Finding the Formula
It’s been a steep learning curve for Frank Lampard since joining Everton a little over three months ago. Arriving at a club in crisis, with just one day left in the winter transfer window in which to attempt to bring in reinforcements, the ex-Chelsea legend also had to immediately put together an almost completely new backroom staff halfway through a season; hardly an ideal situation.
The Blues were months into a deep slump and although hovering above the relegation zone were only heading one way under hugely unpopular manager Rafa Benitez. The club was in disarray. Infighting had seen key playmaker James Rodriguez depart in the autumn, starting left back Lucas Digne bizarrely sold to Aston Villa only days before Benitez was sacked and a huge turnover behind the scenes: the club’s scouting department was gutted, Director of Football Marcel Brands gone.
The new manager quickly put together his staff and spoke about the way he wanted the team to play - progressive and on the front foot, pressing heavily and playing through the thirds. This he tried to do, with early success at Goodison Park, but away from home it was a different story, as the team failed to create chances, made fundamental errors and leaked goals like a sieve. A chastening FA Cup battering by Crystal Palace seems to have convinced Lampard of the limitations and possible strengths of the players he has at his disposal. Subsequently, there’s been a noticeable change to a more pragmatic style of play and though individual errors have cost Everton initially, in losses to West Ham United and Burnley, there’s signs that the team are adapting to this new approach.
Gone (at least for this season) is the desired way of playing. The Toffees are now ceding possession (averaging 28.3% over the last four matches, three of them at Goodison) and posting distinctly un-Lampardian passing statistics (64.8% over the same four game spell). Everton have pace up top and attacking players capable of upsetting defenders in one-on-one situations, whereas their midfield is at best workmanlike, so they are pretty much bypassing it (28.7% of passes were long on Sunday). This did seem to unsettle Chelsea. This time, they resembled a team fighting for survival, but in a determined, organized way, rather than out of desperation and it looks like the manager will be taking this forward into the final five games of the season.
It has been known for a while now that Everton perform better when Yerry Mina is in the starting XI and this was never more evident than on Sunday afternoon. The raw stats offer a useful insight into his role, but don’t tell the whole story. The big defender won two of three aerial duels, made seven ball recoveries, led the team with six clearances, had two interceptions and three blocks; good but not amazing numbers. Noticeably, he pressed only four times, but two were successful showing his strong positional discipline and judgement in when to break out of the defensive line to maximum effect. He was composed in possession, being accurate with 91.7% of his passes (team average: 63%). However, apart from his individual performance, his sheer presence seemed to have a calming effect on the whole team. The Blues came under intense pressure during periods of the second half, but did not crack.
Players that have often been prone to error, or positional indiscipline, such as Mason Holgate, suddenly appeared much more resolute. The Colombian could be seen talking often to his teammates, including inspired goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. The ex-Barcelona man is impossible to ignore and routinely gets under the skin of opponents. On Sunday, the normally non-confrontational Kai Havertz was the main target, getting involved with Mina in numerous off-the-ball tangles and shoving matches, much to the amusement of the enthusiastic crowd at Goodison. The tall German was completely put off his game and a non-factor as a result. Mason Mount fouled the centre back in the first half, causing a flare-up which resulted in both team captains Seamus Coleman and Cesar Azpilicueta getting booked. Mina, who was fouled three times, caused havoc but conversely brought unity and comradely combativeness to the Blues. His continued availability will be vital to the team over the next few weeks.
It was pleasing to see players who have been off-form recently, namely Abdoulaye Doucoure and Demarai Gray, put in much improved displays at the weekend. The former Leicester man, who had been arguably Everton’s best performer over the first half of the season, has had a tough job getting going under the new manager. To a degree, it could be argued that Benitez’ low block counterattacking style suited Gray’s strong points - pace, ability to run with the ball and directness - and that Lampard’s possession-based system, with its emphasis on high pressing, did not. Certainly, he’s cut a strangely uninvolved figure recently, failing to score a league goal since December and being unable to link up effectively with his fellow attackers.
Against Chelsea, he was up in support of Richarlison’s press of Azpilicueta and able to play the Brazilian in when the Spaniard coughed up the ball. He came close to scoring himself late in the half. Equally impressive was his effort out of possession: the winger attempted more presses than either of his partners in attack and led the team with six tackles, in addition to making three blocks.
Doucoure has looked far from the the dynamic box-to-box midfielder that he was in the opening weeks of the season. He’s appeared lost when deployed as a defensive pivot, attracting much criticism with negative, jittery play. Any attacking threat has completely disappeared and worse, he’s been tentative in the tackle and showed little appetite for battle. The Malian international put in an encouraging defensive display against Liverpool, but Sunday he seemed fully back to his dynamic best. Doucoure started the game how he meant to go on and caught the eye in the early going, getting around the ball whenever Chelsea attempted to make inroads into the Everton half. The rangy midfielder led the Blues with five blocks and was streets ahead of anyone else in the game with an astonishing 18 ball recoveries. His passing was neat and tidy (82.8% accuracy) and offered creativity, as demonstrated by four Shot-Creating Actions (SCA). A timely return for one of Everton’s more influential players.