Full of Sound and Fury
Fresh off a hard-fought away draw against reigning league champions Manchester City, Frank Lampard and his Everton entertained Brighton & Hove Albion at Goodison Park on Tuesday. To state that any sliver of momentum gained from that unlikely result on New Year’s Eve was well and truly squandered during this evening game would be a massive understatement: it was torn up, set on fire and buried six feet under and Frank’s tenure as manager of the famous old Merseyside club cannot be too far behind.
The usual well-worn comments about the players not trying, or fighting for the manager have been trotted out, but I did not see that at all. The side played hard and with intent until the game was brutally taken away from them during six stunning minutes early in the second half. They had come out and tried to jump on the visitors from the off, pushing up high, pressing with intensity and getting bodies forward in the opening seven or eight minutes. The Seagulls looked a little shaky in those initial exchanges as they attempted to get their passing game going and it seemed as though Everton may force an early breakthrough. However, as has been apparent from the start of the campaign, this is a Toffees side that is toothless, devoid of creativity and cutting edge. At this level of competition, a plan consisting of trying to force turnovers deep in the opposition half requires the ability to punish the opponent when this has been achieved and Everton are totally lacking in the ability to do this.
As the tempo slackened off, the structural problems in Lampard's Toffees side were gradually laid bare. Early counterattacks from Roberto De Zerbi’s side set alarm bells ringing. The ease with which Brighton were able to pass through Everton’s midfield, or to threaten the flanks in transition was worrying. I’d pointed out in my piece beforehand how De Zerbi’s Brighton like to draw - and quickly pass around - the high press of opponents, creating space for spare men to run into and this they carried out to perfection. And Everton fell for it. This was tactically every bit as naïve as that infamous 5-0 hammering Tottenham Hotspur inflicted on Lampard’s Everton back in March.
I’m concerned because this was foreseeable beforehand; it’s not like De Zerbi set his team up in a radically different manner, using some previously unknown gambit. This is how they play under him; this is the template. And Everton cooperated completely. The high press, combined with a high line that does neither Conor Coady nor James Tarkowski any favours, was punished time and again. The Toffees were still playing hard after falling behind in the 14th minute, but could never maintain their initial intensity and Brighton were comfortable thereafter. They had control by about midway through the half and proceeded to dismantle this fragile Everton side after the interval.
The Dam Breaks
In reality, though I, Lampard and presumably most watching did not know it, the game was already lost in tactical terms by the time the whistle blew to recommence proceedings for the second half. Sure, the home side were just a goal down with 45 minutes to play and at home with a crowd willing them on, but De Zerbi’s game plan was working to perfection. All he needed was for Everton to continue as they had done and wait for the cracks in their system that had already appeared to widen. And boy, did they.
The Blues came back out with renewed intensity, as if what had not really worked in the opening stanza just needed extra impetus to bring results. Sadly, we’ve seen this before under Lampard and for every dramatic come from behind win, such as the one against Crystal Palace last May that guaranteed the team’s survival, there’s been numerous occasions where it’s failed miserably. This was another such to add to a lengthening list. Brighton fended off Everton’s assault with ease and then punished every piece of poor positioning, excessive pressing, exploited any empty space and - ultimately - loss of concentration.
A high press requires a high line to be effective. Coady is slow and Tarkowski not much quicker. The full backs push up, particularly Nathan Patterson on the right, sometimes both simultaneously. Opponents have hit those areas behind the full backs all season and it continued here. As soon as the central defense starts running back towards their own goal from the halfway line. you know the team is in big trouble. Everton are horribly vulnerable in transition. The midfield gets caught up the pitch and all it takes is quick, direct passing to bypass them, causing total chaos. This style of play is high risk, high reward. In theory, at least. Teams like our arch-rivals across the park have played very successfully in this way for years under Jurgen Klopp, with a far better squad. However, it’s unforgiving. Any slip in form can be disastrous, as we’ve seen with Liverpool this season.
Everton are a very ordinary side. All the creativity and flair has been stripped away and most of the goals. Lampard knows this and is hoping that an intense press can do the hard work - creating scoring opportunities for the team - that they can’t manage in regular play. However, Everton’s attack is so inconsistent and substandard that this approach is a serious gamble. The defence that posted such nice totals in the “goals conceded” column earlier in the season is far, far from watertight. In reality, it requires a supporting structure to keep it afloat: a low/mid block and two defensive midfielders. On Tuesday we saw one screening midfielder (Idrissa Gueye) and a slow defence deploying a high line, a recipe for disaster. It may not be the way Frank wants to play, but if he’s to have any future at the helm he has to reassess as we noted in this litany of his errors.
I felt bad for Gueye yesterday. Again, he was hung out to dry as a lone sitting midfielder, Tom Davies and Alex Iwobi being pushed up. He’s arguably Everton’s best player, even at 33 years old, but he is a veteran and few could handle the demanding role Lampard is asking of him, in this poor team. The Senegalese led the Blues with five interceptions and was fouled three times. I give him a free pass for that woeful error for Brighton’s fourth goal, as his concentration deserted him after the hosts had shipped two goals in rapid succession. He is not one of the problems for this team though, far from it.
Good to see Ellis Simms contribute from the bench, putting in a clever pass that led to Iwobi being brought down for a penalty and Everton’s meaningless consolation goal. Quite why the striker wasn’t introduced earlier than the 83rd minute was puzzling. Is this what he’s been brought back for? The constantly disappointing Neal Maupay was substituted on 20 minutes earlier. I was against Simms being recalled from his loan at Sunderland, but now he’s here at least give him a fair shot.
This match went about as badly as it could for Lampard, who was already under pressure. The manner and scale of the defeat looms large, casting a deep shadow over his future prospects at Goodison Park. That he appears not up the job is unarguable, but the situation he finds himself in is far from all his own doing. His struggles are a symptom, not the root cause. They lie far from Frank, in time and up the chain of command at Everton: ultimately, a phantom of an absentee owner and an unfit board of directors, hanging grimly onto control, in the hope that blame will be laid elsewhere for the train wreck the club has become.
And what of Lampard? If I had any faith in those that employed him in the first place, just over eleven short months ago, then a change of manager would be the obvious solution. Except it’s been tried before ad nauseum. They almost always pick the wrong man. Would director of football Kevin Thelwell choose the replacement? Who knows. This is Everton F.C. - The Club That Communication Forgot. Sacking Lampard (and probably his staff) would cost the club another huge pay-out, further depleting funds that have to be allocated towards January signings.
Without significant starting-calibre player additions, any new boss will be doomed. Even Carlo Ancelotti, a world-class boss in charge at a time when the Everton team was indisputably superior to what it is now, struggled at times and had to use all his guile to find a partially successful formula. There is no chance Frank would be replaced by someone of that ability; more than likely it would be the likes of Sean Dyche. I have no confidence that such a candidate would do any better with the current squad.
Everton needs to increase the talent level. If they fail, the old club will be relegated, and deservedly so too.