An Ideal Beginning
Buoyed on by another amazing matchday crowd at Goodison Park, Everton came straight out of the blocks determined to take the fight to Brentford. All the momentum was with the home side and an early lead secured courtesy of the faintest of touches off Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s chest. Concerns that Frank Lampard’s 3-4-3 may be a little conservative for a match that his team were aiming to take maximum points from appeared wide of the mark, so in control were they during the opening 18 minutes. Brentford were largely penned back in their own half, key playmaker Cristian Eriksen starved of the ball and any chance to control play. The Blues played with energy and penetration, creating plenty of chances and it appeared there’d be only one winner.
Results earlier in the day had favoured Everton, as Burnley lost to Tottenham Hotspur and Leeds United had failed to beat Brighton & Hove Albion at Elland Road; it could have been even better if the Yorkshire team hadn’t scrambled a late equalizer. The Toffees had all the advantages, in terms of entering Sunday’s late afternoon match knowing exactly what result they needed to get. Supporters once more created an intense atmosphere at the ground, assembling hours beforehand and greeting the team as they arrived. Likewise, the team cannot be faulted for its attitude and approach: they set about the Bees with every intention of securing all three points and barring an unforeseen turnaround, the way the game was going it would have been a bold person who’d have bet against them winning handily.
The Game Changes
Football can be a cruel and unpredictable game, however. Just as it appeared the Blues were on their way to an impressive victory, securing their survival in the Premier League with two matches left to play, events began to cause the game to shift in an unexpected fashion and eventually to spiral out of control. Firstly, referee Michael Oliver’s decision not to award Everton a penalty for what appeared a clear foul on Richarlison by Kristoffer Ajer, the Dane half pulling the shirt off the Brazilian forward. The Video Assistant Referee did not intervene and immediately a long ball was hit forward for Ivan Toney to chase. Jarrad Branthwaite, making only his third league start of the season and his first appearance in more than a month, misjudged the flight of the ball and inadvertently made contact with the Brentford striker, who went to ground. As the last man, the 19-year old defender had to walk, but if Everton had got the penalty call seconds earlier, this would be irrelevant. Instead, the Blues face more than 70 minutes with ten men and a narrow one-goal lead. Youngster Branthwaite was a late inclusion into the starting eleven as Michael Keane was forced out through illness and unfortunately his inexperience cost the team, but no blame can be attributed to him; there is a reason why few teenage centre halves are regular starters in top European leagues.
The next and decisive turning point came in added time at the end of an eventful first half, revolving around the awarding of a penalty for Everton’s Richarlison. Pegged back by the visitors courtesy of a terribly unfortunate own goal by Seamus Coleman, Youane Wissa’s wayward shot rebounding off the Blues captain’s head past a stranded Jordan Pickford, somehow the home side found themselves given a lifeline. Mads Bech Sorensen, already on a yellow card and enduring a difficult afternoon, reacted clumsily to a flick-on from Calvert-Lewin towards Richarlison in the Brentford penalty area, bringing the forward down for a clear penalty. Why, though does a second yellow not follow? The defender makes no obvious attempt to play the ball, instead raising his leg and catching the Brazilian in the hip with his knee. He has to go, but just the penalty is awarded and it’s not at all clear why, but this is a pivotal moment.
Loss of Control
Everton went in at halftime leading 2-1 but in the knowledge that they’d have to navigate another 45 minutes shy a player and sure to be seeing little of the ball. Lampard had adjusted his formation after the sending off to 4-4-1, dropping wingbacks Alex Iwobi and Vitaliy Mykolenko into conventional full back positions. The manager had only one senior defender on the bench - Jonjoe Kenny - but options in other areas, if he wished to change shape or emphasis. He has a lead to defend, but the team emerged from the dressing room unchanged. Was this a mistake? The Blues had come under increased pressure as the half drew to a close, despite finding themselves in a fortuitous lead and this would surely continue after the break. Opposing manager Thomas Frank had changed Brentford’s shape during the interval and the Toffees soon found that they were starved of the ball and pushed back deep into their own territory.
Playing so much on the back foot, there’s a strong argument to be made that defensive players such as Allan and Tom Davies could have come on to shore things up, perhaps at the expense of the likes of Anthony Gordon and Andre Gomes. The English winger tries to help out defensively, but it is not his game and he had looked to be tiring late in the opening half. As for Gomes, he’s always been a far better player in a team in control of the ball; without possession he is a liability - too slow, little positional awareness and prone to giving away unnecessary fouls. Both would eventually be substituted off in the 72nd minute, but by then it was too late, Everton having seen their lead evaporate shortly after the hour mark as a patched-up defense conceded twice in quick succession. There was window of around 15 minutes in which Lampard could have bolstered the team with defensively-minded players, but the opportunity was lost.