A Calamitous Setup
The big question - other than when (or if) Dominic Calvert-Lewin will be ready to take to the pitch again - leading into Saturday’s early kickoff against Manchester United, was how Everton would deal with the absence of Abdoulaye Doucoure. The influential midfielder was serving the first of a three game ban after receiving a straight red card for violent conduct against Tottenham Hotspur last time out and well, to say he was missed at Old Trafford is an understatement. I’d expected Blues boss Sean Dyche to retain the basic 4-5-1 structure he’s used since arriving on Merseyside, meaning he could either shift Alex Iwobi inside and move nominal front man Demarai Gray out wide, or replace the Malian directly with either Tom Davies or James Garner; I’d picked out the latter as my choice in the Opposition Analysis piece beforehand.
Surprisingly, the former Burnley boss did neither.
Instead, he opted to give Ellis Simms only his second start of the campaign (in the Premier League), deploying the 22-year old striker up alongside Gray in a 4-4-2 formation. The academy graduate has shown glimpses from the bench, most notably scoring an 89th minute equaliser in Everton’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge just prior to the international break, but was anonymous in his only previous start under Dyche, at Anfield in February. On an individual level, the striker didn’t play particularly poorly: he had four attempts at goal, but should have done a lot better when put through on goal in the 19th, with the game still level in what was the visitors’ best chance of the match. But collectively, he and Gray leading the line in tandem was a disaster.
Dyche doesn’t play a park-the-bus low block style typically and didn’t at the weekend either, but deployed an unusually high defensive line which required energetic, coordinated pressing to sustain; that just isn’t Simms's or Gray’s game. Consequently, the Toffees were vulnerable to a ball over the top right from the opening whistle and Erik ten Hag’s team took full advantage. With acres of space to run into behind Everton’s slow backline, United had the ideal players to seize the opportunity in Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and particularly Antony, who punished stand-in left back Ben Godfrey’s lack of positional sense repeatedly.
With no pressure coming from the front two and without Doucoure to lead the press, Amadou Onana and Idrissa Gueye had their hands full dealing with midfield runners and were unable to stop Bruno Fernandes from dropping deep and orchestrating play. A little more than ten minutes in and it was apparent that the Blues would need to change. Rashford had already tested Jordan Pickford, Antony had struck the woodwork and Aaron Wan-Bissaka had somehow squandered a gilt-edged opportunity. But Everton carried on with their flawed approach and the bombardment continued until eventually the hosts achieved a breakthrough in the 36th minute via Scott McTominay’s close-range finish.
That the Toffees made it to halftime down by just the single goal was testament to Pickford’s shot-stopping efforts, as well as United’s poor finishing and almost felt like an achievement, because the game should have been out of sight. By then, the Red Devils had taken an amazing 21 shots, generating a xG (Expected Goals) statistic of 2.69. Dyche could not have been unaware that United want opponents to leave space in behind for their pacy frontline to exploit, the hosts coming into this match having scored more goals than anyone else via fast breaks, so for him to set up the team in this manner was beyond my understanding. It took until after the team had conceded for him to make an adjustment, shifting Gray to the right and Iwobi in behind Simms, but this was far too late.
Square Pegs, Round Holes
I’ve been campaigning (well, kind of) for the restoration of Vitalii Mykolenko to the left back position since it became apparent that he’d gotten over the illness that caused him to lose his spot in the team to Godfrey. I’d taken a look at the pair’s relative performance levels since Dyche arrived at Everton and come to the conclusion that the ex-Norwich centre half offers a slight improvement over the Ukrainian from a defensive standpoint, whilst offering next to nothing in an attacking sense.
The former Dynamo Kyiv man, whilst often derided for a lack of offensive contribution, dwarfs Godfrey in this respect and actually stacks up decently, completing 2.4 crosses and generating 1.6 SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) per 90 up to and including the Chelsea match. He’s no Leighton Baines or Lucas Digne, but the idea that he offers nothing in attack is simply not borne out by the data and - let’s face it - Everton need all the help they can get in generating offence.
Coming off the bench against Spurs, Mykolenko was even something of a defensive whirlwind. In a little over a quarter of an hour on the pitch, once he’d managed to avoid slipping over, the defender managed to put in five tackles (leading the side), three clearances and block a pass, which was some going. But Godfrey had lined up at left back for three straight games, a win and two draws, so there was little chance that the manager would change a non-losing lineup, unless - as with Doucoure, by necessity.
You could certainly make a valid argument that Godfrey was hung out to dry by the way Everton set up at Old Trafford, though as the fastest, most athletic of the defence by some distance, you’d think he’d have been better able to deal with a direct ball over the top into space. Whereas Michael Keane and James Tarkowski were exposed somewhat due to a lack of mobility, it was quickly apparent that Ben was faring far worse and he was soon being brutally targeted by United. Godfrey’s reading of the game and sense of space are underdeveloped qualities and playing a position that is not natural for him did him no favours.
He was hauled off during the interval and Mykolenko performed much better, albeit the Toffees had changed shape following a chastening opening 45 minutes. One terrible half does not make Godfrey a bad player, or even one incapable of doing a decent fill-in job at full back, but whilst Vitalii is not an elite defender himself, he is a Ukrainian international with 29 caps and a specialist in the position and I’m hoping that Dyche sees the value in this and brings him back into the starting eleven.
Fernandes, highlighted by yours truly beforehand as the one United player that Everton must absolutely not allow any time on the ball was given the freedom of Old Trafford on Saturday. The Portuguese, lining up as in the team’s previous match as one of a central midfield pair dropped deep to pick up possession and evade the visitor's central press. From this position, he was able to ping balls over the top and pretty much anywhere he wanted, ending up with 119 touches, ten progressive passes (six key) and four switches of play as he raked Everton’s backline at will.
Jordan Pickford was virtually a one-man defense in the opening period as he kept the hosts at bay and the Toffees in the game all by himself. The England number one made nine stops, surprisingly only slightly outperforming the PSxG (Post-Shot Expected Goals) total of 2.2 and racked up a save percentage of 81.8%.
Gueye must have felt he was back in a Frank Lampard team as he had to scramble around putting out fires before he and Onana were substituted off just before the hour mark. His passing was poor, but defensively he was as vital as ever, contributing eight tackles, two blocks and seven ball recoveries.
Alongside him, Onana showed that, despite his high ceiling he has much to learn and is actually a quite inexperienced player. Operating as part of a midfield two for the majority of the time, the young Belgian managed only two tackles and three recoveries, which pales in comparison to Gueye’s efforts, despite being 12 years the younger man. He was composed in possession, completing a team-high 83.3% of his passes, but offers nothing like the energy and attacking threat of Doucoure.