Sean Dyche’s arrival at the tail end of January brought to an end the instability of the year-long Frank Lampard reign, demonstrated so ably straight off the mark with Everton’s deserved home victory over league leaders Arsenal. Fans have grown uncomfortably used to seeing the team beaten and thoroughly outplayed at Goodison Park by the likes of Leicester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Southampton could breathe easily at last, safe in the knowledge that the ex-Burnley manager was a man who knew how to set a side up to be hard to beat. Even moreso, the Blues actually appeared somewhat effective going forward, which had only rarely appeared the case over the previous year. In five matches on home turf, Dyche had guided the Toffees to three victories and a battling draw with Tottenham Hotspur, against a single, somewhat unfortunate loss to Aston Villa.
It was easy to imagine that, with newfound confidence and belief flooding through the squad, that Goodison would be used as a stable platform for the club’s battle against relegation from the Premier League. Fans could look through the remaining fixtures, pick out the odd game where the team had little chance - namely Manchester City - pencil in a couple of draws and anticipate enough wins to get the Blues over the line, maybe with the help of a few points from away matches. Unfortunately, the optimism died on Saturday as, in a game almost everyone felt Everton would win - or certainly not lose - against a decent Fulham outfit on a four-game losing streak, deprived of their most dangerous forward, the home side flopped badly.
Former Blues boss Marco Silva had demanded a response from his players in answer to a disappointing slump that had all but ended any hopes of Fulham finishing in a position to ensure qualification for a European competition, but even so Everton had far, far more on the line than the visitors. However it was the West Londoners that quickly established control of proceedings, with the hosts strangely disjointed and off the pace, unable to get to grips with the game after Gray’s early effort from a wide angle had forced a decent save from Bernd Leno. Thereafter, it was the Cottagers who easily defused any threat from the home team, exerting a measure of control and taking the lead in the 22nd minute.
Dyche changed formation around the half hour mark, which produced a tremendous shift in the pattern of the match and until the interval Everton looked a different side, one that ended the half on level terms and counting only poor finishing for not being comfortably ahead. The second period started in similar fashion and it appeared the Blues would go on to dominate and take all three points, but sadly they were undone by terrible defensive play in the 51st and this is where things took a disturbingly negative turn. This second setback seemed to shake the players to their core. From the 55th minute to the 80th Fulham commanded 67.6% possession and outshot Everton by eight to one, including securing a decisive third goal in the 68th.
A late rally by the Toffees never looked likely to threaten the visitors, who saw the match out comfortably. It is worrying that the reaction to adversity, in going behind a second time, was non-existent. This speaks of a lack of belief in the team’s ability to respond and with just seven “cup finals” left for this Everton side to save the club’s proud, uninterrupted 68-year stay in the English game’s top flight, this is profoundly disturbing.
Flaws in the System
For inexplicable reasons, the boss sent the team out again in a 4-4-2 formation, with Neal Maupay and Demarai Gray leading the attack and James Garner partnering Idrissa Gueye in midfield. This system had led to the Blues enduring an almost constant bombardment at Old Trafford the previous weekend, until Dyche changed it up after about 35 minutes, so quite why he retained it for Fulham is anyone’s guess. OK, he is having to deal with the loss of Abdoulaye Doucoure, due to a three-match suspension and the omission of Amadou Onana with a groin ailment from Saturday’s lineup reduced his midfield options further, but whatever the solution is, this is not it.
This time the manager shifted back to a 4-5-1 after 28 minutes, during which period the Toffees had produced negligible offense and been played around with ease. Gray was shifted to the left, Dwight McNeil swapped flanks and Alex Iwobi was moved inside. Almost immediately they assumed control and started creating opportunities, the Nigerian orchestrating proceedings as a sort of roaming playmaker and McNeil cutting inside onto his favoured left foot, which produced Everton’s equaliser in the 35th. In the last 15 minutes the Blues bossed possession (58.8%) and fired off seven unanswered shots. So dominant were they that the hosts ended up posting a first half xG (Expected Goals) of 1.13 to 0.54 for the visitors.
Whatever adjustments Silva made during the break worked wonders. The Toffees were rarely able to get anything going after the restart as Fulham moved the ball more quickly, evading an uncoordinated press and again comfortably smothered Everton’s attempts to progress the ball into dangerous areas. In the opening third of the match, in their 4-4-2 shape, the Blues had struggled to build attacks, as neither Gueye nor Garner had been able to get on the ball consistently, leading to predictable movement to the flanks, which Fulham contained without issue. Matching up somewhat with their opponents, in a 4-5-1 enabled the team’s only creative player - Iwobi - to dictate play - but tighter marking and pressing by the Londoners in the second period negated this.
Worse, they exploited the home side’s defensive frailties and structural problems. In the opening half hour, Everton’s midfield looked stretched, often leaving gaps in front of the defence for Fulham to run into 15-25 yards from goal. In the second half, this weakness would be exploited to the full. The Cottagers attacked the Blues vulnerable fullbacks, forcing Gueye in particular to vacate the centre in order to assist, leaving an attacking player, in Iwobi and an inexperienced one, in Garner to defend space. A combination of a retreating backline, fullbacks that could be attacked directly and a midfield unable to provide effective cover led to predictable results.
Everton’s forward options undermine all efforts. On Saturday, elements of Maupay’s game weren’t horrible: he got into position for two big chances to score, completed all his passes and was dispossessed only once. On the other hand, he failed to convert those opportunities and lost all seven aerial challenges. Gray, operating up alongside the Frenchman for the opening half hour, passed well enough (an 80% completion rate) and had three efforts on goal, but exerted little effect on the match otherwise and coughed up the ball ten times, including losing it for Fulham’s pivotal second goal. Ellis Simms was puzzlingly introduced with just 17 minutes left but had zero impact, touching the ball just six times, taking no shots and losing both aerial duels. If Dominic Calvert-Lewin can make it onto the pitch, then Dyche has to put him out there, or I fear Everton have little chance of survival.
The midfield, so strong in Dyche’s first match in charge is a shell of itself without Doucoure and Onana. Gueye was back to being the overstretched firefighter he resembled during Lampard’s tenure, with Garner, inexperienced at top level and utterly short of minutes this season due to injury, making his first league start. The 22-year old made no blocks or interceptions and only a single tackle. On the ball he tried to make things happen, managing two key passes - one for McNeil's goal - but completed just 65.1%. He is certainly not a defensive midfielder, but can offer something in the final third and will improve with more game time.
The defence is a train wreck. The positives to be gained from a James Tarkowski and Michael Keane tandem (they played together under Dyche for a period at Burnley, ages ago) are rapidly diminishing. The Blues are giving up chances for fun and we’re back to where we were with Tarkowski and Coady. Yes, Keane won a lot of headers again (nine of eleven duels), but otherwise contributed two interceptions, no tackles, blocks or clearances. In a certain kind of game he can be useful, but Fulham fielded fast, mobile Dan James up top, who embarrassed the pair for the third goal. Right now, I can’t see a good reason not to put Yerry Mina in alongside Tarkowski for as long as the injury-prone Colombian can stay fit. What is there to lose, at this stage? He’s definitely a superior defender to either Keane or Coady and if he has to come off during a game, so what? Dyche is not using all his available substitutions anyhow.