The Shape of the Future?
Rumours circulated beforehand that Everton owner Farhad Moshiri was seriously considering removing manager Frank Lampard after this FA Cup 3rd Round tie against Manchester United, at Old Trafford. Accordingly, the under-pressure boss went with a full-strength lineup, resting only Dominic Calvert-Lewin from the starting eleven, though the striker would appear from the bench in the second half. Tactically, after the horror show Blues fans witnessed on Tuesday night, when the side attempted to play progressively, on the front foot and was routinely dismantled by Brighton & Hove Albion at Goodison Park, Lampard did another tactical 180. Gone was the 4-3-3 formation deployed against the Seagulls, replaced with the 5-3-2 used to grind out a battling draw with Manchester City at the Etihad on New Year’s Eve.
Now, United are not Manchester City, but they are a strong side packed with talented players and on an upward curve under new manager Erik ten Hag, so this more conservative setup was wise for the Toffees, who entered this match on a woeful run of just one draw and five losses from their last six fixtures. Given the limitations in Lampard’s preferred centre back pairing of James Tarkowski and Conor Coady, namely a lack of pace and - in the latter’s case aggression in one-on-one defending - then a back three is a possible solution. Although the visitors conceded three goals here, one was from a very soft last minute penalty, the first from an early defensive breakdown; otherwise the Blues looked a lot more solid than they had last time out.
The Red Devils did take 17 shots in the match, but total non-penalty xG (Expected Goals) was “only” 1.85 which, on the road against a clearly superior side was not that bad. Take away Antony’s strike four minutes in and Lampard’s team held United to just 0.95 xG from open play the rest of the game. Everton initially appeared to be playing a higher line than would be advisable against a team with United’s pace in forward areas, but settled down after a shaky start into more of a low-mid block, playing on the counter. Their midfield did a good job of blocking up the centre of the park, Amadou Onana in particular enjoying an excellent game as the deepest lying of the three, which is clearly the best position for him at this stage of his career. The three midfielders, deployed in this manner, gave the Toffees a solid look, even if Alex Iwobi was again fielded on the right side, where statistically he’s been less effective.
Offensively, the Blues challenged United at times. Despite adopting a defensive stance, they were able to threaten the hosts to a far greater degree than they’d managed against City, despite DCL not being on the pitch for the first 69 minutes. The Merseysiders managed eight shots (five on target), an xG of 1.72 and a 42% share of possession, in addition to a 81% passing accuracy. The ongoing problem of a lack of cutting edge continues and will only be addressed during the Transfer Window, but in the meantime two up front looks the way to go given the utter lack of productivity from wide positions in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation. Demarai Gray had the opposition defence looking a little wary with his pace and operating as a kind of central striker simplifies his choices and may enhance the danger he presents.
Quite what the enigmatic Moshiri is going to do concerning the management of the team this week (or month) is anyone’s guess at this point. In the absence of any information coming from the club, it was left to Lampard to field questions regarding his future prospects, which is unfair, both to him and the fans, who deserve better. It comes as no surprise, given the way Everton operates these days that there’s been stories, no doubt emanating from unidentified sources within the organisation, naming prospective candidates and “four man shortlists” allegedly possessed by Moshiri. This a shabby way to go about things, for a club that likes to give the impression that it does things in the correct fashion.
We are now (at time of writing) seven days into the 31-day winter Transfer Window. It’s my opinion that, unless the club adds significant attacking talent before the window closes, any manager will have major problems guiding them to safety. Delaying over making a decision on Lampard’s fate can only retard progress in acquiring players, as I imagine most will want to know who the manager will be before signing off on any contract, loan or permanent. So, the question is: are Everton better off sticking with Lampard, or switching horses mid-race? There’s arguments for and against, which could be regarded as puzzling considering that Frank has won only four games from 21 this season and just one of the last 12.
