The tides are always churning and working in football, sometimes pushing good teams backward as other teams move up and become good teams themselves. While Everton appeared as a team on the come-up for most of the season before last, narrowly missing out on European football in large part to injuries. Then the loss of Carlo Ancelotti, mixed with more key injuries and a poor initial replacement for the Italian - Rafa Benitez - caused a major regression for this side over most of last season.
When Frank Lampard was brought in to stop the bleeding in January of 2022 to replace the newly sacked Benitez, things were not great - the team was near the bottom of the table, albeit with some matches in hand - and it would take some time for them to get noticeably better. Marcel Brands had been sacked by the team just a month before in early December of 2021, and so the Toffees now needed to secure that position moving forward as well.
While Kevin Thelwell would be tapped to assume that vacated role by the end of February, and would have to persevere through financial difficulties across his first months at the club, the new coach would be attempting to implement not only his way of looking at and playing football, but also the spirit that had long frustrated his former-club Chelsea before, during and after his stint as their boss.
The “Enjoy The Ball” Revolution and Squad Makeover
Early on Lampard implored his players to “enjoy the ball” in training, but the quality that he was desiring needed to be coaxed out of a team that had just experienced a very different coach than they now had. Resorting to a more stolid and defensive mindset would eventually lead the team to do enough to remain in the Premier League for this current campaign thanks.
With survival secured very late in the campaign with that comeback at Goodison against Crystal Palace, the club’s leadership have seemed determined ever since to make sure that something like what was seen that evening would not be required moving forward. The ensuing overhaul undertaken by Thelwell and Lampard would help to accentuate what was already present at Finch Farm and Goodison Park, even during the harshest struggles, but it would also entail losing one of the best younger players in the Premier League in Richarlison.
His move to Tottenham Hotspur was unfortunate for Toffee supporters in that the team has to face him twice a year and watch his success with Antonio Conte in the same league, but the resources his sale produced created the flexibility for Thelwell to revamp the roster of Everton in a way that simply couldn’t have been managed without the move. Lucas Digne - a casualty of the final weeks of the Rafa Benitez era - was also a positive sale in hindsight, especially when one considers the replacements that were brought in thanks to his sale.
Vitaliy Mykolenko and Nathan Patterson have been brilliant when they’ve played and at only 23 and 20 years of age, Everton are looking for them to be impactful for the club for many, many year to come too - should they be able to avoid any dreadful injuries. But those moves that were made in conjunction with and after the Richarlison sale have further fortified a team that was - at certain positions - a bit fragile across last season.
James Tarkowski and Connor Coady have given the team real toughness and leadership that was often missing across the backline sans Seamus Coleman last season. The veteran pair have brought an attitude at the back that is both combative and organized. The injuries to Ben Godfrey and Yerry Mina left the door wide open for them to come in and make their mark, and each has; the greater quality depth across so many positions is as noticeable as the mentality switch, to be sure.
The return of Idrissa Gana Gueye from PSG was another underrated yet absolutely fantastic move. A longtime fan favorite during his first stint on Merseyside, he reportedly turned down moves to other, in some cases, more recently successful clubs, in favor of the Blues because he gave the club his word. Nothing will endear a player to the supporters like the sort of commitment off and on the pitch like Gueye has always demonstrated.
Amadou Onana, the 21-year-old Belgian, has been an absolute revelation in the middle of the park as the creative spark the team has long-needed, and is already outperforming many of the defensive metrics of other players at his position in the Premier League despite only having come from Ligue 1 in France a bit over a month ago. While he was considered a starlet at Lille, his physicality and technical traits are stunning to see and he really does conversely often appear to be a man among boys as he’s running around the opposition.
Dwight McNeil shone flashes of the skill that made the 22-year-old so highly rated for Burnley over the last several seasons during the preseason, but he has yet to find or hit his full stride with Everton since making the widely lauded move to Merseyside. When he does, however, his skill will certainly provide a bit of creativity that is still lacking in Lampard’s repertoire.
Neil Maupay - the Frenchman, formerly of Brighton - was a shrewd purchase in my opinion, because anyone who has watched him across his time in the Premier League or the Championship knows that he is a pest, a menace, and someone every side would love to have on their own squad each week. He is an irritant, and he has no problem scoring the dirty goals as well as the pretty ones. The aggression and commitment that Maupay shows - like with Coady and Tarkowski - has given this side something more than it had. This was undoubtedly part of the strategy undertaken by Kevin Thelwell and Frank Lampard.
