Sean Dyche was appointed as Everton boss at the end of January, taking charge of his first match on February 4th, a shock victory over league leaders Arsenal at Goodison Park. When the current manager assumed his role, the Blues were a mess: lacking a reliable striker, committed to an ineffective style of play under Frank Lampard and wide-open in transition.
So how has the new man changed things? Has he been able to stamp his own imprint on what had been an underperforming team?
Back at the outset of Dyche’s reign, I took a look at what we might expect to see from him, mostly based on his near decade stint with the Clarets, an interview with the Coaches’ Voice and some insights from the fellas on the always entertaining American Toffee Podcast. Here I’ll be examining those expectations and evaluating whether they were on the money, or wide of the mark.
The now 52-year-old was associated with the 4-4-2 formation during his time at Burnley and we’ve seen an approximation of this with the Toffees. Limited in his forward options last season, the addition of strikers Beto and Youssef Chermiti, along with Arnaut Danjuma - who has played up front on occasion - to a fit-again Dominic Calvert-Lewin has given Dyche the opportunity to deploy two men up top, if so desired.
Instead, he’s found his ideal supporting striker in Abdoulaye Doucoure. Essentially a box-to-box midfielder, deploying the athletic, energetic Malian in this role has come as something of a surprise. The former Watford man appears to tick the boxes as far as the Blues chief is concerned, possessing the legs to link midfield to attack, the industry to harass opponents off the ball and a knack for making runs into the box.
A forgotten man under Lampard, the 30-year-old bagged five league goals after his recall under Dyche in February, which was vital for the team’s survival. This term he’s already fired four and has that advanced attacking midfield, or second striker position nailed down for the foreseeable future.
I’d assessed Dyche as a defence-first head coach in February and that has kind of borne out, though not quite as envisaged. His starting point is to inhibit the opposition’s style of play, first and foremost. He does this by setting up in a compact shape, with the wide midfielders tucked in narrowly, though both Dwight McNeil and Jack Harrison will open up when in possession. Through the middle is the fastest way to goal, so the Everton boss seeks to block this route off as much as possible, with his midfielders being positionally aware and pressing the ball-carrier in the middle third.
In Amadou Onana, James Garner and Idrissa Gueye he has three players who possess the right attributes to make things difficult for sides looking to play through the centre. Doucoure will assist by dropping off, pressuring any deeper-lying opposition midfielders. The system has worked well and Everton have rarely been played through, with most teams being forced to the flanks, by design. This approach is vulnerable to the quick switch pass and the men relied upon to recognize and react to this event are the full backs.
Vitalii Mykolenko has come on leaps and bounds in recent weeks and is looking like a really solid defensive left back, who is playing with more aggression and confidence than was apparent during his first year or so at the club. The Ukrainian leads the team by some margin in combined tackles and interceptions, with 5.75 per 90 minutes. On the opposite flank, veteran Ashley Young is less active, but is preferred by Dyche over the relatively raw Nathan Patterson, due to his superior awareness. It’s likely that Seamus Coleman will compete with Young for the starting berth upon his return from injury, for similar reasons.
From a defensive standpoint, Everton are without a doubt significantly more difficult to play against than was the case under Lampard. A perennial weakness - getting exposed in transition - has gradually been eliminated. The team conceded a league-high ten goals to counterattacks last season (under both managers combined), but has shipped just the one this term. An unexpected, ongoing area of concern, has been a susceptibility to set-pieces. The Blues have allowed four so far, already half of the total conceded last campaign, which is surprising given the team’s height and Dyche’s focus on keeping things tight.
On the Ball
Considering the boss recently admitted that the currently injured Dele Alli had to explain to his teammates what Dyche means by “direct play”, it’s safe to say that this is still a work in progress. The procedure outlined in February’s article has stood up - at least in terms of what it’s reasonable to imagine the manager wants from his players in possession. Looking back on that, it’s actually quite a complex, well-coordinated approach demanded by the Blues chief. If Calvert-Lewin becomes isolated, it breaks down, which we’ve seen on a number of occasions, when the side becomes stretched.
