Capitalizing Is the Key
Watching this Everton team has been pretty strange so far this season. The side sets up similarly away from home as it does at Goodison Park. With the occasional outlier - such as the overly passive tactical approach adopted when facing Arsenal at home back in September, when it appeared Sean Dyche’s overriding concern was in preventing the Gunners from playing - the outlook has been balanced, to a major degree. I don’t mean to suggest that the Blues give equal consideration to attack and defence, exactly. The ex-Burnley chief is unquestionably from the school of thought that thinks first of making his team hard to beat and then what they can accomplish offensively.
No, what I mean is that Dyche is not an anti-football, park-the-bus merchant. He just believes that the best route to picking up points is to limit the opposition’s chances, emphasising a solid structure and disciplined, hard-working performances from his players. When that part of the equation is nailed down, then he focuses on how to hurt the opponent. The idea behind Everton’s attacking strategy is to progress the ball forward using as few passes as possible, with emphasis on crossing and effective use of set-pieces. Although some classy moves can be constructed on occasion, much of the time it is fairly rudimentary and direct.
Against Nottingham Forest on Saturday, the Blues played to type and it was enough to get them over the line. Some of the offensive statistics were unimpressive: 27 crossing attempts, with zero completions, for example; only producing four key passes in more than 90 minutes is another. Still, if the team were short on wow factor, if the number of quality chances were in short supply, with an xG (Expected Goals) of just 0.67, they capitalized on those opportunities. On the road, the Toffees have generated an xG of 8.1 and scored ten goals, yet at Goodison their xG is 12.7, but they’ve found the back of the net on just five occasions, so there’s a significant difference in outcomes.
Clearly, Everton are creating more chances at home - as would be expected - but generally failing to take them. What’s going on here? The Blues don’t really play any differently at Goodison, so it has to be a mentality issue. It’s looking like the weight of fan expectation weighs heavily on many of the players, maybe even the entire unit, affecting composure in critical moments. How - and whether - Dyche and his staff will be able to correct this ongoing problem is hard to say, but the club will need to improve their success rate on home turf, in order to avoid becoming overly reliant on getting results on the road, which can be tough to sustain.
On the Right Side of Small Margins
Everton started the game very cautiously, allowing Forest to dominate possession during the opening quarter of an hour. However, for all the possession enjoyed by the home side, they offered very little by the way of menace to Jordan Pickford’s goal. In fact, once the Toffees had settled into the game and warded off Steve Cooper’s side’s faltering attempts to unlock their defence, they were the first to start to threaten. As Forest appeared to run out of ideas, the Blues began to push them back and suddenly the East Midlanders were finding it difficult to get out of their own half.
Beto found himself in a couple of good positions, but lacked the calmness in front of goal to punish Forest. The Portuguese hasn’t scored since hitting the back of the net when making his debut from the bench for the Blues against Doncaster Rovers, in the Carabao Cup at the end of August. Significantly, the big striker hasn’t started a match in more than two months and has only registered a total of 120 minutes of action across seven matches in all competitions over that span, averaging a little more than 17 minutes per appearance.
The 26-year-old, who reached double figure league goals in the past two seasons with Serie A outfit Udinese, is short of confidence and desperate to impress, but a lack of game time has left him undercooked now that he’s been required to replace the injured Dominic Calvert-Lewin. His performance on Saturday left a lot to be desired, but it was hard not to feel some sympathy. It’s tough to come straight into a settled side, almost from out in the cold and to be expected to hit the ground running, especially as he’d not yet established himself in English football. Should Dwight McNeil or Jack Harrison pick up a knock, then no doubt Arnaut Danjuma will experience the same problems, if asked to step in.
Other than a couple of dangerous moments from left winger Anthony Elanga, matched up against Ashley Young, the home side were contained, with Everton perhaps unfortunate not to be up at the interval. The visitors came out sluggishly for the second period and were lucky that Felipe could only hit the upright in the 54th minute. That seemed to rouse them from their slumber and the Merseysiders regained control, outshooting Forest 5-0 over the next ten minutes, culminating in McNeil’s well-taken goal. The Toffees, as is their wont, then camped in, sitting back and inviting the hosts onto them. It got a little nervy watching them give up a few solid chances, as Forest came on, outshooting Everton 7-1 from the 74th minute, with Pickford having to pull off a couple of timely interventions in order to get the side across the finish line.
James Garner was a serious initial target for Cooper during the summer 2022 transfer window, the on-loan midfielder having made a major impression during Forest’s promotion run. Manchester United’s prevarication over his availability caused the club to move on to other targets, so by the time Garner’s situation had clarified, the Midlanders had already recruited several midfielders and Everton were able to prise him away from Old Trafford for a very reasonable fee - estimated to be around €10.5m. At the player’s current rate of progression, that is looking increasingly like a serious coup for Blues director of football Kevin Thelwell.
Garner had endured an injury-disrupted inaugural campaign on Merseyside, in which he racked up only 17 appearances (nine starts) and amassed less than 800 minutes of league action. Frank Lampard had looked to integrate him slowly, but a back problem left the Birkenhead-born player sidelined for more than four months. Once he’d recovered, the new man, Dyche quickly took a liking to him and he started seven of eight games during the run-in last term. Thankfully, the back injury looks to be a fluke aberration, as Garner had previously racked up more than 7,000 minutes in the Championship during two seasons on loan at Watford and Forest before joining Everton.
A relatively experienced player for someone who is only 22, Garner has really kicked on this term, making 17 appearances already, with 16 starts. Enjoying a run of starts in his favoured central midfield position, the England Under-21 international is becoming visibly more comfortable and assured, earning a pick as Player of the Match at the City Ground. His reading of the game is improving, as is his defensive play. On Saturday, he led the team in ball recoveries and interceptions, with 13 and three respectively, broke forward in possession with confidence on a couple of occasions and was the team’s most accurate passer, completing 78.3%.
Garner is a committed, enthusiastic and energetic all-around midfielder, who appears to be eager to improve, it’s clear that Dyche rates him highly, which is great news for the fans and the player himself.