All Change but Still the Same
It was anticipated that December’s heavily-congested fixture schedule was always going to ask questions of what is a relatively small Everton squad. Suspensions to two of last weekend’s starters - Jarrad Branthwaite and Idrissa Gana Gueye - added to the loss through injury of a third, in Ashley Young, leaving manager Sean Dyche with significant selection issues heading into Saturday’s match with Burnley. Whilst Seamus Coleman’s return to action had been short-lived - due to the veteran picking up a groin injury against Newcastle United - complicating the situation at right back, Nathan Patterson had impressed from the bench in that game and likewise versus Chelsea, whereas Amadou Onana is arguably an upgrade in midfield over Gueye; a rejig at central defence was perceived to be more of a problem.
Reports on social media emerging before the teams were officially announced suggested that Vitalii Mykolenko, only considered to be a slight doubt beforehand, would in fact miss the game, throwing up considerable doubt about who would replace the Ukrainian, who has been enjoying a strong run of form at left back. With Young also absent, the Blues had no natural senior alternative to Mykolenko. Dyche’s solution was unexpected; its implementation at least partly responsible for the side’s success at Turf Moor. I was surprised by how the Toffees set up and I’m pretty sure the same applied to Burnley chief Vincent Kompany and his players.
The visitors lined up in a 4-5-1 formation, with Michael Keane, Ben Godfrey and James Tarkowski in a back three, Patterson and Dwight McNeil as wingbacks, Abdoulaye Doucoure withdrawn into a central midfield role alongside Onana, Jack Harrison on the right and James Garner shunted out left. I have to admit to being unconvinced by this alignment and these concerns persisted during the opening stages of the game, as Everton were pinned back deep in their own half, with no obvious out ball and lone front man Dominic Calvert-Lewin appearing isolated up top. Surely this was overly passive - considering the relative weakness of the opposition - and deploying too many square pegs in round holes?
What was I worried about? After the hosts' initial enthusiasm waned, with no breakthrough for all the possession they enjoyed, the Blues pushed their defensive line ten yards further up and immediately took control of the contest. Kompany’s outfit - as expected - lacked the cutting edge to convert ball control into an actual threat on Jordan Pickford’s goal. The visitors’ structure may not have been optimal, given the change in formation and personnel, but on this day, against this opposition, it was adequate to the task. Dyche’s post-match comments on receiving a unanimously positive reaction from the players, having informed them that there would be a radical formation change for this game, was telling. It speaks of a team impervious to setbacks and negative mindsets. That is invaluable.
The Building Blocks
Everton rode out the early pressure and highlighted Burnley’s comparative vulnerability with their first real attack, in the 18th minute, Calvert-Lewin denied by the talented - if exposed - James Trafford. The move had been sprung by Patterson’s aggressive press, which caused the hosts to cough up the ball near the touchline and the Blues took decisive advantage, flooding bodies forward in support. Onana powered home a header from the resultant corner by McNeil and the team’s route to victory was writ large: forcing turnovers and dominating set-pieces. That’s all that was required.
The Clarets tried to react, but could only muster a couple of blocked efforts. Seven minutes later and a deep free kick taken by Jordan Pickford exposed Burnley’s aerial and positional defending deficiencies again, Keane emerging as the unlikely hero. Effectively, the contest was virtually over at that point, after just 25 minutes. The Toffees would attempt only three more shots at goal for the remainder of the game, though those efforts would produce bigger chances than anything Kompany’s side could offer. Victory almost assured, the game became one of management, which isn’t the most exciting viewing experience, but for Blues fans, watching the team coast through to a comfortable 2-0 away win is as unfamiliar as it is welcome.
The Toffees not playing particularly well, yet winning with little trouble regardless? What is this sorcery? Dial me up some more of that, please!
Why was this game so easy? Partly, it was due to Burnley’s impotence in the final third, something foreshadowed when an admittedly rotated side were handily dismissed 3-0 during a visit to Goodison Park, in the Carabao Cup six weeks ago. What little danger was presented was kept at arm’s length, the Clarets bossing possession, but kept in front of Everton, their only successful penetrations occurring in the channel between Tarkowski and McNeil, who struggled with his defensive positioning in what was an unfamiliar role.
The Toffees physical and organisational advantages were obvious. Structurally, they were compact, in a back five without the ball, with a screen of four midfielders in front. In possession, nominal wingers Harrison and Garner pushed forward and infield behind Calvert-Lewin, forming a box shape in the centre, leaving space for the wingbacks to overlap. This created considerable confusion for Burnley, opening space for Everton’s players to move into and disrupting marking assignments.
Finally, the Blues are increasingly being recognised as a dangerous dead ball side. Here, they scored their ninth and tenth set-piece goals of the season, whereas Burnley have now shipped eight. Some of the difference between the two sides is down to superior coaching exploiting these scenarios, but the rest was down to the size advantage enjoyed by the visitors, who simply overpowered the hosts. Everton looked a genuine threat to score from every corner or free kick. This is a weapon that will cause concern for much better teams than the Clarets.
Huge congratulations must go to Keane and Godfrey. The former hasn’t taken to the pitch since appearing as a halftime substitute at Anfield on October 21st, whereas the latter had only a single minute of Premier League action under his belt this term, along with a Carabao Cup start against Doncaster Rovers back in August. It says much about both players’ professionalism - along with the confidence and togetherness flowing through the camp - that they were able to step in when required and get the job done with minimal fuss and significant positive impact from the pair.
Patterson was beaten on the dribble a couple of times, but otherwise put in another encouraging performance, being aggressive on defence and delivering a pinpoint cross onto Calvert-Lewin’s head in the first half.
Doucoure didn’t appear to be hampered during the opening half, so we have to assume the hamstring problem that ruled him out after the interval is of the precautionary variety. The Malian is arguably Everton’s most influential player so far this season; maybe even full stop since Dyche arrived. The team will be welcoming back the suspended players for Tuesday’s Carabao Cup game against Fulham, though it’s tough to see Doucoure and possibly Mykolenko being available until next weekend’s trip to London, where they will face Tottenham Hotspur.