League One Standard
Everton navigated the second round of the Carabao Cup comfortably enough on Tuesday evening, easing past League One outfit Fleetwood Town. The team featured a host of changes from last weekend’s match against Nottingham Forest, but with the exception of Chelsea transfer target Anthony Gordon, the Blues fielded their starters in attack. Despite this and the visitors enjoying control for much of the game, Asmir Begovic was the more hard-worked of the two goalkeepers, though he dealt with the Cod Army’s best efforts fairly easily. Worryingly, though they were clearly the superior side, the Blues failed to generate much in the way of clear-cut chances, other than Demarai Gray’s well-worked goal and Nathan Patterson’s second-half strike which, unfortunately was hit straight at Fleetwood goalkeeper Jakub Stolarczyk. The approach play was solid, orchestrated by the impressive Alex Iwobi from what’s now become his customary central midfield perch, but the team could only hit the target with those two shots from 15 efforts.
Once again, Frank Lampard started Salomon Rondon as a lone striker and the big man proved to be a solid enough option - at League One level - but never really looked like scoring. It’s clear that a higher calibre operator is required to give the Toffees a cutting edge, at least while Dominic Calvert-Lewin is sidelined and - given the 25-year old’s fitness struggles over the past year - probably beyond. The hosts experienced major problems with Gray’s pace and skill on the ball, but Dwight McNeil was comfortably dealt with. Iwobi pulled the strings, making four key passes, but it was disconcerting to see a defence in the third tier of the English football pyramid look so comfortable against an attacking line-up that will largely be taking to the pitch at Brentford on Saturday.
Evolution of Iwobi
With every match, Iwobi is proving himself to be an undroppable component of Everton’s midfield. Slated beforehand for one of the two advanced positions behind Rondon, injury to Tom Davies during the warm-up forced his replacement by Gray and for the Nigerian to drop back into a central position, alongside Amadou Onana. Lampard clearly trusts the former Arsenal man and has utilized him in a variety of roles since his arrival at the end of January, culminating in a run of games at right wing-back as the team battled relegation during the spring. Iwobi’s honest approach and work-rate has seen him develop into a bit of a plug-in that’s guaranteed to do a decent job wherever asked, but there was a danger that these more blue-collar attributes could see his other talents wasted; this was particularly the case during his stint in the defence.
Lampard and director of football Kevin Thelwell have been scheming from the start for a restructuring of Everton’s midfield. Numerous players have been linked as transfer targets, though only one - Onana - has actually been signed to date, with a move for Idrissa Gueye seemingly nearing completion, but never quite getting there. Questions marks over the futures of Andre Gomes, Allan and Jean-Philippe Gbamin continue. Short of bodies, the manager has shoehorned Iwobi into an unfamiliar deeper midfield position and it’s worked so well it’s kind of hard to imagine him being utilized better elsewhere, currently. On Tuesday, the former winger strolled around the Highbury turf in imperious fashion, dictating play, resisting pressure and firing passes all over. Granted, this was against limited opposition, but he looks to be evolving rapidly into a natural in the position and right now, it’s difficult to see how he doesn’t retain his place there, irrespective of who arrives as competition.
Amadou Onana, making his full debut for the Blues, got an invaluable full 90 minutes under his belt and this will do the youngster a world of good. He’s finding his feet in new surroundings and a couple of misplaced passes will be the sort of thing that gets ironed out at Finch Farm in no time. An early poor touch showed he will need to adjust to the higher tempo of English football. But what promise he shows: technical quality, good instincts and an imposing physicality that had the Fleetwood players resorting to rotational fouling (seven times), including a few unpleasant challenges that had Lampard beseeching the referee for some protection. One run near the end of the game saw the 21-year old eat up the ground and brush past two opponents, before being crudely felled. What a prospect Everton have at the club.
Two other new boys, Ruben Vinagre and McNeil failed to impress. The Portuguese saw a lot of the ball (a team-high 92 touches) and overcame a slow start, where every touch seemed heavy, gradually showing a willingness to get forward into crossing positions, though his delivery was generally off (five attempts failed to find a Royal Blue shirt). He was beaten too easily by Fleetwood winger Cian Hayes, but this was his first start for the team and he will improve. McNeil showed some neat touches but also the flaws in his game, namely an inability to get away from a man he’s already beaten, or to use his right foot. His interception did spring Everton’s scoring move, however and these are early days for the ex-Burnley man.
Youngster Reece Welch played over an hour on the left side of a back three and there’s definitely something about the rangy youngster. He already has the poise and distribution that modern managers, who wish to play out from the back, value. The 18-year old has a lot to learn and will need to fill out a bit, but he has the frame, speed and technical qualities that will excite Lampard.
Lewis Warrington replaced Iwobi in midfield with 27 minutes to go and also impressed. The academy graduate is a natural holding midfielder and showed the ability to find space (34 touches), use the ball intelligently (92.6% accuracy, one key pass) and also put his foot in to win possession (three tackles). The 19-year old may end up on loan at some point during the season, but is not looking out of place in the first team at the moment.