First Stage Complete
As I’d considered probable in my pre-match Opposition Analysis piece, this game started out cagily - and then some. Very little of consequence happened during a tepid, sterile opening 45 minutes, during which both managers - Everton chief Sean Dyche and former Blues supremo David Moyes - set out their stalls and hoped to entice their rivals into abandoning their preferred modus operandi. Under two conservative, reactive bosses the two sides were incredibly reluctant to get on the ball and made little attempt to play proactively.
You could construct a decent argument to the effect that, in the case of the Toffees, that they lack the personnel to do so; if Dyche had any genuine interest in playing more possession-based football, which is doubtful. As for West Ham United, they have spent quite heavily over the past few seasons - whereas Everton’s lavish transfer period occurred some time ago - and have acquired some talented, skilful players, such as Brazil international Lucas Paqueta and former Blues target Mohamed Kudus, who lit up the early stages of last winter’s World Cup. That they set up so negatively is quite baffling and plenty of Hammers fans are none too happy with the current tactics.
Indeed, after some early rambunctiousness, the atmosphere at the London Stadium flattened out and the silence was rarely interrupted, except from the occasional bout of singing from the traveling support, which sounded as if it were coming from half a mile away - so removed are the crowd from the pitch. The former Olympic venue may offer a good deal to West Ham economically, but like all multipurpose stadia it is not conducive to generating the right ambience for watching football. It’s hard not to see this factor as a negative for the home side, and this innate disadvantage is not countered by the way the hosts played in the opening period.
Dyche set up the way he always does on the road (and at Goodison Park, for that matter): adopting a compact shape and a mid-low block, showing little intent to get on the ball and looking to press the opposition into turnovers in the defensive and middle third of the pitch. West Ham gradually started to dominate possession, but could make no headway in the congested centre and looked to target Everton’s fullbacks. It was all very slow and predictable and after 25 minutes of nothingness, the East Londoners had run out of ideas. From that point until the interval, the visitors outshot them 5-0, generating an xG (Expected Goals) of 0.32, though a couple of promising counterattacks ended disappointingly. The hosts trudged off the pitch having offered only two attempts at goal with an xG of 0.17.
So far, so good for Dyche’s plan.
The Way This Would Always Play Out
The way the teams set up and look to play, this was always likely to be a game of few clear chances, one decided by a moment of individual magic, a slice of good fortune, or a well-worked set-piece and so it proved. If the first half had gone pretty much to plan for Everton, then the second period started in perfect fashion. Six minutes in, Dominic Calvert-Lewin - hitherto starved of meaningful service - linked up well with Jack Harrison, his tight turn and accurate finish demonstrating that, in him, the Blues have a quality striker, which could set them apart from other teams tipped to be in the relegation battle this term.
The visitors now had that vital first goal, which is so often decisive. With the West Ham attack having proved anaemic up to this point, the chances of Everton losing this match shifted from fairly possible to unlikely, just like that. The game now became one of offense versus defence, with the Merseysiders well-suited to sitting deeper, tucking in and soaking up pressure, relying on a sturdy backline, a strong shot-stopper in Jordan Pickford and a hard-working midfield. The number of clearances by the Blues shot up from six in the first period, to 22 in the second. West Ham’s share of possession ballooned from 58% to 71%, yet they rarely threatened.
The Toffees did not entirely retreat into a defensive shell, but were still dangerous on the break, enjoying a great chance on the hour mark when Abdoulaye Doucoure broke through into open space. One-on-one with Alphonse Areola, the Malian opted for the element of surprise by taking his shot early and it took a great reaction save from the hosts’ goalkeeper to deny him. With just a single goal advantage to protect the Blues came under sustained, albeit generally ineffective pressure for almost 45 minutes, making it not entirely comfortable viewing for their fans, but the team rode their luck and emerged with a valuable three points. Job done.
I’ve mentioned previously that under Dyche, this Everton team is well set up to play on the back foot, relying on hard work and organizational qualities to stave off all but the elite sides in the division. Outside of those clubs, the ability to break down a resolute and structured team is limited, with many sides relying on their pressing to do the hard work and creativity in open play in short supply. The obvious counter to this approach is to deny them many opportunities to turn the ball over in dangerous areas; it may not be pretty, but when in doubt punting the ball up the pitch prevents a lot of self-created problems.
The only West Ham players with the abilities to cause Everton much trouble were Paqueta, who has little opportunity to demonstrate any flair running up and down the left flank in Moyes’ team, rather than as the central creative focal point he is for Brazil, and Kudus. The latter actually showed some dynamism in central areas, but enjoyed little support from his teammates from within the confines of their system and was consequently snuffed out rather easily. Jarrod Bowen - the hosts’ main scoring threat - is direct and enthusiastic but not a creative force, while James Ward-Prowse is deadly from dead ball situations only. Everton handled West Ham’s sporadic efforts at forcing play quite comfortably.
Calvert-Lewin deserves a shout out, as his singular moment of quality decided a match where such moments were in short supply. For a game like this, that ability to strike decisively - fashioning a chance from almost nothing - is vital. The striker has now scored four goals in his last six appearances and his three league strikes have already topped last season’s total. It’s great to see him back to his best, seemingly free at last from a two-year injury nightmare. Sadly, during this period more than a few Everton fans had written him off as overrated and it’s satisfying to see him prove the naysayers to be about a wrong as it is possible to be about a player.
Vitalii Mykolenko followed up his efficient shackling job on Mohamed Salah last weekend with an equally strong defensive performance against Bowen. Although the shot-happy winger got off four attempts on goal during the match, none were overly dangerous and he failed to test Pickford. The Ukrainian racked up a combined ten tackles and interceptions and has proven his consistency in recent outings and the way the team sets up hides his offensive limitations.
Another enjoying a good spell in the Everton side is Amadou Onana. The 22-year-old occupied a deeper position than fellow midfielder James Garner (who rebounded after an anonymous outing in the Merseyside derby), where he demonstrated improved positional defending, choosing the right moments to engage opponents. He ended up making a combined six tackles and interceptions, blocked two passes and added seven ball recoveries. The Belgian international is composed on the ball and has that quality about him where the game seems to slow down when he’s in possession; usually the sign of a quality operator. He ended the day as the team’s most accurate passer, completing 87.2%.