With Doucoure buzzing around the front man and the wingers cutting in making support runs it can look dynamic and dangerous. If the gaps get too big, or the wide men are too deep, then it can appear as if Everton are just hitting up hopeful long balls, essentially squandering possession. Likewise, the system relies quite a bit on fullbacks offering width. Mykolenko has offered more of this in recent outings, thought the right side is more problematic, with Young lacking the legs and Patterson the defensive guile, but it’s not an ideal situation at present from an offensive perspective.
The wide players do not set up in the typical advanced positions commonly seen, as inverted wingers, or forwards, but are reminiscent of those seen in a traditional 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 setup. The emphasis is on maintaining shape and helping the fullbacks defensively, requiring hard work and positional discipline. Harrison and McNeil fit the bill perfectly; less so Everton’s other winger, Danjuma. Both need to impact the game more in an attacking sense, however. They are combining for 3.06 key passes and 1.2 completed crosses in the box per 90 - though Harrison has contributed three assists and a goal in his last five league appearances. McNeil, who tied Doucoure with five goals last season after Dyche came in, has yet to find the back of the net this term.
As anticipated, Dyche doesn’t care overmuch about possession, with the Toffees managing a meagre 39.2% - ranking 17th in the Premier League. A tendency to go long - potentially impacted by the team not quite being on Dyche’s wavelength - has resulted in a pass completion percentage of 75.7%, superior to only Sheffield United and Luton Town. However, Everton rank tenth as far as shots attempted per game (13.9), showing that the direct approach has sometimes proven effective; the team also ranks tenth on xG (Expected Goals), with 17.9. If the team can carry out Dyche’s intentions more efficiently, then these already decent numbers should improve.
- Taking advantage of offensive set-pieces was seen as something to look out for and we are seeing this currently. The Blue have scored six goals from dead-ball situations, ranking third.
- Possession has been low, with Everton attempting the greatest number of long balls in the league. The team hasn’t reached the level of accuracy with its progressive passing as the manager would like.
- Dyche does not like the players to take risks with the ball, except in the final third, so dribbling is not encouraged. The Toffees attempt only 7.4 dribbles per 90, ranking 16th.
- The team has attempted the fourth-highest number of crosses this season, which tallies with what was expected from Dyche’s time at Burnley. Additionally, Everton lead the league in number of aerial duels won per match (18.1).
- Finally, we have not seen this Everton side park the bus in a passive low block - at least not very often. Much like Dyche’s former charges in Lancashire, the team has generally set up in a mid-block and looked to press actively in the middle third, with the intention of creating turnovers in possession which can be exploited via quick, direct counterattacking.
I’m relieved to discover that what I thought we might be getting all those many months ago has largely borne out under examination. It’s not quite been the 4-4-2 that was envisaged, but a fair resemblance.
Doucoure was indeed reintegrated back into the side, though has become more pivotal than most could have foreseen. McNeil did kick on under his old boss - quite spectacularly, in fact. He’s not quite hit those levels this campaign, though an injury in pre-season has possibly held him back somewhat. Ditto with Harrison, who we have probably not seen the best of yet.
Defensively, it is night and day from the Lampard era and offensively the team has shown itself to be surprisingly impactful, given Dyche’s reputation as an old-school operator, intent on grinding out results in an unpretty manner. We’ve seen some of that measured approach, in particular when the side takes a lead: a desire to protect what the team has, rather than get another goal.
But overall the football, whilst maybe a bit rough and ready for the purists has rarely been dull, or anything reminiscent of the dreaded Big Sam era.
What we’ve seen is a team that’s shown character and improved resilience, a sputtering spark brought to full-blooded flame by Dyche and his staff. The Blues are no longer a side that could be expected to fold like a cheap suit under pressure, which gives them a solid shot in almost any match and - given recent events off the pitch - a genuine chance to fight their way clear of a relegation this season.