Prominent in the “keep him” column are the financial implications of paying off yet another boss, less than a year on from doing likewise with Rafa Benitez. Now, I could care less how much that costs Moshiri, but it will impact what funds are available to sign players, which is the priority; in all likelihood, some or all of Lampard’s backroom staff follow him out of the door also. Secondly, the side is still playing hard for their boss. As they’re losing games anyway, you may say “so what?” to that, but regardless they have not downed tools, so the bond is strong, which has to be a positive. Thirdly, the team has been bereft of attacking threat all season: is it fair to judge him based on what is a poor side? Then there’s the “Frank Pull Factor”, which of course is highly subjective as to how relevant it is; however it does appear that his name recognition appeals to some potential signings. Finally, Moshiri’s hit rate in making a good managerial choice is awful - Carlo Ancelotti being the only success. Do we trust the man not to make an even worse appointment than Lampard?
In the “fire him” column, we have the aforementioned dreadful record of results, just the bare listing of which is a demoralising read. Frank is still making the same mistakes, in terms of playing style that has dogged him since the start of his tenure: the over-aggressive press, vulnerability to the counterattack, poor attacking coordination, bad substitutions. Tactically, Lampard is at best a work in progress, a near-novice coach that appears out of his depth with an Everton side that has been steadily degraded year after year. There’s a strong argument to be made that almost any replacement will do a better job. Also, what’s his involvement in transfer planning? Some players have unquestionably been worthwhile additions, for the present or future, but money appears to have been wasted on signings of doubtful quality, too.
My personal take on this (and it’s my own, not the official RBM stance!) is that unless a manager can be brought in that represents a big upgrade over the incumbent - someone like Mauricio Pochettino, or Marcelino García Toral - then the disruption to the available transfer budget may not be worth it.
With what looks like it may be a prolonged injury absence for Alex Iwobi, Everton should think again about moving out Abdoulaye Doucoure. It’s been clear for a while that the Malian has fallen down the depth chart at Goodison Park, behind currently sidelined youngster James Garner and even Tom Davies. Whilst it’s true that Doucoure’s fleeting appearance from the bench have been underwhelming, he showed on Friday that he has something to offer. In 39 minutes on the pitch, he took good care in possession (completing 18 of 19 passes), created a chance, won two tackles and attempted five ground duels (winning half). He is an industrious presence and offers the only real attacking threat from Everton’s midfield options. A trio of him, Onana and Idrissa Gueye would present a strong defensive screen for the team in the middle of the pitch.
In a 5-3-2, the Blues will need to rely on their wingbacks to provide width and attacking support. Against United, Seamus Coleman and Vitalii Mykolenko struggled to impact the game in an attacking sense and the latter also was suspect defensively, even if he’s typically been solid this season. Lampard replaced the pair with with wingers Anthony Gordon and Dwight McNeil for the final ten minutes. Obviously, both are not defenders, but with three combinative midfielders and a centre back trio, maybe the Blues can afford to give them a try as offensive wingbacks? Neither have produced yet as conventional wide men, but they are hard-working and diligent defensively.
The structure of the three man central defensive unit needs to be looked at. Ben Godfrey adds desirable pace to a slow backline, but he is inconsistent and sloppy on the ball, with the proviso that he’s only recently returned from a lengthy injury layoff. Coady is slow and a passive defender, which is less of a problem in a three, as he’s acting almost like a sweeper; a lack of mobility is a non-issue in a lower line. He does add organisational leadership and can pass the ball. Yerry Mina seems fit and it obviously Everton’s best defender, but his fragility is almost a meme these days. Should Frank just plug him in when he’s available, in the knowledge that he has five substitutions available in case he needs to make a change?
Everton are obviously trying to raise as much money as possible by cannibalising extraneous members of the squad, which includes the likes of Doucoure and Mina, both of whom are on big wages and contracts that expire in the summer. This is necessary as the team has to bring in players this month that can reverse its fortunes on the pitch. For the likes of the two named above though, it may be worth taking the wages hit and letting them go on a free in June if they meaningfully contribute between now and then, as both are good players. Others that are not going to play should certainly be offloaded.
Stats provided courtesy of fotmob.com