Slow Out of the Gate
For the opening 15 minutes of Wednesday’s match against Leicester City, the Blues played as though still warming up. They were disjointed, sluggish, miles off in their attempts to press and unable to string together anything meaningful on the rare occasions they were able to get hold of the ball. The visitors were in on goal only 30 seconds from the kick-off, nine straight passes and Ricardo Pereira putting Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall in with a pinpoint through-ball, only Seamus Coleman’s last man challenge preventing a marvellous early chance for the impressive 23-year old midfielder. The Foxes didn’t have to wait long to open the scoring, in the fifth minute Harvey Barnes firing home from close range after Kelechi Iheanacho’s blocked effort fell kindly for him, Everton being cut apart with ease down their left flank. Leicester didn’t really pursue their advantage over the next ten minutes, seemingly content to pass the ball smoothly, easily evading their opponents’ efforts at closing down. The visiting fans could clearly be heard over the silenced Goodison Park faithful, even throwing in the occasional “ole’” for good measure, so outclassed were the Toffees.
Watching this spectacle, you could be forgiven for thinking this 7.45 night-time game was a 7.45 AM kick-off, so off the pace were the Blues. Quite what Frank Lampard and his coaching staff were thinking is anyone’s guess. Like most, he no doubt was expecting his charges to go at the battle weary road team from the off, roared on by an appreciate crowd “under the lights” at Goodison Park, so the saying goes.
After all, Leicester had played three matches since Everton’s last game, the last two being road trips to the Netherlands and Newcastle, the latter just three days earlier. Whilst it is true there had been some squad rotation for Brendan Rodgers’ team, the home outfit would surely be refreshed, primed and raring to go. Could the Merseysiders’ have had too much of a break, whereas the Foxes were rolling from fixture to fixture and so had continuity? If so, then this shouldn't happen again, as the team has no breaks between matches now of longer than a week, until the season finishes. Whatever the reason for their poor opening to this game, Everton cannot afford to be so sluggish again, putting themselves in the position of playing catch-up.
The Blues had looked a tight unit against Manchester United eleven days earlier and Lampard appeared to have hit upon a working system and personnel to suit: the returning Fabian Delph, sitting in front of a back four, Alex Iwobi and Allan in front, pressing and joining the attack where possible. Although chances were not abundant against the struggling Mancunians, the team shape and structure was solid and it came as no surprise that this was how Everton lined up on Wednesday. However, when confronted with a well-balanced, technically sound team like Leicester, one very comfortable in its familiar system - unlike the disorganized United - Lampard’s new set-up did not work at all. The home side’s high press was easily bypassed much of the time, the midfield nonplussed by the visitors’ fluid interplay.
Youri Tielemans and Nampalys Mendy were happy to drop deep, or drift wide to pick up the ball and invite the press which, when it came was usually energetic, but predictable. The two linked well with Leicester’s central defenders and with James Maddison - nominally on the right but enjoying a lot of freedom to move around - giving them plenty of receiving targets, Everton just could not cope. Tielemans, Maddison and Mendy attempted only a combined 34 passes under pressure from a total of 198 - just 17.2%. Iwobi did his best to exert pressure, but this took him far up the pitch, leaving gaps in the centre. Delph, the deep-lying midfielder was a non-factor for long stretches, Leicester’s central attacking midfielder Dewsbury-Hall drifting over to link up with left winger Barnes and Maddison roaming about intelligently. Allan was isolated and did a lot of fruitless charging about, as he does when he’s exposed by the system. The Brazilian succeeded in only two of 25 pressing attempts before being withdrawn in the 58th minute.
Meanwhile, Everton’s attempts to play out from the back were forlorn. Passing lanes into midfield were blocked off, forcing the defence and Jordan Pickford (28 of his 38 passes were launched up the pitch) to go long more often than is desirable, certainly when Richarlison is utilized as a lone central striker (the Brazilian won only two of 12 contested headed duels). Almost a quarter of the home team’s passes were over 30 yards in length; for Leicester the figure was only 15%. The Blues’ midfield was bypassed. Delph and Iwobi, who played the full 90 minutes, attempted only 37 and 26 open-play passes respectively, Allan a mere 16 in close to an hour of game time. Everton’s starting midfield trio’s passes were pressured 28.1% of the time - and the Foxes were not pressing with anything like the home team’s intensity.
A criticism that could be levelled at Lampard so far, is a failure to change matches by using options from the bench. In fact, it has often been frustrating watching the boss not utilizing all his available substitutes and on Wednesday he again failed to do so, using only Dele Alli and Salomon Rondon, even though Everton were chasing the game almost until the final whistle. At least this time he was somewhat proactive, introducing Dele for the ineffective Allan before the hour and Rondon for Demarai Gray just eight minutes later. Iwobi assumed the Brazilian’s role sitting a little deeper in midfield, allowing Dele to push higher up and join the attack. The ex-Tottenham Hotspur man took a little time to get into the match, but when he did he was active in helping the team gain possession, making a combined three tackles and interceptions, winning a couple of aerial duels and selectively pressing to effect (five successes from nine attempts). Offensively, the attacking midfielder was able to capitalize when it counted, chasing down Pickford’s deep ball, winning possession against full back Timothy Castagne and showing the composure to drive in a low cross towards fellow substitute Rondon.
The much-maligned South American, criticized for frequent poor displays under former Blues boss Rafa Benitez offered a focal point up top, battling the opposition centre backs (winning three of five aerial duels), holding the ball up well and giving the team a better shape. His first touch set up Richarlison for Everton’s first shot on target and though he was unable to control Dele’s low cross in the 92nd minute, his near post run pinned Wesley Fofana, leaving his Brazilian teammate to fire home during the chaos. The Venezuelan lacks pace and a genuine goal threat, but he is a natural striker and his inclusion allowed Richarlison to be moved to the left, where he’s shown throughout his career that he can be a threat. Hopefully, seeing the impact of the substitutions he made the other night will embolden Lampard to be equally proactive in the future.