Each layer of the team has gotten an upgrade - sans goalkeeper, where the team is surprisingly deep and capable between Jordan Pickford and Asmir Begovic. What these innovations have created for Everton cannot be overstated really, as places on the field that were once liabilities have become full of able contributors.
Weaknesses into Strengths, and a Reinvigorated Spirit for the Blues
These pieces have really helped to turn weaknesses into strengths, and the results that the team have managed demonstrate progress even as they are hard fought. One win, four draws, and two losses might not sound great to someone who has not watched the matches, but having seen the fight and resilience that the team shows and plays with now, one cannot help but smile, knowing that this side is putting their hearts into each and every match in a way that might not have been obvious during the Rafa Benitez era.
Statistically the Blues are still not much better off than late last season especially when you look at advanced metrics like expected goals against, forward defensive actions and pressures, but that can also be expected since Lampard didn’t really have what he can call a regular starting lineup right until after the transfer window shut.
Other players - like Anthony Gordon and Alex Iwobi - look entirely different than before Lampard’s arrival. Much had been made about his ‘young talent whisperer’ abilities at Chelsea, but the about-faces that the careers of Gordon and Iwobi have taken under his tutelage should not be underestimated.
While many might say that last year was, in many ways, Gordon’s coming out season, I would argue that, with the way he looks so far this season, this truly could be his special campaign. What Gordon has provided in terms of offensive opportunities and chances created nearly pales in comparison with the work rate that he demonstrates defensively each and every time he puts on the shirt, and early on appears to have added goals as well to his toolbox, something Lampard has been working with him on.
Iwobi, on the other hand, finally looks the part of the player that Marco Silva once signed to Everton from Arsenal. The Nigerian has taken some time since coming to Merseyside to find his best position - with at least one manager imploring him, as he once did with Andrea Pirlo, to tell him where he would like to play on the pitch - but Lampard has unlocked him after so many years. His vision and ambition is noticeable, and while some of his passes don’t come off as well as the idea might have demanded, only more trust and confidence on and with the ball will improve his form; his imagination and creativity are a driving force for the side, however.
Demarai Gray was not a Lampard signing, but has shown his worth to the club as well since his arrival last season. The 26-year-old has been known to start campaigns hot and this one has been no different with his industry upfront often the only forward thrust the Blues have had. It’ll be on him to prove that he can belong in a more possession-based system.
Indeed, the team has taken to Lampard and what he wants, just as he has taken to Everton and understands what the fans need from the side. He has said that he wants the Toffees to be difficult to beat, and indeed, they are showing already they are no pushovers. They have depth across the pitch - even at the striker position - and are relatively flush with young wingers to push the pace and challenge a fullback or two in the process. Defensively, they are all playing with great unity and purpose, and are breaking when given the opportunity.
A player like Maupay gives the side some security for the oft-injured Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Having two functional and dangerous Premier League-proven strikers of differing styles and abilities is a luxury Lampard has not had since Richarlison’s departure, and will put pressure on defenses no matter how he chooses to use them going forward.
But it is the mentality that all of these players that is most noticeable about this side this year. The team might not win each match, but it will also not go down easily ever it seems. Already we have seen some games that would have inevitably ended in defeat last season turning into draws that could end up being meaningful when the final table is decided. The side fights like its supporters demand, and so the backing has only been renewed amongst the fans who care so deeply for their club.
Lampard and Thelwell deserve a great deal of credit for what they’ve been able to do in a short period of time, as do the players on the pitch. The work, of course, is far from done, and only further improved play and positive results will improve the practical and financial standing of the side, but the process is noticeable and a plan to have young, dangerous talent has invigorated everyone involved with this team.
Getting to January in a good place concerning injuries and team record must be the short-term goal, but improving during that window for the better part of a truly hectic second half of the season should be considered if at all financially feasible. Outgoings and incomings in January were harder to come by under Brands, but if the team can better itself, the Board will likely do whatever it can to make those moves happen.
If the team continues to plays with the spirit that we have witnessed through the first seven matches of the season across the entirety of it, then Toffees should be spared the tensions of the relegation battle we saw earlier in the calendar year. Spirit, not just technical abilities, plays a major part in winning the day in football, and for the first time in what seems like a long while, this Everton side has more of it than an entire stadium can sometimes contain; let’s see where it can lead us going on!