Worst Fears Confirmed
Perhaps surprisingly, coming off a rarity by Everton - consecutive road wins against tough opposition, first Brentford then Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup within a four-day spell - I couldn’t help but feel a little worried leading up to Saturday’s game. On paper and on the pitch Luton Town are a far inferior side to either the Bees or Villa - particularly the latter - and this has been confirmed during the season so far as the newly-promoted side have found it difficult to cope with the superior quality of the Premier League. This shouldn’t shock anyone, seeing as the Hatters had finished 21 and eleven points respectively behind fellow strugglers Burney and Sheffield United during last season’s Championship campaign and had reinforced by a net spend of only €23m during the transfer window.
Arriving at Goodison Park on Saturday, the visitors had failed to win any of their five league outings, losing four and picking up a home draw last time out against a Wolverhampton Wanderers side reduced to ten men for more than half the game. They’d bombarded their opponents (44 crossing attempts) but could only score via the penalty spot. Still, it was clear that Luton had adjusted to the shock of competing at this level, following heavy defeats in their opening two matches and would present a completely different puzzle for Everton to solve than either Brentford or Villa had. Both of those sides hosted the Blues as favourites seeking to get on the ball and dictate, which could give Sean Dyche’s team opportunities in transition, should they successfully execute the manager’s plan and this is what played out.
Luton, on the other hand would set up as they had in the Championship: with organisation, physicality, hard work and relying on the exploitation of set-piece opportunities as their primary route to scoring goals. The Toffees, as the home side would enjoy a lot of possession, be forced to attempt to break down the visitor’s defensive structure and herein lay my concern prior to kickoff, as this style of play has proved problematic for the Blues going back some time, across many managerial tenures. Without much natural creativity in the team - the departed Alex Iwobi being probably the last remaining at Everton capable of being termed a playmaker, at a stretch - the team would have to force openings through effort and this they accomplished in the first half, during which they generated an xG (Expected Goals) of 2.25, from 13 attempts, five on target.
However, a basic inability to properly defend dead-ball situations - which surely must have been identified by the coaching staff as presenting Luton’s main threat - did not appear to have been adequately prepared for. The Hatters had five attempts on Everton’s goal between the 20th and 31st minutes, four resulting from corners and one from a deep free kick, from which they scored twice and came close on other occasions. Of the 0.80 xG accumulated by Luton in the first period, 0.73 resulted from set plays. Sean Dyche put the blame for the team’s failings wholly on the players in his post-match interview, but if defending set-pieces can’t be at least partially attributed to him and his coaching staff then what can?
Making All the Wrong Changes
Some criticism of the starting team Dyche selected has been laid at his door, primarily the decision to play James Garner as a right winger; though the midfielder had lined up in that position for Everton’s impressive 3-1 win at Brentford a week earlier. There were some issues with other viable options for the right flank: Jack Harrison had played 65 minutes on Wednesday night, his first senior action in almost five months, so a second start in such short order would have been questionable, whereas Arnaut Danjuma appears more suited to the left, or playing behind a centre forward. So, whereas the team could have used a natural wide man in Garner's stead, Dyche’s reasoning for not doing so was understandable.
After the team fell two goals behind, they rallied well and pushed the visitors back, dominating the last 15 minutes of the first period. Luton could not get out of their own half and were outshot 7-0 by the hosts, who scored and hit the post during this spell. The Bedfordshire outfit were playing more defensively after going 2-0 up and this figured to continue after the restart, so I expected no changes given how the first half had ended, but the manager opted to remove Idrissa Gueye, move Garner inside and bring on Harrison. The Senegalese veteran, who turned 34 a few days before the game continues to get slated quite a bit by fans, but - awful shooting apart - he offers control that the other midfielders lack and Everton lost this without him.
Gueye is adept at dropping in and receiving the ball, helping to drive the team forward and recycling possession; Garner has an entirely different skill set and though he and Onana worked well together at Villa Park, they did not on Saturday. The hosts had been able to apply coordinated offensive pressure on Luton during the latter stages of the opening period, but were unable to do so after the interval, managing only a single blocked effort from Calvert-Lewin by the hour mark, when Dyche turned to his bench again. Having actual valid attacking options available to him must be a breath of fresh air for the Blues manager, but he made the wrong call again, bringing on Beto for Abdoulaye Doucoure, changing formation to a 4-4-2, which many fans have championed since the striker arrived from Italy.
It didn’t work. Calvert-Lewin and the big Portuguese showed zero chemistry and it is questionable how much time has been put in on the training pitch working on a two-striker approach, or if indeed the two are suited to such a way of playing. Regardless, the Blues became more predictable, failing to attack through the centre of the pitch and relying on deep crosses which Luton’s three-man backline were happy to deal with. The number of chances did increase, but they were snatched or poorly taken. Finally, a more offensive-minded fullback than Ashley Young - in Nathan Patterson - was introduced in the 78th minute, followed by Danjuma for Dwight McNeil six minutes later, but the more Dyche changed the team, the less effective Everton became.
In the second half, the Toffees had ten chances but failed to hit the target once, Beto being a primary culprit as the big man missed all four of his efforts. Despite making a positive initial impression at the club, he is clearly struggling with confidence at the moment, making a mess of presentable headed opportunities and taking hopelessly optimistic shots from acute angles as he searches for a first league goal. Calvert-Lewin, on a scoring run of three games, is clearly the better option currently and Beto will hopefully find some form operating from the bench, as a direct replacement for the fit-again England international, as the idea of pairing the two failed badly at the weekend.
Garner in central midfield offers more attacking threat than either Onana or Gueye, but so far has only shown value in the 3-4-3 formation that Everton used against Villa. With Harrison gaining valuable minutes and getting closer to being match fit, Garner’s deputising on the right wing looks like drawing to a close. Right now - though he is clearly improving with consistent game time - he is not a better option than the team’s other midfielders, in a defensive sense or in offering control (he managed only 57 touches in 90 minutes, compared to 104 for Onana and 50 for Gueye in 45 minutes). He deserves to play and with neither Young nor Patterson appearing to be the answer at right back, he should be given a shot there.
It is puzzling to see Danjuma’s role in the team diminish recently. A scorer in back-to-back games against Doncaster Rovers and Sheffield United and a contributor to Garner’s goal at Villa Park he’s managed only 19 minutes from the bench in Everton’s last two league games. The winger is behind McNeil on the left and Dyche apparently prefers central midfielder Garner on the right. With Doucoure an ever-present in a central attacking role and Harrison poised to occupy the right wing slot, it’s tough to see where the Dutchman will get his opportunities to start games. He offers flair, a goal-threat, is direct and skilful, so it is unclear why he was given only a few minutes to make a contribution on Saturday.
After a positive week on the road for Everton, another poor result at Goodison Park heaps pressure back on Dyche and it’s hard to disagree with that sentiment. The club may be picking up away points, but if they are to avoid a season-long battle to stay in the division then they are going to have to start getting wins at home. There were valid reasons for early setbacks against Fulham and Wolverhampton Wanderers, less for an apathetic display in losing to a genuinely good Arsenal, but none whatsoever for being beaten by Luton. Next up the Toffees entertain Bournemouth, who sit in 18th place on three points, having lost four and drawn three of their opening seven. Dyche will be getting awfully close to reaching the end of that walk along the plank should Everton fail to win.