Still No Focal Point
Finally, after two failed attempts at shoehorning Anthony Gordon into a centre forward role, Blues boss Frank Lampard sent the team out on Saturday with a specialist striker leading the line. Unfortunately, that man happened to be Salomon Rondon. Now, the big Venezuelan is a trier and added a focal point for play to be structured around, but as he closes in on his 33rd birthday, he is a few years past his best and no longer even a solid backup option for a serious Premier league team.
He engaged the Nottingham Forest centre backs, who at least had to account for his presence and his link-up play was solid (100% pass completion). However, he only set up one shot for a teammate and failed to hit the target himself, though one nice control, turn and shot narrowly past the post showed what a true striker can do for the team.
Where the big man’s weaknesses lie are in a lack of quickness and mobility. He doesn’t have anything like the pace to stretch any defence, so will naturally come deep; his average position at the weekend was around where you’d expect a number ten would be and some distance behind Everton’s most advanced player, Demarai Gray. Sluggish movement meant he touched the ball only 15 times and attempted just ten passes. This wouldn’t be such a problem if the Blues had runners off him from midfield, but the two playing there - Tom Davies and Alex Iwobi - were supporting attacks, rather than joining in. This is partly down to the individual inclinations of the players, but also the formation Lampard is using.
Despite a bright, energetic start from the home side, a lack of penetration became apparent pretty quickly, beyond a couple of sharp moves that invariably ended with a heavy touch or pass. Build-up play was decent enough, even after that early control dissipated but until the 72nd minute, apart from Rondon’s chances and a blocked effort from out wide by Davies, all Everton’s shots where from distance. Some were decent strikes and the team has been guilty of not taking opportunities to try their luck from range in the past, but it did serve to highlight a lack of presence in the box and the trickery to penetrate it.
A Learning Curve
One major issue I’ve had with Lampard is his reluctance to utilize the bench. If nothing else, the ability to use five substitutes this season adds tactical options for head coaches. Granted, the Blues manager has been hit early and hard with the injury stick during Everton’s first two matches, enforcing two substitutions against Chelsea (Ben Godfrey and Yerry Mina) and one at Villa Park (Abdoulaye Doucoure). Still, it is maddening to see cards being left unplayed when the team is chasing a game, as was the case on Saturday. Untypically, Lampard made a couple of simultaneous (relatively) early changes, bringing on new signings Amadou Onana and Dwight McNeil for Davies and Rondon before the hour mark. Whilst such urgency is to welcomed, I’m not certain these were the right moves on this occasion.
Rondon was serving a purpose: even if this was primarily to highlight the glaring need for a genuine striker of the required level. Bringing him off, when he’d come close to putting the Toffees ahead five minutes earlier and did not appear to be flagging, was a strange move, as the team was now back in the same position of playing a winger up top, which had not been successful previously. This time, it was McNeil thrust up top and he fared no better than Gordon had. Whereas Rondon had been a central, if static figure, McNeil roamed about. He did make a few well-timed runs off the defence, but his teammates struggled to find him. The former Burnley man is still bedding in on Merseyside and needs a platform to become comfortable. So far, a man whose primary asset may be his delivery has shared no minutes on the pitch with anything resembling a centre forward, which is giving him no chance to show what he can do.
As for Onana, he is a player whom Blues fans are understandably excited about and want to see starting; but it is clear that he will not be an immediate fix for Everton’s midfield problems. Given his lack of experience, it is unfair to expect this of him. Against Forest, he looked taken aback by the tempo of Premier League football and uncertain as to what he should be doing even against a newly-promoted side.
In contrast, Davies understood his role. His removal caused the hosts to lose what control they’d established and Forest were able to suddenly get forward with intent. A comic yellow card only a few minutes after Onana was introduced, following him being dispossessed will do him no harm in the long run, but he is going to need plenty of time at Finch Farm and to have his minutes managed carefully from the bench before we’ll see the player Everton have spent more than £32m on.
Despite all the media attention and some unfair reports regarding Gordon’s potential big-money move to Chelsea, the 21-year old took to the pitch at Goodison Park and put in his usual energetic shift. It’s true that the raw edges are yet to be ironed out, demonstrated by him losing control of the ball on eleven occasions, far more than any other player on either team. But the youngster hit the target with five of six shots (for a total xG of 0.7), created three opportunities for his teammates and carried the ball four times into the Forest penalty area.
Lampard seems likely to continue with the 3-4-3 formation and there are pluses and negatives to this. One problem with the system is that it requires the wing-backs to be progressive and provide the necessary width. At the weekend, this didn’t happen. Both Vitallii Mykolenko and Nathan Patterson only received one progressive pass each. Patterson’s average position was too deep and he saw little of the ball (42 touches), though was on occasion proactive, breaking into the opposition penalty area twice. He attempted only two crosses (incomplete), Mykolenko none.
Structurally, the team is in much better shape than the disorganised mess it was for most of last season. The back three is solid, even if James Tarkowski put in a shaky first half, which shouldn’t be a concern given his career to date. The composed performances of Mason Holgate this campaign are a big plus. Conor Coady is looking like a great pickup, fitting in seamlessly into the Blues backline, showing leadership and positional smarts (three blocked shots).