Everton started off the season on the wrong note, slipping to defeat at home against Chelsea despite a solid defensive effort. While the visitors are not likely to be title challengers this season, they will be in contention for the top four and needed a penalty late in the first half to get the sole goal of the game.
A Rejigged Defensive Unit
Lampard has been signalling all preseason that he would be going with a back three for the new campaign, or at least in the initial stages of it and so it proved on Saturday. There’s no doubt in my mind that the trio of Ben Godfrey, Yerry Mina and new signing James Tarkowski, flanked by Nathan Patterson and fellow January arrival Vitalii Mykolenko present the best options currently at the manager’s disposal. This unit combines pace, athleticism, aerial ability, experience, defensive acumen and personality; circumstances unravelled that mix pretty quickly. Unfortunately, it looks like Godfrey will be missing for some time following an unpleasant injury only ten minutes into the match and Mina picked up a knock in the second half, forcing his withdrawal. Already, efforts are being made to address a shortage at the back, with Conor Coady likely coming in to plug the gap and add further quality to what proved a solid backline against Chelsea.
Tarkowski looked every bit as good as he had in preseason, pinging long, accurate crossfield passes, demonstrating calmness and early signs that he could be a useful weapon in set-piece situations. Mason Holgate continued to show improved form after coming on for the stricken Godfrey. He should now get plenty of opportunities to impress and did his case no harm here. The 20-year old Patterson, handed his league debut against mobile and formidable opposition, passed the test with flying colours and was arguably Everton’s player of the match. Seeing as Alex Iwobi had played right wing-back at the end of last season and taking into account the calibre of player the Londoners can field, I’d feared that caution would get the better of Lampard and that he may not start the young Scot here. If the Blues had not been so depleted in midfield that Iwobi had to play there, I feel this may have happened.
Seamus Coleman is nearing a return to the first team, having completed 45 minutes for the under-21s the previous night, therefore it was imperative that Patterson should take his chance and it couldn’t have gone much better for him. He is the perfect fit for a wing-back system, possessing as much energy as Mylolenko on the opposite flank, but more pace and an instinctive zest for the attack. Whereas the Ukrainian is more defensively stout, the ex-Rangers man showed that he is up to it at Premier League level, being done by Raheem Sterling only once during the match, which is no disgrace. He showed a tendency to be drawn in a little too easily, but he seems a bright, confident player and no doubt will round off any raw edges. Offensively, he can be a major contributor straightaway. His crossing is quality, his movement clever; he looks to combine play. Aerially he was highly competitive in attacking areas and his teammates will learn to anticipate him winning headers in these positions. Overall, it was an impressive 90 minutes by the youngster, who should enjoy a breakout year for the Blues.
An Unlikely Combination
Few would have anticipated Everton starting the new season by deploying a midfield two of Iwobi and Abdoulaye Doucoure, considering this area of the squad has required a rebuild for some time, but those two were entrusted to compete with a pair of quality operators in N’Golo Kante and Jorginho. The Blues are short-handed in the centre of the park at the moment as they await a return to full fitness of Allan and Tom Davies, in addition to the impending arrival of new signing Amadou Onana and - potentially - old favourite Idrissa Gueye. In the meantime it was left to Iwobi, who is nominally a winger, but who appears more comfortable in central attacking positions to fill in alongside the stalwart Doucoure. Against all expectation, the two matched up quite well. The Malian was his typical industrious self, breaking up play (leading the Blues with 4 tackles), exerting pressure (by far a team-high 54.2% success rate) and surprisingly also taking great care of the ball (91.4% passing accuracy, again topping all Everton players).
Iwobi demonstrated positional discipline that I did not know he possessed, even if he didn’t rack up any noteworthy statistics, with the exception of 14 ball recoveries, which topped both teams at Goodison Park that afternoon. The Nigerian proved his worth in possession, as expected, proving arguably Everton’s most creative outlet as he completed six passes in the final third and an impressive 84.6% of his long passes (30 yards or more). He was probably a little unlucky not to register an assist as one beautifully lofted ball put Demarai Gray into a one-on-one situation with veteran defender Thiago Silva, who managed to deflect the winger’s goal-bound shot. The two midfielders did a solid job screening the defence and linking play to the forward three, only really being critically exposed on one occasion, when failing to track Ben Chilwell’s inside run into space vacated by Holgate, who’d been drawn away by Mason Mount’s clever movement. Doucoure reacted too late, which of course resulted in the clumsy challenge and a decisive penalty award. But on the whole, they did as well as could be expected.
A Lack of Cutting Edge
Bereft of star striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who succumbed to a training ground injury mere days before the match, Lampard was left with few options, seeing as backup striker Salomon Rondon was still suspended, courtesy of a bone-headed straight red card incurred in the Brentford match at the tail end of last season. Whether the big Venezuelan should be deemed adequate cover for Calvert-Lewin is another argument altogether, particularly so considering how injury-plagued the England man was last term. Efforts are no doubt ongoing seeking reinforcements, but it is proving to be a tortuous process, testing the nerves of loyal Blues fans. With no senior striking options, the boss was forced to get creative. Many had considered a likely solution might be using Dele Alli as a false nine, but the manager sprung a bit of surprise by instead deploying Anthony Gordon up top.
This was designed to use the young winger’s superior speed to potentially hit Chelsea on the counter-attack, something Dele would not be suitable for and for stretches of the game it appeared that this may be a wise choice. Certainly Gordon gave it everything he had in an unfamiliar position and got into some decent positions, but lacked the composure and natural instinct to capitalize. Gray alternated up top on occasion, but likewise failed to really trouble the visiting defence unduly. Neither could compete aerially against the opposition centre backs. Lampard undoubtedly hoped that pace and movement would substitute for a definitive presence up front and to a degree this did occasionally unsettle the visitors: Kalidou Koulibaly being fortunate not to be yellow-carded for pulling Gordon back during one move and Silva once frantically beckoning goalkeeper Edouard Mendy to come out of his area, when struggling to keep up with Gray on the break.
Ultimately, however what we (and Frank) will have learned is that the cutting edge that a natural striker offers is required, or Everton are going to be trying to decide games by small margins. Gray, Gordon and debutant Dwight McNeil will have to chip in with a fair few goals - around five to ten each - in order to go some way to mitigating what Everton have lost by the departure of Richarlison, from a squad that was already light on collective scoring ability. Dele, too will need to rediscover the scoring form of old, though it is continuing to look as though Lampard is going to have problems fitting the player into his starting line-up. Seeing as Calvert-Lewin appears likely to miss most of the next two months with a knee injury, time is of the essence and the Toffees cannot afford to let this situation drag on towards transfer deadline day, by which point the team will have played five league matches.