Last night’s heavy home defeat to Brighton was certainly not the first time that Frank Lampard and his Everton side have been embarrassed in the eleven months or so since he took over, and at this rate it will not be the last either if he isn’t shown the door or continues to refuse to change his ways.
Since the departure of long-term manager David Moyes and then after him Roberto Martinez, Everton have consistently failed to possess a self-identity, the traits that make a football team who they are. The constant chopping and changing at the managerial level, as well as the Board consistently meddling in transfer affairs, has ensured that the Toffees remain a hodge-podge of a squad that hangs like a millstone around the collective necks of every succeeding Director of Football and managerial staff.
To some extent, this day doesn’t come as a surprise. Lampard had never really shown off much managerial ability in his previous stints at Derby County and Chelsea. A leader on the pitch from his midfield playing days, he carries that charisma into the dressing room and is certainly popular with his players, but when it comes to making footballing decisions, Lampard has been shown up time and again.
This in no way excuses his players from blame — the rot that has set in deep in this Everton squad has been spreading for some time now, and the lack of accountability from top to bottom in this entire club is at fault.
Everton are in real trouble, make no mistake. They looked poor last season with a shaky defence, slow in transition but were lucky enough to have two competent strikers. This campaign has seen Richarlison not replaced, Dominic Calvert-Lewin a pale shadow of himself, and a team with the right ideas but poor execution. That alone is not enough to get a side relegated though.
Any half-decent manager can set up the squad Lampard was handed in a conservative manner and grind out a few results that should have you hovering just above the relegation zone all season long, much like the Blues did away at Manchester City last weekend.
The real mettle of a capable coach though is shown when he has to set up a team to attack an opponent, and that is exactly where Lampard has failed repeatedly. His tactical naivete and associated inflexibility have been on display time and again. The former Chelsea midfielder has been wedded to the 4-3-3 formation since he came to Goodison, and even with three competent midfielders this season, has somehow continued to set up the Blues to fail.
While Lampard is not the only manager to use the 4-3-3, it’s the deployment of those midfielders that has continued to befuddle not just Evertonians but football fans in general. Leaving either Idrissa Gueye or young Amadou Onana as a single pivot hamstrings them from playing their natural game where they are more effective chasing the ball further forward. Instead, when either of that pair are pushed up alongside Alex Iwobi, it’s the midfielder behind him that often gets in trouble. The Blues’ centrehalf pairing of choice is slow as molasses and with just that one midfielder in front of them, they are more often than not caught chasing shadows much like last night when Brighton needed just two-three passes to spring their wide men into vast spaces.
It’s not as simple as switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation though, because there is a lot more to it, and it has to do with comeback player of the year 2022, the aforementioned Alex Iwobi. The Nigerian midfielder has seen a massive career revival under Lampard, going from a fringe squad member on his way out of the club last January to one of the first names inked in on the teamsheet every week. Iwobi has shown multiple times that he is at his very best when playing from the left side of the middle, with his natural tendency to veer to his stronger right foot opening up the whole pitch for him.
So what does Lampard do? Promptly move Iwobi over to the right side of the midfield, that’s what. There is no doubt that the Toffees’ most potent attacking force is Demarai Gray charging down the left. Vitalii Mykolenko is a reasonable decent fullback defensively, which allows Gray to attack at will, and whenever Iwobi has been on that side, Everton look somewhat competent.
Moved over the right, Iwobi is forced to divide his time between the swathes of open space that Nathan Patterson leaves behind him and trying to play one-twos with Anthony Gordon or Dwight McNeil. The former is good for about one successful dribble and chance per game, while the latter is so one-footed that it’s almost a minor miracle that his right leg has not withered and fallen off.
A 4-2-3-1 with both Gueye and Onana shielding the defence is not ideal, but will certainly be more effective with the pair covering for each other. It’ll also reduce the likelihood of opponents being able to quickly move the ball out wide to prevent James Tarkowski and Conor Coady getting stretched and exposed. That would also allow Iwobi to play in a more central role that would open up the pitch for him, and likely able to work better with Gordon and Gray on either side of him.
Which then brings us to another point.
Fortune favours the brave in the Premier League, and most successful sides are where they are because they attack with pace and move the ball around quickly. Everton’s side-to-side movement of the ball in little triangles looks pretty, but achieves little. If anything, it opens them up for a quick opponent to cut right through them, like Wolves and Brighton have done recently, and Bournemouth did on two separate occasions leading into the World Cup break.
Lampard appears to have neither the nous nor the personnel to attack even a mid-block let alone a low-lying one. With Calvert-Lewin looking more like a hologram than an England international, the Blues have little attacking threat in the box. The desperate recall from loan of youngster Ellis Simms is an embarrassing nod to that little failure in transfer planning. The fact that teenaged Tom Cannon from the Under-21 side was even required to play Premier League minutes is also testament to that.
Granted, Lampard has had a very limited squad available to him at times this season. Injuries and the general lack of depth has limited his squad selections. However, his utter reluctance to change anything is coming back to bite him more often than not. We all know the Blues squad issues are not going to get fixed in one summer of limited spending, but unlike his playing days, Lampard is quickly developing a reputation for choosing to sit on his hands in the hopes of grinding out a point rather than trying to change things up to try to gain more.
While the Blues defence seemed to be holding its own early in the season, the very poor underlying metrics — shots conceded in particular — was always going to catch up to them, and it seems like it has now. The Toffees’ susceptibility to conceding chances from secondary phases of setpieces along with giving up goals at the most inopportune times such as at the end of games is the result.
His hesitancy in making substitutions and taking a gamble on the unknown has gotten to a point where it’s now hurting him. More often than not he’s throwing subs on after the game cannot be retrieved, or with too little time left on the clock to effect any change. What’s worse is that he’s eaten away at that early season goodwill with his overcautiousness, and will be even less likely to try to make changes now that the club is in a full blown crisis.
It’s not too late to do something different however, especially with the January transfer window having just opened. It’s going to require Lampard to go against the precedent he has set so far and try something drastically different to ensure that the Toffees are not still grazing around the relegation zone when the spring flowers burst forth.
In the meantime, will he even survive the next few fixtures though? After an almost-assured FA Cup Third Round exit at the hands of Manchester United this Friday are two key games to round out January - home against bottom side Southampton, and then away to David Moyes’ West Ham United. Both clubs sit below the Toffees right now in the table, but could both be above the Blues by the time those games happen, which could also mean Everton will be well and truly entrenched in the drop zone with little hope forthcoming, unless Lampard drops his obstinacy and smartens up.