Everton arrived in the East Midlands armed with the knowledge that Nottingham Forest had not experienced defeat in the league at the City Ground since September, eight games in total, including visits by Manchester City and Liverpool. Considering the Blues have been amongst the poorest performing away sides this campaign (and in fact, Covid season apart, going back quite a few years more), this fixture presented a major challenge for the goal-shy outfit.
It was pleasing, therefore to watch the team get about Forest in the first half, putting pressure on the home side and getting bodies forward in attack. True, it was chaotic at times, with both sides struggling to put together any significant passing sequences, but this seemed to suit the Blues more so than Steve Cooper’s outfit. Deploying centre half Ben Godfrey at left back served to focus possession down Everton’s right flank even more than is usually the case - 52.3% in the opening period.
A look at Everton’s average player positions demonstrated how slanted their play was: Abdoulaye Doucoure, Alex Iwobi and Coleman pushed up high, left winger Dwight McNeil alongside Amadou Onana in the centre of the pitch. During one particularly fluid, effective period, McNeil completely switched over to the right, leaving his left midfield position empty. Even right-sided centre half Michael Keane’s position was far higher than partner James Tarkowski, a product of him aggressively attacking aerial balls as he sought to maintain a connection with the team’s right side. Godfrey was pretty much the only player occupying the left flank, and that, in a very defensive posture.
Forest are the least accurate passers in the league and the hurly-burly of the opening 45 minutes served to disrupt them quite effectively. They didn’t get anything going offensively until after the Toffees had taken the lead, at last getting playmaker Morgan Gibbs-White into space between the lines, his 19th minutes shot palmed away by Jordan Pickford into the path of the unmarked Brennan Johnson, left all alone in the penalty area by Godfrey.
The Blues reacted well to conceding, pulling ahead again and ended the half having outshot Forest by nine to five; in xG (Expected Goals) terms 1.68 ( 0.9 without accounting for the penalty) to 0.59.
Questionable Game Management
Having forged a deserved 2-1 lead at the halfway stage, the Blues unfortunately retreated into a defensive shell upon resumption of the action, in an attempt to try to see out the game with fully 45 minutes left to play. That Dyche went this route was disappointing to me. Everton had discomfited Forest in the first period and could - and should have - continued in that vein; looking to add to their lead, rather than hang on to it. Take away the creativity of Gibbs-White and the pace of Johnson and Forest offered very little threat, befitting a side that entered the match as the second-lowest scorers in the league. Other than the breakdown for Forest’s first-half equalizer, the Blues had contained them well enough without being overly defensive.
Indeed, the second half was a tough watch, with the visitors largely camped out on their own 18-yard line, showing very little interest in playing football, or getting forward. The Toffees’ share of possession dipped from 48.3% in the opening period, to 37.2% in the second (Everton’s share prior to Johnson’s goal was even lower, just 32.1%). Even more frustratingly, on the couple of occasions that the Blues were able to break on Forest, they would head to the sidelines, or turn back in order to just retain the ball, killing potentially decent attacks.
Dyche’s negative approach almost worked, but didn’t quite.
Inviting constant pressure for a whole half with just a one-goal lead would be a tough ask for most teams, let alone one as poor as Everton currently are - even against a relatively toothless opponent. For all their possession, the home team didn’t do an awful lot with it, taking until the 77th minute to finally exploit an error, Johnson capitalising on Doucoure’s sloppy pass and the lead was gone, just like that. There was no reaction from the Toffees, however, no change in the pattern. Everton’s only attempt on goal after the interval took place in the 56th minute. Meanwhile, Cooper’s side came close to actually taking all three points, substitute André Ayew forcing a smart save from Pickford with a well-struck shot in the 81st.
The statistics told the story of the second period: Forest outshooting the Blues five to one, in 0.26 xG to a pitiful 0.03, underlying the utter lack of threat Dyche’s outfit offered after the break. Cooper brought on three fresh players with twenty minutes to go and the Reds achieved their breakthrough seven minutes later, with one of the new men, Ryan Yates involved in the goal. Dyche finally turned to his bench in the 87th minute, making in effect time-wasting changes. The five midfielders and wingers that took to the pitch on Sunday have started every game for Everton since Dyche came in and played the vast amount of available minutes. The team, playing largely without the ball were allowed to run themselves into the ground and with fatigue comes mistakes, lapses in concentration.
True, the bench is lacking in significant options, but the way the side were sent out to try to shut down the game in the second half and the unwillingness to freshen up the side during the final quarter cost the Blues dearly. For me, this inflexibility and negative outlook was poor game management by Dyche, simple as that.
Once more, Amadou Onana was a phantom. The 21-year old managed just 30 touches, despite playing the entire match, barely half that of midfield partners Doucoure and Gueye. His use of the ball was poor also, with a passing accuracy of 66.7%. Defensively he offered a little more, managing a combined five tackles and interceptions, though just three recoveries - an indicator that he was not up to speed in the game. He attempted five aerial duels, but Dyche’s habit of bypassing midfield does not appear to be meshing well with the young Belgian.
Gueye rebounded well from an inexplicable lapse last time out. The midfielder was switched on and focused throughout, racking up seven tackles, two interceptions and making 12 ball recoveries.
Iwobi has been taking some heat from fans for a perceived dip in performance levels, but provided much of Everton’s attacking impetus. The Nigerian led the visitors in touches (65) and made more progressive passes (eight) and those into the opposition penalty area (five) than anyone else in Royal Blue. He demonstrated his usual energy, recovering eleven balls and carrying the ball progressively (four runs).
Doucoure contributed a goal from midfield, which is invaluable, though of course he also was largely at fault for Forest’s second equalizer. Still, the Malian international was a major attacking presence in the opening period, leading the team with eight touches in the opposition area, winning all four aerial duels and taking four shots at goal.
Godfrey, deputising at left back endured an awful first period, completely losing Johnson for Forest’s opening goal and cutting a nervous figure throughout. He did improve a lot in the second half, but he is not a full back and for those critical of Vitalli Mykolenko’s offensive production, offers far less in attack than the Ukrainian. He did put himself about, with nine clearances, five aerial duels (winning three), and three interceptions, but his use of the ball was dreadful: an appalling 45.9% pass completion rate.