Ugly But Effective
Everton arrived at Stamford Bridge armed with the same game plan that had proven effective during the first 40 minutes of their last trip to the capital - against Arsenal at the beginning of March - which was to blunt the home team’s offence and hopefully find opportunities to break on the counterattack. There was very little of the latter in evidence during the opening 45 minutes, the Blues managing only three attempts on goal, none on target and generating a puny xG (Expected Goals) of just 0.06. Chelsea FC dominated play, amassing a possession advantage of 72.0% during the first half (and a staggering 86.6% in the opening ten minutes), taking ten shots worth an xG of 0.69.
Sean Dyche would have been reasonably content at the halftime whistle, although no doubt he’d have preferred some more offence from his team. The Toffees had been largely penned back for the entire first period, as evidenced by a whopping 17 clearances and five blocked shots made by the visitors, but had avoided being cut open, even if Jordan Pickford had been forced into a couple of smart saves from Kai Havertz and Ben Chilwell. So far, so good. Unlike at the Emirates, Everton had defended steadfastly for half the match and not made any catastrophic errors. What they had failed to do is genuinely threaten Graham Potter’s outfit.
The visitors started the second half in much the same vein, but within seven minutes the deadlock was broken, the dangerous João Félix firing home after collecting a weak, off-balance clearance from Michael Keane. Everton had blocked the middle of the pitch effectively - Dyche’s go-to defensive strategy - but had been exploited by a switch pass from Enzo Fernandez out to Chilwell wide on the left and failed to recover. Neither Félix and Havertz are conventional strikers, both spending a lot of time in the half-spaces and in between the lines, which makes things more difficult for opposition defenders and midfielders alike and on this occasion the Portuguese eluded Idrissa Gueye. So much for Plan A. Had Dyche remembered to pack a Plan B for the visit to West London?
Throughout Chelsea’s recent revival they’ve taken the lead and then shut down the game, getting over the line on each occasion. Consequently, it came as no surprise that Potter withdrew Christian Pulisic in favour of the more industrious Conor Gallagher in the 62nd minute, as he sought to shore up his side against the reaction from Everton, who started getting more bodies forward after falling behind. The Toffees had deviated from the familiar 4-5-1 this time around, it being clear that Abdoulaye Doucouré was deployed in an advanced midfield position in a 4-4-1-1 and the Malian was able to get close to forward Demarai Gray as the team pushed up, pressing high.
The home side taking a step back eventually opened the door for the Merseysiders, who were able to command a great share of the ball: gaining 45.4% possession from the 55th minute to the 69th and outshooting Chelsea by five to two, leading to Doucouré’s headed equalising goal. The hosts responded quickly however, seizing on Alex Iwobi’s wayward pass to attack Everton’s left side, resulting in a penalty decision for a foul on the marauding Reece James in the 76th, courtesy of a combination of clumsy challenges by either/both Ben Godfrey and James Tarkowski (take your pick).
Once more Chelsea were unable to reassert control, lessened again in the 81st minute by the substitution of the influential Mateo Kovačić, who had racked up 80 touches, nine progressive passes and eight ball recoveries by the time of his exit. Everton, by contrast were going for it, signalled by Dyche throwing on striker Ellis Simms and thinning out midfield by taking off Gueye. The Toffees were in the ascendency, even if trailing by a goal and from the 75th to the 85th minute bossed possession with 65.3%; the ball was in the away third just 7.7% of the time from the 70th through to the 85th, so passive were Potter’s side.
The addition of Vitalii Mykolenko with six minutes of regulation left, Godfrey being shifted over to right back to replace the departing Seamus Coleman, gave Everton even more thrust. The Blues were able to see out the remaining minutes, securing a valuable away point and entering the international break on a run of three unbeaten, which will help morale and confidence no end. From the time of Félix’s goal to Simms’s, Everton had outshot the home side by eight to four and in xG terms by 1.20 to 0.32 (excluding Chelsea’s penalty). By being proactive, Dyche demonstrated that his side will be no pushovers on the road and cannot be counted out even if they have conceded first.
Although Tarkowski was awarded player of the match status, Doucouré seemed hard done by in that regard. The 30 year-old continued his amazing turnaround since Dyche came in, bagging an opportunistic goal from another dangerous corner routine and supplying a nice assist for Simms. He thrived in a slightly more advanced role, getting in amongst Chelsea (three blocked passes) and although not seeing as much of the ball (27 touches), he took care of it decently (77.8% pass completion, just one incident of poor control) and used it well (four progressive passes, two key).
That being said, Tarkowski was - partial blame for the penalty aside - a rock at the back. The centre half blocked an astonishing seven shots, which is quite something. His partner, Keane, also somewhat complicit for Chelsea’s opener, smashed away eleven clearances and won four of five aerial duels, in addition to leading the side in ball recoveries. He also led the side with touches (51) and passed the ball accurately, completing 75% of his 36 attempts. We all know what the weak areas of the former Burnley man’s game are, but his strengths were evident too in this match and are not inconsiderable.
Up front, Gray continues to put in a shift. Defensively, he may lack awareness, hence why Dyche has not trusted him with a conventional wide midfield role, but his effort cannot be questioned. He is clearly not a centre forward, making no impression on Chelsea’s towering three man defence (winning zero of four aerial challenges) and was bullied off the ball, being dispossessed, or taking a poor touch eleven times combined. However, his pace worried the opposition, as he succeeded in two of three dribbles and made four progressive carries, important in getting the side up the pitch. He also surprisingly led Everton in passing accuracy (85.0%) and made three key passes.
It was great to see substitute Simms make such a decisive impact, showing power, pace and composure to take his chance well. He’s proved to the boss that he can be a useful asset and no doubt Dyche will be looking in his direction before the 79th minute in the future, as the situation requires.
Mykolenko gets a bad rap from many fans for a perceived lack of contribution going forward, but this time his progressive pass into Doucouré for Simm’s goal was a key involvement. Godfrey’s use of the ball was poor again (a team low 52.0% pass completion), he carried it forward the same distance as the Ukrainian, who was only on the pitch for nine minutes (12 yards) and whilst his defending was solid, he was easily bypassed by James leading to the penalty. Over the season, Mykolenko is second on the team, marginally behind Dwight McNeil as regards completed crosses in the penalty area (0.46 per 90) and only Alex Iwobi makes more progressive passes (4.91 compared to 3.66).