knows and quit flip-flopping between formations. This group of players do not strike one as being the most tactically versatile and confidence is low, so the manager needs to stick to his tried and trusted 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 and allow the team to develop some affinity for it over the remaining eleven league matches.
If the side has been shipping goals like a rusty old boat takes on water, then equally worrying is the alarming lack of cutting edge at the other end of the pitch. Everton have scored only 29 goals in 27 league fixtures this season, which puts them in the bottom quarter of teams when evaluating firepower. True, the team have been without the services of leading striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin for much of the campaign and have struggled to get the best from Richarlison, who has mostly been deployed as a centre forward, but there has been a serious lack of creativity in the absence of James Rodriguez, Lucas Digne and Gylfi Sigurdsson, all of whom ranked in the top three in terms of expected assists (xA) last season.
Digne was neutered offensively under Benitez before being benched then sold to Aston Villa, but despite having kicked his last ball for Everton almost four months ago, he still ranks fifth in xA for the club this season. The effective replacements for Rodriguez and Sigurdsson — Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend — have to some extent mitigated the loss of goal threat, but not creativity. James, in particular boasted an xA per 90 minutes played of 0.28, almost double that of this season’s leader, Townsend on 0.15.
An obvious problem is the time it is taking to get Calvert-Lewin back to something resembling his usual form. Despite his struggles, Lampard must now just bite the bullet and hope the striker can stay fit and play himself into form. We saw in his brief cameo against Newcastle at Goodison what a natural number nine can offer, in terms of linking play with runners from deep, on this occasion with Alex Iwobi. Richarlison toils manfully leading the line, but he is wasted there, as is evidenced by a miserable season to date and he needs redeploying back to his normal left wing berth, where he can assist defensively and run menacingly at opponents. If Calvert-Lewin continues to be dogged by niggling injuries, then Lampard must seriously entertain starting Salomon Rondon up top instead of the Brazilian, as at least he can offer a structural focus for the team to play off of.
In addition, he must try to find a way to utilize the goal threat and ability to link up play that Dele and van de Beek possess, but have so far not demonstrated. In the Dutchman’s case, this is due to him being deployed in a less than optimal role as a sitting midfielder. He is not an expansive passer who will hit raking 30-yard balls in the Andre Pirlo mode, but he offers clever movement and nice interplay around the opposition box and this is where he needs to be utilized. Dele has just not been given much of a chance to impact games, with no starts to his name and little chance to effect change being introduced into a demoralized team that’s trailing by a goal or more and demonstrates little ability to turn a deficit around. Although we won’t be paying money for the ex-Spurs man this season and in theory could flip him for a profit in the summer, this would be a negative approach and it is time to give a player an opportunity to prove his worth with at least a few starts, before giving up on him.
One undeniable success Lampard has had is in getting the supporters behind the team, notably so at Goodison. In part this is due to him not being Benitez, or indeed even Vitor Pereira, who was seen as an unqualified replacement for the unpopular Spaniard and one that was being pushed at the Everton job by owner Farhad Moshiri’s shadowy advisers. To an extent this resulted in the former England international becoming the consensus fan choice for manager. It helps also that he cuts a serious, impressive, ambitious and well-spoken figure in interviews and press conferences, and that he is committed to an attractive style of play, which few fans would oppose in principle. He has assembled an exciting backroom staff and those early training videos the club released showed a new approach to playing confident front-foot football.
Lampard’s managerial debut was a emphatic home win in the FA Cup over Brentford, where the team scored four goals and looked a far more attractive, attacking force than had been seen since the early months of the previous season, under Carlo Ancelotti. The crowd enthusiastically roared the side on and the new boss was even the beneficiary of some chants and cheers, which had not happened under Benitez, even in those early weeks when the Blues were winning games.
This support for Lampard is still there, but whereas results at home have generally been reasonable, considering where the team was coming from, away it has been a different story as they have lost every time, sometimes heavily. In most matches Everton have started decently and the fantastic travelling contingent have been vocal in their appreciation, but somewhere between ten and 25 minutes each game has turned, goals have been shipped, or control lost (typically both) and the drop-off in performance has been stark. To a degree this is down to the players reacting poorly to adversity, which will be tough for the boss to correct partway through a season, but it has been a hard watch for those hardcore travelling fans and the team have been jeered on a few occasions at the end of the game.
This is not an indicator that the manager is losing the crowd, but it is important that the team avoid getting blown out on the road, as this could undermine general backing for Lampard, which could spill over into those vital home matches that will likely decide Everton’s fate. Consequently, we need to see a more pragmatic approach to away matches, to give the side the possibility of eking out a few points, which could prove vital. Lampard doesn’t have to completely abandon his ethos here, but just rein in the high press that can work with the fans cheering them on, but leaves the Blues exposed away from Merseyside.