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What Would Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s Return Mean for Everton?

Everton’s number 9 has struggled mightily with injuries but could yet be a crucial piece in Sean Dyche’s survival puzzle

Everton FC v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by Emma Simpson - Everton FC/Everton FC via Getty Images

It’s nearly impossible to dispute that Sean Dyche has done a great job during his short tenure thus far as Everton manager. The long-time Burnley boss took over the Toffees with the club sat in 19th and inherited the only squad in the Premier League which had not gained any reinforcements in the January transfer window.

Everton were heavy favorites to go down then, with FiveThirtyEight giving them a league-high 68% probability of relegation at the time. Now, after picking up 11 points from the 8 matches under Dyche thus far, including crucial wins over Arsenal and Brentford, the Toffees’ odds of relegation have decreased to 40%.

One of the most impressive things about this resurgence under the 51-year-old’s tutelage is the fact that he has managed to turn Everton’s season around without Dominic Calvert-Lewin for all but one match. The big number 9 has suffered his second consecutive season of dreadful fitness issues, yet has still shown his importance to the team every time he has managed to play, before inevitably injuring himself again.

Although the England international has only scored once this season, his lone appearance in Dyche’s debut win against Arsenal showed just how effective he can be outside of the scoresheet. DCL registered 4 shots and a subsequent season-high 0.9 xG, completed 12/15 passes, won 3/6 ground duels, and won 6/8 aerial duels. FotMob adjudged that he missed two big chances in that match, which is extremely harsh considering the 0.69 xG chance he missed came from a driven cross by Onana which he couldn’t quite get on the end of, but despite that, he managed a respectable 7.2 match rating which was amongst the best on the pitch. His absence since has certainly been palpable, but just how much of a difference can he make if and when he returns?

Firstly, it’s clear that the 26-year-old’s constant struggle to stay fit has had a significant impact on his form and confidence, so it’s only right to look at seasons past when evaluating what Calvert-Lewin can really contribute to this Everton team. Obviously, his being at his best again before the end of this season is a bit of a longshot, so I understand the need to take all this with a grain of salt, but here are the numbers anyway.

We can start with 2018/19 under Marco Silva, when Calvert-Lewin was not yet entrusted with being Everton’s starting striker, with Richarlison and Cenk Tosun often being selected instead of the then 21-year-old. When he did play, DCL was mainly tasked with running the channels to collect long balls and open up space for teammates, but he was rarely involved in scoring the goals themselves.

Then came 2019/20, which was his breakout season as a real goalscoring threat. Calvert-Lewin had only scored 3 goals in 14 Premier League appearances that year before Silva’s sacking, but the Portuguese’s departure proved to kickstart DCL’s season. Who can forget the game in which Duncan Ferguson took charge as caretaker manager and DCL scored twice in the second half en route to a 3-1 win over future manager Frank Lampard’s Chelsea?

Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival only furthered that resurgence, as DCL went on to score 8 more that season, amounting to a career-best 13 league goals. Most notably, this was the only season in which we have seen Calvert-Lewin feature normally in a 4-4-2, which has historically been Sean Dyche’s formation of choice. The veteran Italian boss even compared his predatory instincts in the box to one of the greatest strikers of all time, Filippo Inzaghi.

Everton v West Ham United - Carabao Cup Fourth Round Photo by Peter Byrne - Pool/Getty Images

The next year was even better for the Sheffield native, who started the season on an absolute tear. He scored in each of the first five Premier League matches of the 2020/21 campaign, including a hat trick against West Brom and a hat trick against West Ham in the League Cup, earning him his first-ever call-up to the Three Lions. Although he’d cool down later in the season, his 16 non-penalty goals that year were the joint-second most in the league only behind Harry Kane, finishing level with Mohamed Salah and Heung-Min Son. He averaged 0.50 goals per 90 minutes, which is the highest figure any Everton player has managed since Romelu Lukaku’s absurd 2016/17 season in which he scored 25 league goals at a rate of 0.69 per 90.

Although DCL’s 2021/22 season was quite forgettable due to similar injury issues to the ones he’s grappled with this season, I believe it’s the most important for evaluating how significant his hopeful return after the current international break could be. Last year, Calvert-Lewin scored 5 goals in 17 appearances at a rate of 0.35 per 90, which is a significantly larger number than anyone else in Everton’s squad has managed this year.

Demarai Gray is the club’s current leading goalscorer with 4 in 26 appearances (0.18 per 90), and although Ellis Simms now leads the squad in goals per 90 with 0.79 due to his equalizer at Stamford Bridge, he’s only played 114 minutes and can’t be considering based off that moment of brilliance alone.

Statistics aside, Dominic Calvert-Lewin proved last year that he could be relied on when it mattered most. He assisted Alex Iwobi’s memorable 99th-minute winner against Newcastle with a gorgeous reverse pass, and he scored in each of Everton’s last two matches prior to clinching survival. In the biggest game of the season against Crystal Palace, he stepped up and scored that unforgettable winner to officially complete the unlikely escape which was Everton’s 2021/22 season. He was, quite simply, clutch.

The underlying numbers also highlight just how important Dominic Calvert-Lewin has been for Everton in recent years. Net xG plus/minus is a stat that measures a team’s xG - xGA figure when a player is on the pitch versus when they are not, meaning how much better the team’s expected goals differential is per 90 minutes that player plays. Last year, Calvert-Lewin registered +0.30 in this stat, which is only beaten by Alex Iwobi’s massive +0.88 amongst players this season. DCL also registered +0.52 in 2020/21 and 0.40 in 2018/19. Quite simply, Everton are significantly better with Dominic Calvert-Lewin on the pitch.

Calvert-Lewin also fits Sean Dyche’s preferred style of play almost to a ‘T’. Dyche is famous for utilizing physically formidable strikers, and Calvert-Lewin is certainly that. DCL’s 6.04 aerial duels won/90 ranks in the 97th percentile among forwards across Europe’s Top 5 Leagues, while Dyche’s 2021/22 Burnley side ranked 3rd in the Premier League for completed crosses into the penalty area. This seems like a perfect fit.

Whether Dyche will change Everton’s system to play another striker next to the target man as he did for so many years at Turf Moor is an interesting question to ask when considering the success of the 4-5-1 to date and the selection headache that is imminent whenever Calvert-Lewin is ready for action. Could Demarai Gray play well as a second striker? Who makes way out of McNeil, Iwobi, or one of the three center mids? Those are definitely intriguing topics to ponder, but I digress.

To conclude, Dominic Calvert-Lewin is a potential game-changer for Everton, but that is certainly dependent on which version of him shows up. What we’ve seen from him this year has been a shell of his former self, but although many will doubt his ability to stay fit and find form, I still have hope that he can play the whole homestretch and contribute meaningfully just like he did last season.

There’s also serious potential for him to be even better due to how much more comfortably he would fit in the archetypal Dycheball in comparison to whatever unknown style Frank Lampard was aiming for during his time with the reins. The international break has come at a great time for DCL, who has been warm weather training in Dubai in the hopes of returning to fitness for the clash with Spurs next Monday. Let’s hope that the time he’s taken to get fully fit will pay off and that another season of Premier League football, and Goodison Park’s last, will be the reward for all of Evertonians’ patience.