The expectation - going into Everton’s early evening clash with Manchester United on Sunday - was that a home crowd fired up by a sense of injustice, following an independent panel’s decision to penalise the club ten points for a breach of the Premier League’s profitability and sustainability regulations, would drive the team on against an opponent who, in recent games, had managed to get over the line without convincing anyone of their quality. Whether that scenario would have take place if it wasn’t for Alejandro Garnacho’s wonder goal in the third minute, is a moot point.
Maybe the Blues were a little passive in the opening minutes, allowing the visitors a comfortable start to the game, but certainly the shock from going behind so early seemed to rock them back on their heels. Regardless, the opposition were put under no discernible pressure by the hosts for the first 20 minutes, so were able to establish a platform for themselves. There was no intense press put on a goalkeeper, in Andre Onana who has been guilty of several costly errors at the beginning of his career at United, nor a defensive unit which has found it difficult to play out from the back all season, - or even 18-year-old Kobbie Mainoo.
The teenager, who was making his full senior debut, cut a composed figure playing as a deep-lying midfielder, which rightly earned him much praise during and after the match - including the predictable debate over which nation he could theoretically elect to play for at international level; note that he has a total of 82 minutes of league action under his belt so far. Readers with long memories may recall the hullabaloo surrounding the possible allegiances of another young United starlet - Adnan Januzaj. How times change! Whilst the youngster looked calm in possession and took up intelligent positions, he was given the freedom of Goodison Park, particularly in the opening quarter of the match, before Everton’s press made a belated appearance.
The Blues had the opportunity to feed off the crowd straightaway, to get after the Red Devils from the first whistle, harrying them into mistakes. But instead, the approach was passive. Erik ten Hag’s team don’t play on the front foot, even if they do like to pass out of defence, so Everton’s reactive initial game plan was always going to see them spending a lot of time waiting for something unlikely to occur. This shouldn’t have come entirely as a surprise, however, because this style of play - sitting in a mid block, looking for opportunities to turn over the ball and break quickly - is how Sean Dyche sets the Blues up every time. This is the formula and it’s easier to play this way on the road. At home, a team is expected to be more assertive and that didn’t come until midway through the opening period.
The Flow of the Game
The Toffees were hit with a sucker punch almost before the game had got going. As has been seen all year, one major weakness of a Dyche team is its biggest strength: a compact structure. The overriding priority for the manager is to prevent the opposition from playing through the middle and this is partly achieved by narrowing the available space in the centre of the pitch. The fullbacks and wide midfielders stay narrow on defence and the whole formation shifts across to the side the ball is on, limiting passing options and using the sideline as a way of boxing in the opposition. When it works, it is very effective. However, its major vulnerability is to a well-executed switch pass.
United have players capable of making such a play and this is what happened in the third minute, for Garnacho’s goal, with the ball being swept across to the right flank by Victor Lindelof towards a wide-open Marcos Rashford. Left back Vitalii Mykolenko is caught too far inside, at least 20 yards from the United winger, who is able to feed Diogo Dalot for the full back to put in an unhurried delivery to Garnacho. It’s impossible to legislate for the kind of finish the Argentine fashioned, but this susceptibility to a rapid switching of play from one side to the other is a continuing theme and Dyche has to figure out a method to prevent opposing teams from taking advantage so freely.
Everton eventually started exerting pressure on United and it bore fruit with the hosts creating (yet squandering) a number of solid chances. The Blues outshot the opposition nine to zero in attempts from the 25th minute onwards to the interval, generating an xG (Expected Goals) of 1.34 during that period. The Merseysiders had ended the half on a high, but came out of the blocks sluggishly after the break, something of a recurring theme for this side. Eleven minutes dragged by slowly, with the Toffees allowing United to ease themselves back into the game, a long-range effort by Scott McTominay being the only event of note, before the team shot themselves in the foot once again in conceding a penalty.
Ashley Young’s continued presence in the starting eleven has reached the stage where it has developed into an undeniable problem. It’s apparent that Dyche doesn’t trust Nathan Patterson, but it’s tough to see what he imagines Young is bringing to the team currently. The veteran winger has reinvented himself as a full back during the latter portion of his career, but he still defends with a mixture of rashness and aggression that’s characteristic of a forward converted to another position. The 38-year-old played over 2,000 minutes last season, with Aston Villa, but is already at almost half that total this term. Having been booked five times in 12 games, including a red at Liverpool, he could easily have gone for a second bookable offence when judged to have brought Anthony Martial down for a penalty in the 56th minute.
The veteran was brought in on a free transfer in order to provide cheap, experienced cover for several positions, but has started every league game he’s been available for. He’s being overplayed. Surely it is time to sit him down? Young could be a useful impact player from the bench, as he’s shown flashes when used on the wing. Deploying him on the flanks for the last twenty or thirty minutes against tiring defenders may be a a smarter option than expecting him to defend from the start against younger, quicker opponents. Will Patterson get a shot? If Young does get benched, I’d wager that it will be for returning club captain Seamus Coleman, no spring chicken himself at 35.
Any rally from the hosts took some time to materialize and not until Martial had effectively sealed the win for the Red Devils in the 75th minute, shortly after Dyche had finally shuffled the pack. The introduction of Patterson and Arnaut Danjuma for Young and the disappointing Dwight McNeil was welcome, if overdue. Jack Harrison offered something on the right, if hampered by a lack of overlapping runs from Young, but the former Burnley man, a standout from February last season is struggling for form. On Sunday he added little, lacking the speed to attack wide and constantly being forced inside and backwards onto his left foot. Danjuma offers pace and two-footedness and should be given a shot at staking a claim for a run in the side.
The Future Picture
Everton’s run of improved results prior to the international break had given the team a platform ahead of entering what was perceived to be a difficult sequence of fixtures before the end of the year. Of course, losing ten points has changed that picture entirely. Still, the notion amongst many fans and commentators was that the Blues were, in actuality a mid-table side that should still be able to power away from what comprises a very limited bunch of teams congregated down the bottom of the table. Luton Town’s win on Saturday, followed by the Toffees defeat the following day has changed the picture - and mood - somewhat.
Now the club is five points off safety; eight behind 16th-placed Bournemouth, who have won consecutive games and three of the last four. Make no mistake, Everton need to pick up some results - and fast. Before the short break for the New Year, the club plays six more league games - in addition to a Carabao Cup Quarter-final against Fulham - in the month of December. Ordinarily, that would be a tough ask, but this squad is small and reliant on a few key players staying fit: Dominic Calvert-Lewin and the two central defenders, most importantly. Beto has not been given enough of an opportunity to find his feet yet and the loss of either James Tarkowski or Jarrad Branthwaite doesn’t bear thinking about.
Games at Goodison against Manchester City, Newcastle United and Chelsea will all be taut affairs. The latter may have endured an inconsistent start to the season, but have an abundance of talent, a good manager in Mauricio Pochettino and have won five of their last nine in all competitions. On the road, Everton must face Burnley, Tottenham Hotspur, Wolverhampton Wanderers and next weekend, Nottingham Forest. Other than the Clarets, who will probably play into Dyche’s counterattacking preferences, none of those matches shape up to be easy affairs.
Looking over those fixtures, unless a few surprising results are thrown up, the team is unlikely to be on more than 13 points, from 20 games played by New Year. It’s not out of the question that their points total may be only ten, which is just one more than Luton have currently. That’s quite an unnerving prospect. Unless the club can get some, or all of the points that they’ve been penalised restored, they are facing a rough second half of the campaign.
Stats provided courtesy of fotmob.com