So Far, So Good
Everton’s last two meetings with Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton & Hove Albion produced plenty of drama and goals, though very different outcomes. During the dog days of Frank Lampard’s tenure as Blues manager, in early January, the home side were taken apart in a six minute spell in the second half, in which they shipped three goals, ultimately succumbing 4-1 to the South Coast outfit at Goodison Park. Then, in May new man Sean Dyche put together a game plan intended to stifle the Seagulls and it worked a treat en route to a 5-1 dismantling of the hosts at the Amex.
This time around, we saw the same tactical approach carried out at Goodison, albeit without the clear-cut chances evident that day, either in creation, or execution. The nearest we got to to the feel of that match was in the opening half, where Everton’s compact shape and aggressive, structured pressing completely stifled the Brighton attack, blunting their possession game. As in May, the visitors left the field at halftime trailing - albeit by a single goal rather than two, due to the Toffees failing to take advantage in transition - but offensively they’d made little headway, managing only three attempts, generating an xG (Expected Goals) tally of 0.17.
The hosts had themselves racked up an xG of 0.49 from six shots, but poor passing and an inability to string more than a couple of completions together, meant that many promising opportunities fizzled out somewhere between Brighton giving the ball away and Everton capitalising. It was apparent going in that the visitors would dominate possession - as they had at the Amex - but so long as the Blues kept things tight, retained their 4-4-1-1 shape and pressured Brighton in the right areas and in the correct moments, then this could play into their hands. So it proved, with De Zerbi’s team more resembling Burnley and AFC Bournemouth, the two most recent ball-control sides to visit Goodison, than their usual dynamic selves.
Going in 1-0 to the good and with Brighton - one of the league’s highest-scoring teams - looking devoid of any idea as to how to effect a breakthrough, put Everton in a strong position to pull off another win, over impressive opposition. Sadly, for a number of reasons, the game would not play out that way.
The Toffees had retreated into something of a defensive shell on Wednesday, after taking an early lead against a heavily-rotated Burnley side in their Carabao Cup win. They had come out after halftime with more ambition and vigour, enabling them to finish off the outgunned Clarets, however, but on Saturday, all offensive intent disappeared during the interval. Whilst it is true that Brighton are a far superior, more dangerous outfit by comparison with the Lancastrians, to see the Blues sink back an extra five or ten yards rang alarm bells.
Everton had played a defensive, counterattacking game during the opening 45 minutes, actively threatening the visitors whenever they sensed an opportunity to break, even if mostly they failed to make the most of those moments. Now, though there was less to fear for the Seagulls, so withdrawn were the home side. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, tasked with holding the line alone, became totally isolated, with not even Abdoulaye Doucoure - who had offered him support earlier - getting close enough to assist.
On the flanks, both Dwight McNeil and Jack Harrison had reverted to almost auxiliary fullbacks, doubling up with Vitalii Mykolenko and Ashley Young. Everton’s wingers are used as conventional old-school wide midfielders, hard-working and defensively diligent, tucking inside in Dyche’s system. Neither possess any genuine pace, so moving the formation back kills off any offensive threat from those areas. While the team was still stopping Brighton making any progress towards goal, the pressure was building up without an out ball evident. Several times a long high pass was fired over towards Harrison on the touchline, though what he was supposed to do with such service isn’t apparent.
A strong argument can be put forward that a conservative approach is likely to get the best from this group of players and there’s significant truth is that assertion, as recent results highlight. From a certain perspective, when considering Everton’s struggles over the past couple of years - on and off the field - what Dyche brings is stability and pragmatism and his tactics seem almost certain to keep the club in the top flight, which should be everyone’s primary concern. But on Saturday, for me the second half veered in the direction of watching a grim, joyless slog that must be endured, rather than enjoyed.
I have a great deal of respect for Brighton’s accomplishments as a club and in De Zerbi they have a manager who could go on to do impressive things in football. But their starting team at the weekend, one missing a number of important players and having basically sold their midfield in the summer - should Everton fear that at home? Other than the exciting talent that is Evan Ferguson, and the dangerous Kaoru Mitoma, their side was filled with slow technicians like Pascal Gross and Billy Gilmour (who most Blues fans dismissed as not good enough, when linked with the club), ultra-veterans in Adam Lallana and James Milner and a raw, promising Simon Adingra. Watching Everton “park the bus” for a half at Goodison against that team was a sobering watch.
The Dangers of Being Reactive
A point against what must be considered a superior side was a decent result, even at home. It was disappointing to see the Blues squander what would have been a hard-fought win late on, particularly via a heavily deflected cross from Mitoma that flew over Jordan Pickford via Young’s knee, but when a side packs it in for so long, defending their own 18-yard line then this sort of thing comes with the territory. Considering Everton gave the ball straight back to the Seagulls whenever they gained possession anyway, Brighton should have been blasting the ball at the home goal at every opportunity, hoping for some deflection to fly in.
So, while it could be said that the visitors were fortunate to get the equalising goal, the counter could be that you make your own luck. If a team enjoys such territorial dominance for virtually the entire second half, then opportunities will present themselves. Everton’s passivity when defending a lead, which surely must come from the coaching staff was bad enough, but Dyche’s maddening reluctance to make the changes necessary to help the team withstand the demands of working so much off the ball, I just do not get it. For someone so switched on when it comes to getting players up to peak fitness, his willingness to watch them slowly deflate during a match seems contradictory.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Dyche is very good at drilling a side into playing exactly one way: a conservative counterattacking style from out of a compact formation. The emphasis for players is on work rate, fitness, physicality and a capacity to maintain a rigid tactical shape; anybody lacking any of those qualities won’t play, or will get minimal minutes when chasing a game, or in junk time. This rigidity in approach can fashion a well-honed, structured team, but negative aspects have shown up previously and did so again on Saturday. Playing without the ball is hard, physically and mentally.
The Premier League is arguably the best division in football, but is certainly the most intense and therefore demanding from an endurance standpoint. The Everton squad is without a doubt fitter under their taskmaster boss than it’s been for many years, but the players have their limits and with fatigue comes depleted performance levels. As they tire and no substitutions are made, the team will begin to struggle to compete. We’ve seen this occur on multiple occasions, so it is tough to believe the Blues staff aren’t aware of the tendency. De Zerbi had made four changes before Brighton scored their fluke goal in the 84th; Dyche would wait another six minutes before throwing on Beto and Nathan Patterson.
Additionally, due to the lack of rotation, some players look stale right from the start of a match, as has been the case with Harrison and arguably McNeil now for a few games. I don’t expect this to change, unfortunately. It is going to be a real gruelling campaign for those players the boss does trust to carry out his instructions, that’s for sure.
Stats provided courtesy of fotmob.com