Everton came very close to obtaining all three points away at Brentford at the weekend, but in the end fell just a little short. Frank Lampard’s side are certainly more organised than was the case last season, when the new man arrived midway through the campaign and found a demoralised, dishevelled bunch of players, which he then had to restructure into an effective unit.
Of course, this was only partially successful. The former Chelsea boss attempted to instil a new blueprint on the team, in order to get them to play more football, whilst relying on active pressing from the front to shield a fragile-looking defence. This approach was largely abandoned during the run-in, in favour of a more conservative 3-4-3 which reaped dividends over a crucial six-game stretch, from which the Blues picked up ten vital points. To start off the new season, Lampard appears fully committed to this system as his first choice, whilst still expressing the need for the team to be able to play in a variety of ways.
The Toffees are being restructured from back-to-front, which many would agree is the best way to go about a rebuild. Signing experienced, dependable, reliable centre halves in James Tarkowski and Conor Coady has added much-needed composure and leadership qualities to the backline and these were evident again on Saturday. The ex-Burnley man kept the dangerous Ivan Toney quiet, dominated aerially (winning all eight aerial duels), cleared the lines effectively (eleven clearances) and blocked two shots; classic old-school defending.
Coady operates more in an organisational role in the centre of the back three and this, along with his with the quality of his passing (he tied Alex Iwobi on 92.7% accuracy) is what he brings to the side. The on-loan Wolves man provided a beautifully-weighted over-the-top ball for Anthony Gordon to score from and completed an impressive 91.7% of his long passes. Although Brentford racked up 20 shots, most of the threat came from Everton being caught in transition or from improperly defended set-piece situations, which they would fall foul of for the equalizer.
The Blues were kind of caught between two camps at the Gtech Community Stadium. During much of the first half, the side largely controlled play. The hosts got off to a sloppy start and Everton were able to get on the ball, push up, get their wing-backs forward and construct some decent attacks. However, after going ahead, they allowed themselves to be forced back too readily: between the 25th and 40th minute, the Blues managed less than 16% possession, although they were mostly successful in keeping the ball away from their third of the pitch.
This continued largely after the restart, as Brentford dominated the game, enjoying 66.8% possession and outshooting the visitors by an eleven-to-five margin. Whilst the statistics were a bit lopsided, the Toffees did put some decent passing sequences together, but ultimately they cracked under the weight of the Bees’ dominance, which is understandable, a tiring Vitalii Mykolenko playing substitute Vitaly Janelt onside from a corner kick.
Everton’s inability to retain hold of the ball is one reason why the defence, which was mostly resolute, came under such unsustainable pressure. Partly this is a product of the formation, as the team has only two midfielders, typically competing against three - the case on Saturday. Brentford's central trio (plus Janelt, when he came on for Josh Dasilva) took 245 touches of the ball, compared to just 108 for Iwobi, Amadou Onana and late substitute Tom Davies. In the 3-4-3 a side has to integrate the back three and wing-backs into the passing game, in order to maintain competitiveness and the Toffees were able to do this largely, but Jordan Pickford too often just hit it long. Now, this is a tool that he has in his box - as he demonstrated with that perfect over the top ball he played to assist Demarai Gray against Nottingham Forest - but I feel he relies on this too much.
Of the England goalkeeper’s 38 passing attempts, 33 were of 40 or more yards in length, of which 14 were successful; so, that’s 19 occasions over 90 minutes that the ball was just returned to Brentford. Only five of his passes were along the ground. His opposite number, David Raya launched a mere 14 long balls from 38 attempts, completing nine. The vast majority of his passes were on the ground (27). Raya’s completion percentage stood at an impressive 86.8%, compared to just 47.4% for Pickford. There are positives and negatives to a goalkeeper playing a long pass. When used judiciously, it can be a weapon, but if commonplace it will undermine attempts to build from the back and through midfield and - even more importantly - cede possession and control.
Amadou Onana’s Premier League debut went well, the youngster managing to complete 77 minutes, despite informing Lampard that he didn’t think he could go for 90 minutes during the halftime interval. The big Belgian had played the full Carabao Cup match less than four days earlier and been on the end of some rough treatment against Fleetwood Town, so he showed toughness and resilience to play almost the full game again at the weekend. The former Lille man put himself around, winning three tackles (one in particular the sort of crunching challenge that fans love to see) and showed an ability to progress the ball from midfield (one successful dribble, three forward carries), as well a nicely-weighted through ball for Gray, who should really have done better with it. He does need to work on his short-mid range passing game however, as a completion rate of 77.1% is sub-par; this will surely improve as familiarity with his teammates grows.
Anthony Gordon took a big step in answering critics of his end product with a classy finish to open the scoring. The in-demand winger also took better care of the ball than is typically the case, completing 88.9% of his passes and losing it only twice; by contrast Gray coughed it up five times, lost all three attempted dribbles and managed only a 70% pass success rate, though in fairness to him he played 75 minutes on Tuesday as a late inclusion in the first eleven. Gordon was active defensively too, leading the team in pressing attempts (31% success rate), making ten ball recoveries and winning a couple of tackles. Predictably, he was dominated aerially (one successful duel from eight), which underscores the futility of the team putting the ball up in the air so much.