Out of Ideas
Not for the first time in watching Frank Lampard's Everton side over the past year I had the feeling that I’ve seen this game before. Admittedly, Manchester City fans must experience déjà vu on a pretty regular basis, watching Pep Guardiola’s Sky Blues pass opponents into stupefaction, but there the similarity ends. In the Everton manager's case this is not a good thing. Not at all.
It was encouraging to see the Blues kick off against Southampton on Saturday in the 3-5-2 shape that had served them quite decently eight days earlier, against a far superior Manchester United at Old Trafford. Indeed, the Toffees appeared to be playing with a measure of control and balance rarely seen under the ex-Chelsea legend at Goodison Park in recent outings. The back three did not deploy a high line, the wing-backs offered support without pushing up too far and the team pressed selectively; not emptying out the midfield in doing so. Southampton offered no threat whatsoever.
Now, the Blues weren’t exactly overtaxing youngster Gavin Bazunu in the visitor’s goal, but I had the feeling that Everton had assumed a measure of calm control after a scrappy, low quality opening ten minutes, signalled by the impact of the impressive Amadou Onana. But slowly, almost imperceptibly that composure began to slip away. Whether due to mounting pressure that the side needed to achieve a break through, or that Nathan Jones’ team were there for the taking, from around the mid-point of the half the hosts began playing in a way that’s gotten them in trouble before.
The back line pushed up in possession and the midfield started pressing higher. This shift left Everton increasingly open to being exploited in transition. When possession was lost and not immediately recovered by an aggressive press, then a combination of a backpedalling defence and a midfield emptied out by chasing the ball left a widening gap in the centre of the park. This is a pattern we’ve seen before many times and one accentuated by the personnel Lampard is choosing to field. James Ward-Prowse, by far Southampton’s most dangerous player began finding space and threatening a retreating backline.
The Blues survived a couple of breakdowns in their shape during the latter stages of the opening half, notably when counterattacked effectively in injury time. Sadly, no adjustments were made and Everton conceded soon after the restart, this time retreating into their own box, allowing a high ball to be played in with no pressure and being beaten by a headed flick-on by Che Adams to an untracked midfield runner in Ward-Prowse.
Delaying the Inevitable
Right now, it’s anyone’s guess as to what is going through owner Farhad Moshiri’s noggin. The club owner publicly backed his manager last week, via an open letter directed towards fans and also with an undignified interview with Jim White on Talksport, yet Lampard now has a mere three league victories and ten losses at the halfway mark of the season. Moshiri is going to look awfully silly if he fires Frank now, but surely this is what he must do. In 37 Premier League games at the helm of Everton, the former England midfielder has nine wins, eight draws and 20 defeats, totalling 35 points in what would be just one game shy of a full season’s matches. This is simply an unacceptable performance level.
There’s no doubt that Lampard inherited a mess when he arrived at the end of last January, both of Moshiri and the Everton board’s making; a disaster that’s been brewing up for six long years. He’s had to put together an almost entire staff from scratch and try to find a way forward alongside Director of Football Kevin Thelwell, under serious financial constraints. But a year in we are not seeing any sign of sustainable improvement on the pitch; in fact the opposite holds true.
There’s been a partial rebuild of a dysfunctional squad last summer. Some additions, such as Onana, Idrissa Gueye and James Tarkowski have worked out, others not. The fact that the two attackers signed during the summer - Dwight McNeil and Neal Maupay, at a total cost of €29m - remained rooted to the bench as the Blues tried to come back from a 2-1 deficit, is telling. Likewise, a seemingly fit Yerry Mina and Abdoulaye Doucoure went unused as Lampard puzzlingly opted to make only two of five available changes to his team during the match. Either the boss does not rate these players, or more likely does not wish to use them, as they have been made available for transfer, in a desperate effort to generate some funds and to offload big wages.
It has been depressing watching EFC fail to make any signings halfway through the winter Transfer Window, when additions are the only way this side can escape relegation. Rivals have strengthened, sizeable fees paid out, while it increasingly appears that Everton will be restricted to loans and heavily structured deals, which will be hard to pull off. Following the FA Cup loss to Manchester United, I’d prioritised protecting available transfer funds over changing manager, but I’m starting to feel the available money for new players is low, maybe non-existent without sales.
Consequently, it is time for Moshiri to act and dismiss Lampard without further prevarication. His record is awful and shows no sign of improving. The style of play is predictable and easily countered. Frank shows no ability to change a game positively whilst it’s underway, which is essential for a successful manager. I have no desire to see a “firefighter” brought in, someone who can only play basic park-the-bus, hoof it up style football, both for the aesthetics and that I don’t believe that we have the players who can adapt to that approach. However, it’s time to give somebody else a go, preferably a manager identified in advance and by Thelwell, as this should be part of his role.
This is Everton, however: a dysfunctional club that is almost guaranteed to make the wrong decisions, repeatedly. Where this will all end up, I have no idea.
It was clear watching events unfold at Goodison this weekend that, whilst Seamus Coleman and Vitalii Mykolenko can do a decent job in a defensive 3-5-2, both are unsuited to the same formation if required to be more than just conventional defenders. Coleman, for reasons that genuinely baffle me was pushed up high on the right: 19 of his 48 touches were in the Southampton third of the pitch, just eight in the defensive third. His pass success rate was a dreadful 58.1% and he lost control of the ball due to poor control a team-leading five times. Meanwhile, on the left side the Ukrainian suffered through another weak outing and is going backwards alarmingly.
Alex Iwobi, who had initially formed part of a flat midfield three, was pushed further up alongside Demarai Gray about 20 minutes into the opening half as the formation appeared to change to a 3-4-2-1. Later, he moved into an advanced position on the right side of midfield, where he usually shows less form. The Nigerian has arguably been the team’s best outfield performer over the past year and a rare success story for Lampard, but although he was reasonably effective offensively, completing two passes and one cross into the visitor’s penalty area, he was also dispossessed twice and posted an erratic 78.4% pass percentage.
Onana is clearly improving as he accrues game time on Merseyside. The 21-year-old scored his first goal for Everton and used his height effectively for once, winning all four aerial duels on Saturday. We saw his trademark tackling, where he dispossesses opponents seemingly from impossible angles and characteristic drive forward with the ball. The Belgian was the Toffees best player by a mile, ending up with a 90% pass accuracy, eight ball recoveries, five tackles and interceptions combined, and two of three attempted dribbles. Onana has a high ceiling and the only chance the Blues have to retain him beyond the summer is by avoiding the drop.
Jordan Pickford’s recent dip mirrors Everton’s decline, just as his overperformance previously disguised the team’s frailties. Against the Saints he faced a PSxG (Post-Shot Expected Goals) of 1.6, yet conceded twice. He’s had to deal with a PSxG of 10.6 over the last six league games, but has been beaten 14 times, posting a 60.7% save rate, considerably lower than his season average of 75.3%. Additionally, 43 of Pickford’s 53 passes were hit long; this is real hit and hope stuff. At one point in the second half, Onana moved into space, showing for the ball only to watch with obvious frustration as the ‘keeper again launched it long. Without their number one hitting it out of the park, the Blues look a vulnerable outfit.