Stability or Inflexibility?
Everton’s shocking away record this season was given a boost from Sunday’s win over Leicester City at the King Power, therefore it was a little surprising that manager Frank Lampard set up the way he did in midweek. Of course, one road win does not wipe away the memory of months of abject performances away from Goodison Park, but it was a little disheartening to see the team line up against Watford in the 5-4-1/3-4-3 that had served the team well in successful defensive battles over the previous two fixtures.
Context is everything and going off Lampard’s post-match comments, he was reluctant to sacrifice the structure and stability that had been built up in recent weeks, which is completely understandable given how fragile Everton’s turnaround has been. In addition, quite what team the Hornets would put out on Wednesday night was a mystery as a number of nominal starters were listed as doubts going into the match. Deploying Alex Iwobi and Vitaliy Mykolenko as wingbacks would make some sense if Emmanuel Dennis and Ismaila Sarr had lined up as wide attackers, as both can be dangerous on their day.
As it happens, the home side was far from the regular Watford starting eleven with key players missing and replaced by a bunch of mostly little-used backup options. Instead of Dennis, with 10 Premier League goals this season, they had Ken Sema, who has only two starts this calendar year and Sarr’s replacement was Samuel Kalu, starting his first match for the club after joining in January. In midfield, former Everton player Dan Gosling was making his first appearance since the opening game of the season. Even with their starters available, the Hornets have been truly awful at Vicarage Road and were entering the match having suffered eleven straight home defeats. However, the Blues started the match as if they were playing a tough outfit, sitting very deep and rarely getting men forward. It got a little better after the opening ten minutes, but for much of the 90 it appeared the visitors were content enough to share the points and that has to be considered a missed opportunity to put additional distance between the Toffees and their relegation rivals.
A Lack of Trust
Watching the Blues struggle to get much going offensively, particularly after it had become apparent that Watford carried little attacking threat, it became a source of frustration to see Lampard once again leave his substitutions late and - maddeningly - not use all three. At times this season, Everton’s bench has comprised few serious options, often being bulked out with youth team players and two goalkeepers, but this was not the case on Wednesday. The boss had plenty of room to manoeuvre to effect change on a game that was drifting, but appeared reluctant to do so. Strangely, Lampard mentioned tiredness by way of explaining away the disappointing performance, but surely this is what substitutes are for; to get fresh legs on the pitch? Demarai Gray and Anthony Gordon underwhelmed and either or both could have been hauled off on the hour mark. Eventually, in the 77th minute Gray was removed in favour of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and the Richarlison was shifted out to the left flank, where he typically prospers. But why did it take so long to make this alteration?
Gordon looked tired from the early stages of the second half. The 21-year old has been a huge success story for the Blues this season, but is in danger of being overplayed. The youngster has now racked up over 2,500 minutes in all competitions, has started 14 of 15 league matches under Lampard and played the full 90 in the last six. I get why the manager trusts the youth setup graduate: he’s fast, enthusiastic and desperate to win. He also has plenty of quality, but for all the major growth he’s showed this campaign, he is a young and inexperienced player, lacking consistency in his decision-making and end product. Gordon will always give his all, but it is up to the manager to withdraw him when it is not working out, as it didn’t on Wednesday. This match was crying out for some creativity in the centre of the pitch and if ever there was a time to introduce Dele Alli, then surely it was against this poor Watford team. The home side were open all day through the middle, but Everton had nobody who could pick a pass and play heads-up football, except for Iwobi, who spent the game marooned out on the right flank.
One Man Band
A player who once appeared unable to string together two consecutive decent performances, Alex Iwobi is a changed man under the new regime, seemingly able to adapt to any position and role he’s presented with. The Nigerian has now put in three strong efforts in a row in the unfamiliar position of right wing back and was comfortably Everton’s player of the match against the Hornets. Virtually everything creative came from the ostensible number ten, despite him being very far from the centre of the action. He made five key passes and connected on five of his six crosses as he played with vision and an awareness of the movements of his teammates; something generally lacking in Everton’s attacking players. The former Arsenal man contributed 0.7 of the Blues’ 1.0 xA (Expected Assists).
Iwobi touched the ball a team-high 78 times, made two of three dribbles and carried the ball progressively throughout the match. Defensively he was a major contributor also, racking up an impressive five tackles and pressing effectively, attempting 28 pressures with a success rate of 46.4% as Watford coughed the ball up with regularity. Whilst some Blues players had solid games, such as Fabian Delph and the rest of the defence, Iwobi was a standout. Possibly he would have been able to impact the game to an even greater degree if he’d been shifted into midfield, but regardless he has to be commended for his efforts. Clearly, he’s a player that has responded to the manager’s faith in him and right now looks like he would run through walls for the team.