One Change Too Many
Last weekend Sean Dyche surprised the majority of fans by switching from the 4-4-1-1 formation he’s employed consistently this season, to a 5-4-1 against Burnley, his old club. Clearly, his hand was forced due to the large number of defensive absentees for that game, hence him bringing Michael Keane and Ben Godfrey into a back three and repurposing Dwight McNeil as a left wingback. Whilst the team didn’t exactly look particularly dangerous at Turf Moor, the setup was adequate for the task at hand and the game was decided within 25 minutes anyway, with the Blues leading 2-0.
Everton welcomed back the suspended pair of Jarrad Branthwaite and Idrissa Gueye for Tuesday night’s Carabao Cup match against Fulham, but were still without the services of any of their fullbacks - excepting Nathan Patterson - along with Abdoulaye Doucoure, who picked up a hamstring injury on Saturday. So, the conundrum remained for Dyche and most expected that he’d continue with the back three, switching out one of Godfrey or Keane for Branthwaite. Doucoure’s omission presented another problem, though Gueye’s availability countered that - assuming that Everton would setup as at Turf Moor, of course.
Instead, Dyche reverted to a back four, in a 4-2-3-1 system, retaining Keane and opting to field Branthwaite - who has probably been the team’s best central defender all season - at left back. This came as a surprise as the 21-year-old is an out-and-out centre back, who other than a five minute cameo from the bench last season, whilst on loan at PSV Eindhoven, has no experience of playing the position. Defensively, the youngster handled the job well enough and did his best to provide overlaps, even putting in one decent cross, but he is clearly no full back. He and McNeil lacked any real understanding, leading to a lack of penetration down the left flank.
Worse, Keane - arguably the player of the match a few days earlier - was slotted back into a central defensive partnership alongside James Tarkowski. There’s ample evidence that this does not work, the pair not being blessed with neither quickness nor agility and do not complement each other. Fulham persistently tried going direct to expose Everton’s high line and several times only Branthwaite’s recovery pace averted disaster. Tarkowski, a rock in defence recently, put in his most uncertain performance for a while; there is no coincidence in this. In choosing to break up the central defensive pairing that’s grown impressively during the campaign, providing a firm base for the entire team, Dyche miscalculated.
I don’t wish to criticise Keane unduly. He was unlucky in conceding an own goal, a victim of a cross that glanced off Patterson and onto him, but these type of things do occur to him on enough of a regular basis to suggest that it’s something to do with his positioning when he’s facing goal, or dealing with threats from the side. In a certain type of game, when Everton are sitting deep, or if he’s in a back three, then he’s fine providing spot duty, cover when required, but that should be the extent of his involvement going forward.
A Disjointed Attack
Doucoure has been a key component in how Everton play under Dyche; he’s probably been the team's most important player since the manager arrived and brought him back in from cold storage, where he’d been residing under Frank Lampard. The Malian serves a unique role in Dyche’s system, serving as a vital bridge between the midfield and the lone striker, by virtue of an endless gas tank and willingness to run all day. Throw in his physicality, eagerness to press and knack for making supporting attacking runs, which has produced a number of goals and he’s a tough man to replace.
Dyche decided to try James Garner in behind Dominic Calvert-Lewin and for all his undoubted qualities, he was not the solution. The 22-year-old has the energy, work rate and likes to get forward, but it’s apparent on this performance that his natural position is deeper in the midfield. Garner tried his best, but lacks Doucoure’s athleticism and was unable to effectively harass the opposition in support of the striker, or to get close enough to him on a regular basis. The end result was Calvert-Lewin becoming isolated and the Everton attack looking disjointed and lacking impetus from the middle of the pitch.
The team’s balance was all off, with just three offensive players, two defensive midfielders and Garner, who is more of an all-rounder, rather than a genuine attacker. Lacking runners from midfield, or anyone able to pick a pass in order to unlock a packed Cottagers side - who had set up to play on the counter and to deny the hosts space - the Blues struggled to find a route to goal. When success was found, it was sporadic. Everton’s attack consisted almost exclusively of hopeful long balls and a lot of aimless crosses fired towards Fulham's giant central defenders. That Calvert-Lewin won only one of seven aerial duels tells its own story.
The Blues chief took too long to adjust to the manner in which the game was playing out, merely swapping out the ineffective Calvert-Lewin for Beto in a like-for-like move in the 61st minute. The Portuguese, though taller is actually not as good in the air as Calvert-Lewin, but at least provided some much-needed fresh legs and a chaotic, physical style of play which can unsettle defenders. Nothing much changed until Dyche withdrew the disappointing Jack Harrison after 72 minutes for Arnaut Danjuma, which involved switching McNeil over to the right wing.
With the oft-overlooked Dutchman on the pitch, at least the Toffees had someone operating out wide with some pace and who can go inside or out, with an eye for goal. At last, Everton started to try to play their way through the visitors and with eight minutes left, they managed to break through, by sheer effort and desire more than anything, Beto being in the right place to draw the team level. It was ultimately too little, too late to grab victory against what was a fairly ordinary, eminently beatable Fulham side, who only managed to look somewhat dangerous after Everton had levelled and were more exposed in going for the winner.
Penalties Are a Lottery
Yes, Everton had to rely on the dreaded penalty shootout route, in order to progress from a Quarter-Final played at home and against a moderate - at best - side operating without their only recognised striker. That it came down to this is a general failing in itself, by the manager who was responsible for team selection, shape, tactic and on-the-fly adjustments, all of which can be called into question after watching that display. That Everton failed to plan properly for how Fulham may play, or at least to make changes during the game when this became apparent, has to lay at Dyche’s door.
I’ve given the manager plenty of praise over recent weeks, deservedly so and feel it is only balanced to call him out when he gets it wrong, as was the case on Tuesday. The players, I can excuse somewhat, because all gave their best effort, within their limitations and that imposed upon them by the formation and style of play. What this particular squad are good at - and not - is well-established by now.
It’s a team game, and one conducted according to the manager’s schemes and ultimately Everton were not good enough to get the job done in 90 plus minutes. As soon as it comes down to a penalty shoot out, all bets are off. These scenarios are a lottery, so over scrutinising them is a mistake, in my view. I’ve often watched players who’ve been the best on the pitch for 90 minutes or more balloon their attempts over the bar, or hit miserable efforts, so it can quite literally happen to anyone, at any time.
Amadou Onana’s penalty, with the game on the line, was indeed a dreadful one. But the criticism of the player, based on a lot of unfounded supposition regarding arrogance - that he was trying to make the occasion all about him - is nonsense. A few of Fulham’s attempts employed similar casual approaches, all but one of which (Bobby Reid’s being the exception) were converted, although all were struck with a little more power than Onana generated. I’m sure he intended to hit it harder too, but he’s not known for being a strong striker of the ball, so he got it wrong.
That is no reason to crucify him however, or to attribute false motives for why he took the penalty in the way he did. The 22-year-old is still a developing talent and should be one of our main players for some time to come, unless he’s poached by a club in a better position than Everton currently are in. He’s shrugged off reported interest in him before, has a professional attitude, appears to be well liked by his teammates and the manager, so let’s cut the lad some slack; the Belgian is an Everton player. He didn’t miss the penalty on purpose.