A Possible Solution
Going off the team sheet submitted an hour before kick-off, it appeared that Frank Lampard would be setting up in a 4-2-3-1 for Sunday’s trip to play West Ham United, with Alex Iwobi deployed behind the returning Dominic Calvert-Lewin in a central attacking midfield position. Injury to Donny van de Beek in pre-game warmup likely necessitated the change to a 4-1-4-1 (or a conservative 4-3-3, as you wish), defender Mason Holgate being promoted from the bench to a starting berth, slotting in as a anchor-man, sitting in front of the back four.
In terms of the team’s approach to the match, largely gone was the manic counter-pressing that we’d seen in the FA Cup debacle at Selhurst Park prior to the international break and also at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium, where a naïve Toffees outfit were torn apart repeatedly by incisive Spurs breaks. The manager adopted a more measured approach in this match, often ceding possession to the Hammers and only selectively pressing, mostly in the middle third. Oddly enough, considering Holgate’s emergency inclusion as a holding midfielder, the shape of the team was much improved, as it has been during Fabian Delph’s fleeting appearances this season.
Could this be something that is tried again, given that the squad would have at least some time to practice it on the training pitch, rather than in a live game situation? Sure, Holgate gave away an unnecessary foul, which led directly to West Ham’s first goal, but otherwise the career defender did reasonably well, given the circumstances. The former Barnsley man misplaced a couple of early passes, but afterward settled down and provided a stable platform at the base of midfield, allowing Iwobi and Abdoulaye Doucoure to break forward when opportunities presented. He made himself available for the ball and was tidy in possession, taking no poor touches and posting a decent 80% pass accuracy rate.
Defensively, he didn’t drift far from his designated area, but lead the team in pressing attempts, tackles won (four) and loose ball recoveries (13), though also in fouls conceded (three). With Delph now available, he’ll likely slot in for Holgate in the middle with the defender returning to the backline now that Keane is suspended for tomorrow, van de Beek likely out for a couple of games and Allan serving the last game of his suspension for the Burnley match, it could be worthwhile formation to go with again.
It doesn’t take much for some Blues fans to give Alex Iwobi an online kicking and his lapse of concentration which led to West Ham’s second and decisive goal certainly gave his many critics fuel to add to the fire. An unlikely hero in Everton’s last league success, against Newcastle United, where he combined with Calvert-Lewin to produce a rate moment of class to hit the winner, he’s been cast as something of a villain here and that’s sad and unfair. Yes, his error was a big one, but Michael Keane’s decision to pass to him, considering he had two superior options available, in Richarlison, in acres of space out on the left and Demarai Gray in an advanced position on the right, was a poor one. True, the Nigerian should have controlled the ball, but the whole backline was in disarray at just that moment that his touch deserted him.
Keane had vacated the defence and was carrying the ball into midfield - something I’d cautioned against a few days ago in a piece assessing Lampard’s spell as Blues manager to date (hint, hint) - and with multiple passing options to choose from, gave it to a player that had a couple of opponents in close attendance and can really only go backwards with it. Jonjoe Kenny was already walking forward in anticipation of Iwobi receiving the ball instead of keeping an eye on Michail Antonio, who’d drifted over to Everton’s right and Ben Godfrey, who had just returned to position after charging deep into midfield himself, was too far over to the left and had not adjusted for Keane’s move upfield. Losing possession ten yards into enemy territory when a team has four players behind the ball should not result in a goal, but the Toffees’ defensive shape was a mess at the crucial point.
Big error aside, Iwobi had a good game. In an unfamiliar role, playing as an “eight” alongside Doucoure, he acquitted himself well, leading the Blues in touches and progressive passes, creating four shooting opportunities. He also was way ahead of anybody else in a Royal Blue (or white, in this case) shirt in terms of passes in the opposition third and their 18-yard box. The midfielder did not attempt many dribbles, but moved the ball well, again leading the team by some distance in progressive carries (only West Ham’s Declan Rice had more). Defensively, Iwobi was no great shakes: he had few involvements and his pressing was not particularly effective, though much better than Doucoure’s. Everton have some ongoing issues as regards midfield balance and options and - error aside - I feel Iwobi put in a positive enough showing to be considered in a central role over the next month or so.
Substitutions, or Lack Thereof
In a stressful situation such as Lampard finds himself currently, a certain inertia and indecisiveness can affect in-game management. It’s less of a factor when drawing up a game plan and a starting eleven, but in the heat of battle, with every point important, it can creep in. Surely this is why the Blues boss made only one substitution at the London Stadium? In a week where it’s been decided that next season teams will be able to make five changes during a 90 minute game of football, Lampard utilized only one of his three options on Sunday, and that too not until the 78th minute, and this has to be seen as an oversight. It’s possible that he had one eye on Wednesday’s potentially pivotal game against fellow strugglers Burnley, at Turf Moor and wanted to keep players fresh, but this theory makes little sense, considering shoo-ins for the first XI in midweek such as Richarlison and Doucoure played the full 90 minutes at the weekend.
Instead, it must be considered that Lampard has little faith in many of the players that are making the Everton bench and possibly trusts those that he favours a bit too much, even when they are misfiring or underperforming. Once the visitors had been reduced to ten men, the boss was possibly even more reluctant to take a punt on a substitute such as Dele Alli or Anwar El Ghazi, but what did he have to lose, really? Iwobi’s game suffered after his error, as he sought to make amends and gave the ball away a couple of times and Lampard should probably have substituted him off with 20 minutes to go. There may have been no obvious replacements, but Dele has played a lot more central midfield than the Nigerian has, over his career, so leaving him unused was mystifying.
Leaving Gray on the pitch for the full match was a strange choice also. Other than some decent dribbling and a few nice touches, the winger offered little threat throughout and seems well off form. Is El Ghazi that poor that he couldn’t have been thrown on for 15 minutes, even if just to rest a player that never looked likely to make a breakthrough on the day? If nothing else, he is quick, strong, can strike a ball and is surely desperate to impress.
Everton desperately need to secure some points from their remaining away fixtures and I feel that Lampard needs to start using every player he has that can potentially contribute, even if they aren’t lighting it up at Finch Farm.