Shape and Structure
Well, it appeared (and granted this is from a very small sample size) that Everton’s malaise was largely down to inefficiency in setting the side up and in getting across whatever message the coaching staff wished to convey. This is not exactly a revelation to anyone watching the travails of Frank Lampard’s largely reconstructed side this season, but the ninety plus minutes played out against Mikel Arteta’s league leaders at Goodison Park on Saturday offered a pretty definitive, convincing illustration.
Gone was the hectic pressing, high defensive line and acres of space that Lampard’s setup left in midfield and down both flanks, allowing the Toffees to be counterattacked almost at will. Instead, we witnessed a team with shape and structure - almost alien concepts to the recently-departed former England star, whose aspiration for a career in high-level football management appear likely to have been holed below the waterline by a bruising twelve months experience on Merseyside.
Everton’s midfield of Amadou Onana, Idrissa Gueye and Alex Iwobi, initially a promising trio under Lampard gradually unravelled upon attaining a high-water mark against Crystal Palace back on 22nd October. Iwobi’s role became more undefined, the player’s effectiveness reduced; Onana used too far forward, perhaps out of desperation to aid a struggling offence; and Gueye was left to hold things together alone, in front of a retreating defence. In short, it was a disaster. It’s an old truism that games are won and lost in midfield and so, largely, it proved on Saturday.
Abdoulaye Doucoure, puzzlingly ostracised under the previous managerial regime was restored to midfield in place of Iwobi, who was shifted out to the flank. Arsenal have a quality midfield that has functioned like a well-oiled machine this season, but they could not deal with Everton’s intensity and disciplined aggression. Operating out of a base 4-5-1 formation, the Blues set up in a mid-low block and invited the visitors on. From this shape, they sprung with purpose, harrying the Arsenal players into turnovers and negative passing. This was purposeful, active defending: coordinated pressing, with teammates providing cover, the space behind the press compact and easily managed.
Out wide, a frequent target of attack for the opposition for much of the season, both fullbacks were set up to defend first, offer support as a secondary function, which suits the current personnel very well. As a result, neither Seamus Coleman or Vitalii Mykolenko were caught out by leaving space in behind and both were stalwartly aided by wide men Iwobi and Dwight McNeil, who continuously doubled up against the Arsenal wingers. Dyche’s basic defensive structure: relying on sliding the team across towards the side of the pitch where the ball is, can leave an opening for a switch to the open flank and it is a tribute to the fitness of the Everton players and the skills of the coaching staff to see the plan carried out to perfection. Oleksandr Zinchenko hit five switches during the game, but Everton were able to get into position seamlessly.
Pigeonholed and Misjudged
There’s been a fair bit of mischaracterisation of Dyche, both in the media and in social media circles (if we want to get into that realm!), the new Blues chief being often portrayed as a blend of the real-life Big Sam Allardyce and the fictional Mike Bassett: England Manager, as depicted in the 2001 film of the same title. Everton fans endured a stint of the former a few years back and it was pretty negative, desultory stuff to have to watch; if moderately effective. The latter of course is a satirical take on the archetypal old-school English football boss of yesteryear. I have to admit to a bit of this prejudice personally and am only to happy to admit I called it totally wrong.
Dyche is a much more tactically astute manager than given credit for, pigeonholed unfairly by an image that has partly coalesced around a gruff, no-nonsense demeanour, a preference for the traditional 4-4-2 formation and a defend first strategy curated during a long stint at Burnley. There, of course he was working with a limited budget and consequently players not of the highest standard. Still, there was the argument - not without merit - that everything he’d demonstrated during his managerial career to date fit in with the narrative surrounding him and without contradictory evidence, he could be defined as what we’d seen before. Unquestionably, the raw material he has to work with on Merseyside is superior to anything he had at Turf Moor; the athleticism and quality in midfield alone is a different level.
On Saturday, the league-leading Gunners conceded an xGA (Expected Goals Against) total of 1.7, the second-highest they’ve experienced all season (behind only Leeds United, who registered 1.8). Everton racked up 12 attempts on goal and created four “big chances”, compared to none for the visitors. Far from parking the bus, killing the game or playing anti-football, the Blues got the enthusiastic Goodison crowd going with their willingness to attack whenever possible, getting bodies into the box and putting in a good number of quality crosses (completing nine of 24 attempts).
Dominic Calvert-Lewin is key to this approach. The striker won six of eight aerial duels and linked up well with supporting players. Despite the hosts only managing 30% possession, he registered 29 touches in the 61 minutes he was on the pitch, including seven in the Arsenal penalty area; by comparison, his opposite number Eddie Nketiah touched the ball a mere 19 times, despite playing the full game. DCL’s replacement Neal Maupay contributed to seeing the game out in the closing stages with his confrontational style of play, but the team lost a lot without the England man on the pitch. Maupay had only nine touches, none in the opposition box, won three of seven contested aerials and lost possession three times in less than half an hour’s play. Granted, DCL should have scored, as evidenced by his xG of 0.9, but Maupay offered no goal threat.
It is apparent that Calvert-Lewin’s fitness will need to be managed very carefully the rest of the way as he is irreplaceable in offering an out ball and focal forward presence to this Everton side.
Doucoure was a revelation upon his return to a meaningful role in the side. The Malian, who had appeared sloppy, a strange mixture of overeager and demoralised in spot duty since returning from an injury sustained in August, gave an energised, enthusiastic performance. The midfielder’s raw stats don’t really reflect his contribution (although he did lead the team with six passes into the Arsenal third and make nine ball recoveries), but he demonstrated good positioning and pressed opponents tenaciously from within the structure of the team. I expect him to be a permanent fixture under the new boss.
Inspirational Arsenal captain Martin Ødegaard endured a torrid experience at Goodison. One of the league’s top performers this season, the playmaker was rendered completely ineffective by Everton’s tactical approach, trudging glumly off after being substituted in the 76th minute. Denied any space to operate in, constantly pressured when he did manage to get on the ball, the Norwegian talisman failed to impact the game, managing only 35 touches and a combined xG (Expected Goals) and xAG (Expected Assisted Goals) of 0.2.
McNeil, on the verge of being considered a total bust following a €17m summer transfer from Burnley, was a new man under his old boss. The winger, initially deployed on the right, before switching to the left midway through the first period, completed his first league 90 minutes since mid-October. He led the team in progressive carries (five), crossing attempts (eleven) and tied Iwobi with three key passes. Add in the corner-kick assist for James Tarkowski’s goal and the tireless defensive assistance he provided to Mykolenko against the dangerous Bukayo Saka and this was a fantastic new beginning for the under-fire winger.
Idrissa Gueye was another to benefit on Saturday. Given ample support in the centre, the Senegalese led both teams with ten ball recoveries and acted as a composed fulcrum for the midfield, as shown by his 100% passing accuracy.
Onana has everything it takes to develop into a leading defensive or box-to-box midfielder. The Belgian made six tackles and interceptions combined, put in three blocks and showed what an athlete he is, blowing past Ødegaard and powering into the Arsenal box to put it on a plate for Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who really should have gotten on to the end of his driven low cross. The 21-year old has talent, a big personality and appears to be a driven sort that is destined for greater things: it is to be hoped that Everton can keep up.
Stats provided courtesy of fbref.com, whoscored.com and fotmob.com