It was always Marcel Brands’ intention, when director of football at Everton, to have two players for each position within the squad, providing genuine competition for places. Sadly, for reasons that most fans are well aware of, this never materialized. A confused policy towards recruitment, a wage bill that spiralled out of control and an inability to shift underachieving players torpedoed this plan almost from the beginning. Under new man Kevin Thelwell, who appears to have a good working understanding with manager Frank Lampard, things have started out a little differently.
Whether due to the club’s flirtation with relegation last season, serious fan backlash against the ownership and board, maybe both, Farhad Moshiri has adopted a hands-off approach to footballing matters and long may this continue. Nobody can fault the billionaire for his commitment and in providing financial backing: after all, Everton’s state of the art new 52,000 capacity stadium on the banks of the Mersey - due to open in less than two years - would be a pipedream without him.
Without interference from above, Thelwell has come most of the way towards putting Brands’ dream into reality. Sensible spending, wage reduction and generating working funds by the sale of squad assets like Richarlison - when the time is right - have enabled he and Lampard to put together a team that is stronger, deeper and that is developing increasing room to manoeuvre with regards to future recruitment. On the pitch, the Blues have noticeable options for the first time in quite a while.
Neal Maupay bagged his first goal for the Blues on Sunday, demonstrating the clever, instinctive movement into dangerous spaces that a genuine striker possesses. In a game of few clear-cut chances, his precise finish was invaluable and was enough to secure all three points for the home side. While Maupay lacks Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s aerial presence and pace, he offers other attributes that can give Everton an alternate way of playing. The Frenchman shows a nice touch and link-up play (he led the team in passing accuracy on 93.1%) in tight areas. His movement is good and helps to create spaces for others, as well as inviting progressive passes, such as the one one Alex Iwobi provided for the goal. If he carries on like this, then Calvert-Lewin will need to work to replace him in the line-up and that can only be a good thing.
Not Just About the Data
I am as happy as anyone to quote statistics (when they suit my argument) and have seen that currently the Toffees are conceding less goals than could be anticipated, considering the quality and volume of shots they have been facing. The Blues have shipped six in seven Premier League games, contrasted to an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) metric of 11.6, so have conceded five or six less than could be inferred from the data. This is a good thing, right? Well, data analysts would say not necessarily, because these things tend to even out over a full season, meaning the team could start conceding goals at a higher rate at any moment.
Now, part of how this all works is the last line of defence (the goalkeeper) can cancel out however many shots, of whatever quality by performing heroics, hitting a hot streak, or just by being a better player than the average representative of his trade. You want your goalkeeper to stop shots that he isn’t expected to and Jordan Pickford has been doing just that so far this campaign. Stand-in Asmir Begovic did likewise in denying West Ham United at the weekend. A ’keeper who fails to stop shots that he could reasonably be expected to, will quickly find himself dropped (see: Arrizabalaga, Kepa, a man Chelsea paid £72m for back in 2018 but who is now firmly second-choice between the uprights).
What concerns those who pay a lot of attention to performance data (and this includes the staff at pretty much every club in world football) is how sustainable it is to exceed expectations by the amount mentioned above? They’ll be happy that the team has kept consecutive clean sheets, but concerned that the metrics suggest that an average of three goals should have been shipped across those two games, or that the Blues faced an xGA of 2.8 against Brentford, but only conceded once. When will those shots that are being kept out, blocked, or striking the woodwork start hitting the back of the net? For a team that is not prolific in an attacking sense, such as Everton these are questions that will keep those who are paid to worry about such matters awake at night.
The temptation will be to shake things up defensively; for example when (if?) Yerry Mina is available. It’s well-known that performance data suggests that the Colombian is Everton’s best defender and that’s certainly been the case since his arrival. Yes, Conor Coady and James Tarwkowski are not the quickest, most agile centre halves, but they are reliable and available for every match. It can be no coincidence that the defensive unit is showing more consistency and stability since the two arrived at the club. Both players add a mentality and organizational qualities that are impossible to measure statistically; invaluable when considering the relative inexperience of the two young fullbacks. It is true that that the team’s luck is likely run out, but it is possible that defensive performances will increase as the unit continues to gel, blunting or negating any statistical dip.
Use the bench, Frank! Seriously, it is a bugbear of mine how reticent the manager is in making timely substitutions. To wit:
There are genuine options available to him now, at least in some areas of the pitch. David Moyes made three changes, two in the 62nd minute and another in the 70th before Lampard belatedly turned to the bench, removing Anthony Gordon with 15 to go. Fellow winger Demarai Gray was replaced with the now-fit Abdoulaye Doucoure six minutes later. The Hammers started putting the hosts under pressure around the hour mark, registering five attempts on goal, including Said Benrahma’s effort from range which struck the post, before the Blues made their first change. As the team tired late on Maxwel Cornet got free a couple of times. Fresh legs may have blunted this late charge.
Again, the players are generally performing well and with consistency, but on Sunday it was clear by the hour-mark that Gordon was having an off-day. The defensive effort was there: the youngster was on course to lead the team in attempted pressures when substituted, with 18 (27.8% success rate), in addition to combining for four successful tackles and interceptions. But offensively, he was not at the races. The 21-year old managed a team-low 25 touches in 75 minutes as he flitted around the edges of the game, though he was solid in possession (81.3% passing accuracy and was dispossessed only three times). It must be said that the Blues focused their attack on the left flank and Gordon looks less comfortable when stationed on the right.
Tom Davies was unlucky to see no action, having played well when called upon this season, particularly so last time out against Liverpool. It was understandable that Frank would want to get Doucoure involved, but when seeing a game out then Davies is arguablly the more sensible option, as he is positionally superior and takes better care of the ball. Doucoure didn’t have much time to get into the game, but managed no defensive contributions and was sloppy with his passing (72.7%).