Discipline and Organisation
Arriving at the Etihad Stadium on New Year’s Eve to face a fearsome Manchester City, Frank Lampard’s Toffees had one reasonable way to play: set up in a low block, soak up the pressure in the hope of frustrating Pep Guardiola’s reigning champions and maybe pinch something on the break, or via a set-piece. They accomplished this mission perfectly. For this game-plan to be successful, the side had to show two things that have not always been apparent this season: organisation and discipline, from (to use old-school terminology) numbers one through eleven.
Effectively, the side had to eliminate mistakes, maintain concentration throughout the match and hold their shape. Against an opponent such as Manchester City, any slip has a high chance of being punished and we saw this for their goal, when Vitalii Mykolenko was beaten by the trickery of Riyad Mahrez. Of course, the Ukrainian cannot be faulted for this failing, as on his day the Algerian is a class act. Think back to Everton’s Boxing Day game at Goodison Park versus Wolverhampton Wanderers, however: that day, the visitors made numerous errors and escaped unpunished. The point being, that for this strategy of containment to work, it must be carried out impeccably. Thankfully, this is what the vocal travelling Toffees support witnessed in Manchester.
Given a stripped-down set of instructions to carry out, namely to not overcommit, get pulled out of shape, remain calm in possession, the players performed. Although Everton were starved of the ball, their passing was controlled and fairly accurate, considering the pressure they were under. The team’s three starting central midfielders - Alex Iwobi, Amadou Onana and Idrissa Gueye - misplaced only five of 62 passes between them. The central defensive trio of Ben Godfrey, James Tarkowski and Conor Coady all posted passing accuracy percentages in the mid-80’s. Of course, the team were forced to hack the ball clear at times, as evidenced by their 35 clearances, but when given time they generally played their way out.
Defensively, the Blues showed mental toughness. The hosts quickly dominated proceedings as Everton retreated into a low defensive block, but after scoring they were almost lulled into complacency. For all their control, only John Stones’ headed chance against the upright in the 44th minute really threatened prior to Demarai Gray’s wonderful equaliser. The Citizens stirred themselves following this setback and Everton were forced into an ever-deeper defensive shell around their own 18-yard line, exacerbated when Dominic Calvert-Lewin was withdrawn in the 70th minute. From then on the visitors had to ride their luck, in order to see out the game and to escape with a point. The team put their bodies on the line, registering 19 blocks (characteristically charging down seven shots), breaking up City’s play when they could, as shown by the eleven interceptions and 12 tackles they racked up.
A stalwart effort all around.
A Blueprint For the Future?
Everton have suffered from a lack of quality from the wings (amongst other failings) this campaign. The lone striker, whether this be Neal Maupay, or a Calvert-Lewin that is either not match fit, or playing hurt has not gelled with any combination of wide man at the club; this lack of understanding has clearly hurt the Blues. The obvious solution is to add wingers and strikers via the now-open January transfer market, but failing that (and it remains nebulous whether Everton have the means to do much during the winter window) then Lampard will need to find another way to play, rather than the 4-3-3 he's attempted to date.
For the 4-3-3 to work effectively the wide players must possess a combination of mobility, the ability to link-up with others and cutting edge, in terms of finishing and/or creativity. The Toffees’ current wing options: Gray, Anthony Gordon and Dwight McNeil all contain some of these desired elements, but not all. Gray is fast and can pull off the occasional piece of magic, as witnessed on Saturday, but dwells on the ball and makes poor decisions. Gordon also has pace and can finish but in this he is inconsistent. He loses the ball far too easily, also suffers from suspect decision-making and is ineffective operating from the right flank. McNeil is a good footballer when given time, but is slow, cannot beat a man and is very one-footed.
Add into the mix the absence of a dominant striker currently and it’s easy to see why things are breaking down for Everton in the final third.
The 5-3-2 the manager went with on New Year’s Eve removed this problem by adopting a simplified approach. The midfield, which has become disjointed of late, screened the defence and looked to combine with short passing on the break. With no wingers, Gray was deployed close to DCL and able to use his attributes on the counter. Everton’s wing-backs were almost completely in defensive mode.
It’s going to be tempting for Lampard, in lieu of attacking reinforcements, to stick with this strategy, but will it suit all occasions? Brighton & Hove Albion, visitors to Goodison on Tuesday are an attacking team that like to get on the ball. They have some good players, but they are not an elite side. Can Everton sit back in a defensive shell at home against the Seagulls? Should they? The travelling support got behind the Toffees at the Etihad, despite the almost total lack of attacking threat the side offered. I can’t see that being the case at home against less vaunted opponents.
Moreover, though the Blues may get more chances to counterattack against Brighton than was the case on Saturday, they will have to be clinical to expect to get more than a draw; this level of efficiency has rarely been in evidence. Gray’s goal was a wonder-strike and though he has that in his locker, few other Everton players do. It is not a repeatable formula.
I was pleased to see DCL make it onto the pitch, but I’d sooner have preserved him for Tuesday, a game that Everton really need to win and absolutely must not lose. The talismanic striker enjoyed few touches of the ball (nine) and offered no goal threat at all, but his at least gave the Blues some presence and will be invaluable if the club are unable to bring in forward reinforcements. He got through 70 minutes without apparent ill-effects and fans will have to hope he can go again against Brighton.
Onana enjoyed his best performance for a while. Though the rangy midfielder was entirely on defensive duty, the experience of having to sit in and maintain focus for the full 90 will do his development a lot of good. The Belgian led the team with three interceptions and four blocked passes and took care of the ball also, posting a 87.5% passing accuracy. Hopefully, it is becoming clear to Frank that his best position is to sit alongside the impressive Gueye. He’ll be unavailable for Tuesday due to collecting a fifth yellow card of the season and will be a big miss.
Unrelated to the match, but breaking on the day was the news that Everton have elected to utilise a recall option for Ellis Simms, on loan at Sunderland. The 21-year old has played well at the north-east club, hitting seven goals in 17 league appearances. Is he ready to contribute at his struggling parent club? In my opinion, no. Simms’ time at The Black Cats was aiding his development, but he does not look ready for the Premier League. I feel allowing him to remain with Tony Mowbray’s exciting young side would have helped the 21-year old enormously. That he’s been recalled throws up a big red flag to me as to the extent of Everton’s difficulty in bringing in attacking talent this month, which is absolutely essential. I hope I’m wrong, both in my evaluation of Simms and the transfer policy at the club.