Caught on the Break
If judged by the standards of last season’s away performances, then this visit to Villa Park was not at all bad. True, Everton lost the match and now sit on zero points from their two opening fixtures, but Frank Lampard’s men did not collapse, were not outclassed and were in with a chance of getting something right to the final whistle. The side showed plenty of structural integrity and generally coped very well from a defensive standpoint for large stretches of play. Aston Villa failed to seriously threaten Jordan Pickford’s goal after gifting Diego Carlos a free header in the opening minutes, until caught out by Danny Ings’ fierce left-footed strike after half an hour. The Blues defence was not meaningfully challenged again for a further 40 minutes. Unfortunately, the visitors found it difficult to penetrate the Villa final third from open play until a spirited opening to the second half, which soon petered out.
Inevitably, as the Blues pushed on in pursuit of an equalizer, play became more stretched and they were exposed in transition. Both Villa goals resulted from Everton players taking loose touches whilst attempting to progress the ball through midfield, first Dwight McNeil then substitute Amadou Onana, making his debut for the Merseysiders. In the first instance, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Alex Iwobi were bypassed by a deep ball into the right channel. Both wing-backs are stranded far upfield, leaving the Blues two-on-two in defence. Right centre back Mason Holgate covered for Nathan Patterson on the right, but on the left there was acres of space for Ollie Watkins to peel into. For the second goal, Onana sees a gap to move through, but the ball gets away from him. The Toffees are now in a 4-4-1-1 formation and Onana’s midfield partner Tom Davies cannot get back to disrupt Emi Buendia.
Finally, Lampard’s team are caught on the break is in the 89th minute, following their own corner, when a hacked clearance isolates Davies with John McGinn near the centre circle. It was late in the game played in tough conditions and the Blues defence were very slow getting back, but were rescued by Pickford, who saves smartly from Watkins. All different situations, but the team has to be in better positions to negate easy counterattacks such as these.
Enough is Enough
As anticipated, Lampard retained the front three setup he used for the Chelsea game the previous weekend and as feared it was again ineffective. Villa blocked easy passing lanes from the Everton defence and too often the team resorted to hitting it long and with Anthony Gordon leading the line this meant giving possession straight back. The 21-year old tried hard, but was unable to challenge the opposition centre halves (he won none of four aerial duels), who often collected the ball unopposed; Demarai Gray, playing mostly on the left flank, fared little better with a success rate of just 16.7%. Combined, the two lost the ball eleven times and neither were able to really create anything in the final third, though both at least forced saves, Gordon’s coming once he’d been shifted to the left, in what was a hectic finish to the game. It’s my opinion that the two wingers are too similar in style to combine effectively, both being head-down runners who look to craft out shooting opportunities, with little thought of passing, or making runs into the box.
The situation improved with the introduction of Salomon Rondon for McNeil in the 64th minute. The veteran gave the Blues a focal point in attack, winning three of five contested aerials, holding the ball up well and occupying the Villa defence, allowing teammates to make runs off him. The Venezuelan, shy of goals in a Royal Blue shirt, even forced a save in the closing minutes whilst under pressure from Tyrone Mings. He’s not the answer in Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s absence, but until Kevin Thelwell can bring a better striker in, then he at least can be a round peg for a round hole. Gordon looked much more like himself once he’d been shifted out wide, where he can use his directness and pace to run at defenders. Going forward it has to be one of him or Gray out on the left flank to start, with the other as a like-for-like substitute.
Impressions So Far
Conor Coady cut a composed figure in the centre of Everton’s three man backline, using the ball well (89.4% passing accuracy), blocking a couple of shots and showing himself to be a vocal presence. Alongside, James Tarkowski continued his impressive start. All five defenders are giving Lampard no reason to change things up at the back. Doucoure gave a similar off-the-pace performance to the last time he was injured, with erratic passing and poor recovery pace, perhaps indicating he was already feeling the hamstring problem that would force his substitution after 35 minutes? Davies did well in general from the bench, showing that he still has a place as a squad player. Alex Iwobi put in another competitive outing in central midfield and progressed the ball well by passing or bringing it forward
New signing Amadou Onana only entered the fray with ten minutes to go but made quite an impression, impacting the game at both ends. His involvement in Villa’s second goal was unfortunate: he had the right idea, moving into space to collect Mason Holgate’s pass and although a poor bit of control sprung the counterattack, the Blues should have been better positioned to snuff out the danger. He showed character to remedy his error, driving forward powerfully from the restart and causing havoc by firing a pass into the Villa six-yard box towards an onrushing Iwobi and Dele Alli, causing former Toffee favourite Lucas Digne to put it into his own net. The youngster may need a little time to get up to speed with his teammates, but it is going to be fascinating watching his progress.