Barring a radical departure from what we’ve seen during preseason, it appears almost certain that Frank Lampard will be heading into the season opener against Chelsea using the same formation that he’s employed in the last two - victorious - outings. On Friday night at Goodison Park, the Blues appeared more comfortable than ever in their 3-4-3 shape and controlled large portions of the match against a Dynamo Kyiv side which made multiple changes from the team that took to the pitch in a Champions League tie against Fenerbahce on Wednesday. Good cause notwithstanding, quite why this game was arranged to take place less than 48 hours after Dynamo’s crucial second leg extra-time win in Istanbul, rather than on the Saturday is a mystery; it was certainly unnecessarily punishing for the visitors, who clearly tired late on after putting in a spirited effort.
In their favoured shape, the Toffees now have a number of options to choose from in the attacking midfield area behind striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who has looked more like his old self in preseason following an injury-ravaged campaign last season. Lampard has Anthony Gordon, Demarai Gray, Dele Alli, Alex Iwobi and newcomer Dwight McNeil all vying for two starting berths in what are unusual positions, more akin to roaming inside forwards than that of a winger, or number ten. At the weekend Gray and Gordon were given the start and both were eager to impress the manager, particularly the former, who was full of running early on having missed the last game against Blackpool as a precaution.
Whilst the pair demonstrated their usual pace and mobility, in addition to pressing actively as per the game plan, both displayed negative aspects of their game. Neither were able to link effectively, either with each other or with Calvert-Lewin, and instead were more focused on making something happen on an individual basis. Gordon enjoyed his best spell after the introduction of Dele and McNeil, testing the opposition goalkeeper with one stinging effort from a tight angle, whereas Gray almost got lucky with a mishit cross. The two provide strong alternates for the boss, but did not produce enough to guarantee starting the Chelsea match.
Entering the fray on the hour mark as Calvert-Lewin was withdrawn, Dele again assumed the task of leading the line and in a ten minute spell showed - as in the last match - that deploying him as a false nine deserves serious consideration as a Plan B. The attacker dropped off the defensive line, taking up good attacking positions and linking play well, particularly with McNeil. He added an extra presence in midfield which helped disrupt Dynamo who had threatened to take control of the match in the second half. On 70 minutes he was shifted alongside the ex-Burnley man - substitute Salomon Rondon adopting a more conventional striker role - and provided some clever runs from deep, offering an unpredictable threat to the visitors’ defence.
McNeil was subbed on for Gray and within a few minutes became heavily involved in Everton’s build-up play, on the right half of the pitch. The winger, fielded almost entirely as a left-sided midfielder by Sean Dyche during his days at Turf Moor, demonstrated intelligent movement straightaway, combining instinctively with Dele and showing delightful control which bamboozled the Kyiv defenders. He’s all left-foot, but his technique is clearly superior to any of his teammates and is certainly the smoothest since James Rodriguez last appeared in the Royal Blue shirt.
It’s clear that he and Dele are on the same wavelength, remarkable considering they wouldn’t have really even trained together yet with McNeil’s signing only announced the day before. This is a partnership that Lampard can build around, one that combines flair, intelligence, vision and control, something that - for all their other attributes - Gordon and Gray do not offer.
Ruben Vinagre did himself no harm on his debut from the bench, chipping in a neat cross for McNeil to head home. The Portuguese newcomer can beat a man and put in a strong delivery, and looks capable of providing solid competition for Vitalii Mykolenko at left wing-back, no bad thing at all.
For purposes of balance, it not being typical to write a wholly positive column about the Blues, I must bring up the midfield. On Saturday, Lampard used Iwobi and Abdoulaye Doucoure as the central pairing and neither disgraced themselves at all; in fact both had solid enough games.
However, following Everton’s bright opening to the game, in which they roared into an early lead and took the game to their Ukrainian opponents, the tide ebbed around seven or eight minutes in as Dynamo began to assert themselves. This took the form of the technically competent visitors enjoying time on the ball - when bypassing Everton’s high press - and making decent use of it. On a few occasions they were able to play it into the space behind Mykolenko, captain for the day and putting in a subpar outing - perhaps understandably so, given the occasion.
More concerning however, was the midfield. When the home side’s attacks broke down, or their press evaded, Dynamo had a big open space in the middle of the park to run or pass into. Iwobi is an energetic player, but it’s hard to see him as a central midfielder in a two, if up against a Premier League outfit. Key to the role is taking care of the ball and he lost it on three occasions within Everton’s half, once running into an opponent and twice forcing passes. Nothing resulted from these unforced errors, but the likes of Chelsea are unlikely to be so forgiving. The former Arsenal man also is lacking in terms of defensive positioning.
Unquestionably, Iwobi played himself into Lampard’s good books down the stretch last season and deserves to be in contention for a starting berth, but at the moment is looking like becoming a victim of his own versatility. It’s tough to see him getting much time further forward, given the alternates Frank has and his most obvious position, in front of a holding player in a three-man midfield is unlikely to be utilized, at least in the early portion of the season. Right now, it’s not apparent where he can be best used, especially given the Toffees are likely to sign additional midfielders in the near future.