An Old Problem
Many fans have been calling out for Everton to play a three-man midfield for some time and their wish was granted as the team took to the Allianz Field on Wednesday evening (early the following morning in the UK). It’s fair to say things do not go exactly to plan, as their MLS opponents ripped them through the centre of the park on a fairly regular basis, particularly during the first 45 minutes. The problem wasn’t with the formation, a 4-3-3, but with the personnel entrusted with carrying out Lampard’s game plan. After withstanding a little early pressure from their enthusiastic hosts, the Blues took control and imposed themselves in a manner that would have met approval from their boss, enjoying much possession and creating a few decent chances. This continued for a while after Everton fell behind to a penalty conceded for a handball by Tom Davies, until their momentum was disrupted by a brace of Minnesota goals on 32 and 36 minutes.
The major problem wasn’t that the Toffees were unable to make their superiority count - this was only their second preseason match, so missteps and being off the pace are to be expected. What was a huge issue however, was how poorly the team coped in transition after they’d lost the ball. Minnesota counterattacked effectively and Everton were often left scrambling to recover their shape. We’ve seen this movie before, when the side has attempted to implement Lampard’s tactics that rely on a high line and heavy counter-pressing: if it breaks down then there is ample space for the opposition to run into and the Blues lack the personnel to prevent this happening time and again. Post-match, the boss appeared frustrated, a little angry and disheartened. These were his desired tactics and formation. I anticipate that we’ll see a reversion to a more conservative 3-4-3 for Sunday’s visit to Blackpool.
One Last Chance?
Like most Evertonians, I’d pretty much given up on Jean-Philippe Gbamin. After all, in three years on Merseyside (minus a stint in Russia), the Ivorian has totalled a mere 210 minutes of action in the Premier League. Of course, he’s been absent much of the time due to a sequence of unfortunate, serious injuries. Having not suffered any further setbacks since recovering from a knee ligament injury last summer, he was given few opportunities under Rafa Benitez, most notably being thrown to the wolves at Molineux (pun intended), the rusty midfielder looking horribly short of the required standard (he wasn’t alone here, it must be said) and hauled off unceremoniously at the interval. Lampard didn’t utilize him at all, agreeing to send the luckless player out on loan to CSKA Moscow shortly after arriving in the Goodison Park dugout. Whilst in Russia, he at least was able to prove his fitness, racking up 11 league starts and almost 1200 minutes of action overall. He even scored a couple of goals and completed 90 minutes on nine occasions. If nothing else, this proved to prospective clubs that the player was not an injury dud, thus inviting interest in his services.
Is his Blues career completely done though? He’d looked better than expected in the team’s first preseason game, against Arsenal. On Wednesday, as one of nine second-half substitutes, Gbamin surprisingly made the strongest impression of all. Operating slightly ahead of the deeper Lewis Warrington, the former Mainz man definitely seemed more mobile and confident, getting around the midfield well and generally putting himself about. Technically, he appeared sound, using the ball well for the most part, passing neatly and contributing defensively. He doesn’t have the look of a man who’s given up, rather someone determined to impress the manager and find a way into his plans. Is he the answer to Everton’s midfield miasma? Probably not. But unlike some of his teammates, he doesn’t deserve to be returning from the States after losing two matches by a combined 6-0, either. If he can keep this level up during the rest of the preseason, he deserves to be given a chance to compete for a place in the squad.
Any residual good feelings lingering from the great escape last Spring have long departed in the wake of a couple of abysmal performances during Everton’s tour of the USA. Combined with the essentially forced sale of star player Richarlison and a lack of any signings since the arrival of defender James Tarkowski on a free transfer, announced three weeks ago (but cemented some time earlier), this has been a series of hammer blows which has undermined confidence in the lead-up to the new season, now little more than two weeks distant. What the Minnesota game showed was a side bereft of the qualities required for the manager’s preferred system of play. Tom Davies, who is a backup, linked play reasonably well, albeit against non-Premier League standard opposition, but lacks either the positional sense or compensating pace to operate as pivot in front of the defence. It was far too easy for the MLS outfit to bypass Davies once the press from Alex Iwobi and Abdoulaye Doucoure had been evaded.
If the Blues intend to compete for possession this season - in whatever formation - then bringing in more capable defensive midfielders is absolutely essential. Other than the rarely available and now departed Fabian Delph, the side has lacked any players with this profile for some time and it is a deficiency that undermines any attempt at controlled play, which we know Frank desires. Doing so will help link the parts of the team together, offensively and defensively. For some time Everton have lacked cohesion and been too easy to play against. This is an absolute priority and if resources are available, two midfielders with strong positional defensive attributes, as well as technical quality need to be acquired, in order to straighten out the engine room, which is sputtering unevenly at present. If this is accomplished then the team’s attackers, who are starved of consistent supply will also benefit. Of course, there are other needs, such as a competent backup striker and a versatile creative force capable of operating from wide areas, but without a complete rejig of the midfield I fear any other additions will just be papering over the cracks.