An Exercise in Futility
It was another blown opportunity on Saturday, as Everton fell to a 2-0 defeat to fellow-strugglers West Ham United, in a strange match, played in a somewhat muted atmosphere at the cavernous London Stadium. The Hammers were absolutely there for the taking in this game between two managers in the last-chance saloon, tepid, passive and uncertain in the opening 25 minutes. The Blues overcame some early-game jitters to exert what passes for “control” in a Lampard-helmed Everton side - which unfortunately equates to a directionless, toothless possession game.
The 3-5-2 formation that the under-fire Everton chief had resorted to in recent weeks looked utterly unsuited to cracking open the hosts, however. Whereas dispensing with the team’s underperforming wide men was a good move in theory, the limitations of Seamus Coleman and Vitalii Mykolenko as wing-backs were laid bare for all to see. The Irish veteran does not have the legs for the role and is essentially done as a Premier League player at this stage; the Ukrainian lacks the pace or skill to beat a man on the outside, the craft to put in a strong delivery. Despite the visitors enjoying 59.2% possession during the first half, the average positions of the two wing-backs were telling: both inside the Everton half.
A rare piece of decisive intervention from Frank followed as he dumped both Coleman and Mykolenko, the latter replaced by Dwight McNeil, Alex Iwobi covering for the Irishman. We saw an immediate uptick in production from the flanks, the Nigerian getting into the game more and both players putting in a number of crosses, with the ex-Burnley man being notably more effective (three successes from ten attempts). Still, for all the aerial bombardment resulting from 36 crosses the hosts dealt with this theoretical pressure with ease, racking up an astonishing 50 clearances during the match.
Tom Davies, introduced at halftime, demonstrated a little of what Everton have been lacking in midfield: forward running and passing, even if little of what he tried worked out. Nobody imagines Tom is the answer, but the team’s static midfield has been a problem all season, making a lack of minutes for the out of favour Abdoulaye Doucoure even more difficult to understand. The Blues upped their share of possession to an amazing 75.9% after the restart and if anything shouts out the futility of the team’s attacking play under Lampard it is that they could muster only three shots at the West Ham goal, two from set-pieces in this period. In fact, the Toffees racked up a pitiful 0.03 xG (Expected Goals) from open play all game, which is pretty shameful.
There’s not really an awful lot more to say about the game itself. Lampard’s period in charge at Goodison Park was brief - just a year - but I feel we’ve had more than enough time to see what the ex-England star has to offer as a manager - at least at this relatively early stage of his career. The predictable style of play: all fast-tempo starts, high, energetic pressing in lieu of defensive structure, a tenuous shield for a vulnerable high line; a stunning lack of creative ideas in the final third; an inability to positively change a game (with the notable exception of the “great escape” against Crystal Palace last season); poor use of the bench and finally, an inflexibility in the use of the players he had available.
Yes, this Everton squad has limitations - in attack most prominently - but Lampard’s set up and obstinance certainly hindered any chances to turn around the team’s fortunes on the pitch. The early leadership and organisation bounce the defence received from the arrival on loan of former Wolverhampton Wanderers captain Conor Coady, dissipated a long time ago. Quite why the boss persisted with selecting him continuously, playing a high line, when he cannot defend in space, is a mystery. The midfield, which was improved during the summer, has been an organisational mess for months.
Watching the Blues’ futile efforts in the second half on Saturday, the team chasing (and I use that word generously) a two-goal deficit for the entire 45 minutes and Lampard sitting on his hands, after making those two substitutions during the interval, summed up his time on Merseyside. Indecisive and unwilling to use players that he didn’t trust. Now, that may seem intuitive, but why were Neal Maupay (whose only Everton goal was against the Hammers), Anthony Gordon and Ellis Simms - three attacking players - unused when goals were desperately needed? Why was Ruben Vinagre, an actual specialist wing-back, not utilised (again) at any stage? Why was the Portuguese even on the bench, having played only 26 league minutes since arriving on loan from Sporting CP? I have no idea.
Lampard departs Everton with thanks for stepping in during a particularly dreadful period for the club, succeeding the disaster-area that was Rafa Benitez. The come-from-behind 3-2 win against Palace in last season’s penultimate game will live long in the memory of all Evertonians. He built a strong rapport with the fans, healing the mess left behind by Benítez; almost all will wish him well, I am sure. Whatever his ceiling is as a manager, it became abundantly clear that he was too inexperienced, too tactically naïve to turn around the dysfunctional club that Everton have become at this point in time.
Post-Lampard, the team structure has to be re-examined by whoever is appointed as his replacement. There is a core of good players that need to be added to during what remains of the winter Transfer Window. The impending arrival of Dutch forward Arnaut Danjuma is a really positive step, but the side needs more than just the on-loan Villareal player. The Blues decision-makers cannot leave anything on the table: all loans must be used and every penny put towards improving the team.
It’s my belief that any experienced, competent manager could turn this season around, given the players currently at Everton and the acquisition of another two or three, in addition to Danjuma. A set up that suits the strengths inherent in the squad and disguises its weaknesses cannot be beyond the new man. A decision must be made as to what basic formation the Blues use, whether a back three or four. Personally, without bringing in specialist wing-backs, I don’t see a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 being successful, for reasons I’ve outlined above, so a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 appears more suitable.
The team obviously has to bring in firepower, flair and creativity, which have been sheared away in recent years. Danjuma appears to finally resolve the absence of the departed Richarlison, being able to operate up top, or on the left flank. Everton are shy on the right flank, none of the current options being satisfactory. A central striker has to be being pursued by director of football Kevin Thelwell. Despite the improvements during the summer, a central midfielder, either a dedicated sitter or a number ten could prove useful. If a right back can be brought in, this would be desirable, given Nathan Patterson's youth and current injury and Coleman’s continued decline.
That’s a lot to pack in, within the eight days and change remaining in the window.