The Tide is Turning
Last season, Everton were hit by one hammer blow after another which almost saw the famous old club consigned to the second tier of English football for the first time since 1954. First, we had the unexpected departure of Carlo Ancelotti, then the catastrophic appointment of Rafael Benitez and finally, the slow realisation that Everton’s hands would be tied in the transfer market, due to an unsustainable pattern of overspending on new signings and wages that had finally caught up with them.
The ex-Liverpool boss no doubt tried his best, but wrought havoc with his autocratic ways (director of football Marcel Brands, apparently marginalised, would soon depart along with much of the scouting/analysis department) and was never going to bring the supporters onside. His chaotic, short-lived reign finally ended last January and his eventual replacement, Frank Lampard, was given the poisoned chalice of taking over a side in disarray, beset by injuries and sliding down the table.
The new manager eventually had to abandon his intention of playing attractive, front-foot football and focused instead on steadying a ship that was rapidly taking on water, the prospect of relegation transformed into stark reality. What we saw in some gritty, battling performances — low on inspiration but high on perspiration — was just enough to get the Blues out of trouble.
Over the summer, free from the urgency of the situation he found himself parachuted into, Lampard has worked with Everton’s new director of football Kevin Thelwell to identify and recruit players that fit a certain mould. In addition to physical resilience (no surprise given the team’s well-documented struggle with injury in recent years), leadership and character have been prominent attributes identified in recruitment targets. During the opening games of the new season, we are seeing a team that is building upon the raw foundations that were laid down in the last.
In the seven matches played to date this campaign in all competitions, the Blues have displayed strong mental attitude, enhanced by the addition of experienced players possessing proven leadership characteristics, in James Tarkowski and Conor Coady. On Saturday, in what was their biggest test so far, Everton passed with flying colours, even if they were unable to secure victory. The level of organisation within the squad was evident on the pitch in the players’ commitment to the cause, backing each other up when required, the effort to plug gaps and put their bodies on the line with blocks and challenges.
There is a real élan emanating from the group; a conviction in what they are doing during a game. There’s none of the confusion and indecision that we’ve been witnessing for... well, a long time in all honesty. It’s becoming apparent that Lampard and the backroom staff he’s assembled are getting their message across to the players: performance levels and cohesion are improving as a direct consequence. The Blues are looking like an actual team.
The Midfield is Taking Shape
The centre of the park has been a black hole at Everton for some time. There have been attempts to fix it before, most recently when Ancelotti brought in Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure, but beneath them the depth wasn’t there. Both players were ground down, typically in a two-man system that required a lot of running and neutered some of their positive points. This has been the situation now for two years. Lampard identified this as a point of concern and Thelwell has focused much effort on recruiting in this area, bringing in Amadou Onana, Idrissa Gana Gueye and James Garner.
Two of that trio took to the Goodison Park pitch at the weekend and the results were impressive. Alongside Alex Iwobi, whose reinvention as a central midfielder has been one of the stories of this nascent campaign, and a rejuvenated Tom Davies, Onana has taken only a handful of games to go from looking like an exciting prospect that may need a little time to settle, to an assured operator. Recently turned 21, the Belgian has all the talent and attitude to become a dominant player in this league and this may come more quickly than even Lampard expected. The youngster possesses a rare combination of quickness and size. Allied to technical aptitude, toughness and a winning mentality the ceiling for Onana is impossible to predict, but it is unquestionably very high.
Former favourite Gueye made his return with 29 minutes left to play, replacing Davies, who had showed himself to be a more than capable squad asset and immediately looked different class. Despite having no minutes under his belt this season, the 32-year old slotted straight into a high-tempo game and his cameo showed the wisdom in pursuing him during what had become a painfully protracted transfer saga. It’s early days but it appears, as anticipated that the veteran returns as a different player, one more positionally disciplined (three interceptions coming off the bench and only a single pressing attempt). As he gains match sharpness, the ex-PSG man will become very important for the team and its shape, probably allowing Onana to break forward in support of attacks with greater frequency.
Iwobi is just evolving into a complete centre midfielder, against all expectations. It really must be handed to Lampard that he’s recognised this in the (former) winger and of course to the player himself in taking on this opportunity to carve out a coherent role for himself. The Nigerian looks more assured by the game. He’s been largely holding things together single-handedly in the centre of the park, as he’s waited for reinforcements to arrive, but arrive they most certainly have. A midfield trio of him, Onana and Gueye comprises craft, youthful endeavour, guile and tireless hard work in abundance. Throw in Doucoure, when he’s recovered from injury, Davies, Garner and possibly even Allan and things haven’t looked brighter in the engine room for longer than I care to remember.
What a difference having a genuine Premier league class centre forward makes for a team. Neal Maupay, making a delayed debut for the Toffees, put in an excellent performance for a man who was playing his first competitive minutes of the campaign. Whilst it is true that the ex-Brighton & Hove Albion man missed a glaring chance to put the hosts ahead in the second half, his sharpness will improve with game time. Maupay did a great job preventing the visitors from playing out through Fabinho, by blocking off passing lanes (the Brazilian was limited to 50 touches). His movement caused problems for Liverpool all day long and the Frenchman showed impressive natural fitness to last the full 90 minutes having not played a single minute as yet this season.
Both Everton fullbacks stepped up to the plate against tough opposition. Vitallii Mykolenko kept the vaunted Mo Salah quiet for the vast majority of the match, but it was his opposite number on the right that stole the plaudits. Nathan Patterson, fresh off a stalwart defensive effort at Elland Road in midweek was outstanding again playing a conventional right back role. He made the dangerous Luiz Diaz very aware of his presence straight off with a couple of strong challenges and never gave the Colombian much space all game. The 20-year old is another who is really kicking on under Lampard and the coaching team and is growing in confidence with each outing. The Scot has great physical attributes and a desire to improve that will see him soar this season.
The manager only turned to his bench twice on Saturday, but for once escapes criticism for this. It is true that in an intense match against formidable opponents in Liverpool, the team did noticeably tire in the closing stages. The visitors had the Blues penned in: five of their 23 shots occurred from the 92nd minute, contributing 0.85 of their 2.19 xG (expected goals) as Everton hung on at the end. Fresh legs would potentially have helped to resist this late pressure, but who deserved to come off? The players that did make way, Davies and Anthony Gordon had both played fairly well and a strong case could be made for all of those that remained to see out the full 90.