The Return of Solidity
Everton have been shipping goals like a rusty old ship takes on water in recent weeks, so it was encouraging to see the slide halted at Selhurst Park on Saturday. The loss of Abdoulaye Doucoure to a three-game suspension, along with the subsequent injury to Amadou Onana had robbed the Blues of their primary strength - an energetic midfield - and Sean Dyche has been scrambling to compensate, resulting in the shift from what had proven a reliable team structure, in the 4-5-1 (or variations thereof). Against both Manchester United and Fulham the 4-4-2 initially deployed had been abandoned before half time, so disjointed and vulnerable had it proven, with the limited personnel available to the Toffees supremo. So, the question in the minds of many fans was: would Dyche stubbornly stick to his guns, or admit defeat and revert to the old formation?
Mercifully, reason prevailed and Everton went with a three-man midfield, Alex Iwobi brought into an advanced central position, in front of James Garner and Idrissa Gueye, with Demarai Gray finally trusted to play on the right flank. Mason Holgate was brought in to cover for the injured skipper, Seamus Coleman at right back and - crucially - Dominic Calvert-Lewin took to the pitch to lead the line as a lone front man for the first time since February 4th. In my Opposition Analysis piece beforehand, I’d suggested the game plan for the visitors should be to make the game a tight affair, one of few chances and to eliminate the blunders that have plagued the Blues since Dyche arrived, often hampering his efforts. Penalties, red cards and individual errors have undoubtedly cost the team vital points and unfortunately we saw another at the weekend (more on this later).
Structurally, the tactical plan was carried out almost to perfection. Although Crystal Palace bossed possession over the opening 25 minutes (66.9%), they were held to just a single effort on goal, a set-piece header by Jordan Ayew. The Blues actually got on the ball and exerted a measure of control over the remainder of the half, commanding a 57.1% share of possession and ended the half having outshot the home side by seven to four and in xG (Expected Goals) terms 0.27 to 0.18. Hardly a thriller, but so far, so good. After the interval the game resumed a similar disjointed pattern, with both sides struggling to put together decisive moves and defences very much on top.
It appeared that, after racking up three consecutive wins under new boss Roy Hodgson, and in doing so almost securing their status in the top flight, the Eagles were not quite prepared to go all-out in search of victory, thusly opening the door a little for Everton to possibly snatch their first away win since October last year. Alas, it was not to be.
The Toffees had played themselves into the match, largely neutralised Palace’s counterattacking threat and appeared poised to maybe even push for an unlikely (given the team’s appalling away form over the past two seasons) winner. Dare to dream! The Eagles appeared to be playing at 90%, the Blues at near 100. Now, 100% of mediocre is no great shakes, but all it takes is a moment of sloppiness, a deflected shot, or a set-piece delivery to decide a low-key affair such as this, one way or another and the visitors were giving themselves every chance. However, it was apparent as the game progressed to around the 70th minute that legs were tiring and with fatigue, comes mistakes.
Holgate had picked up a somewhat soft booking in the 37th minute and was playing a position that, although he’s filled in on a number of occasions in the past, is not his primary one. More importantly though, his game time has been heavily curtailed this season as he’s slipped down the depth chart at centre half and this match was his first start since a disastrous EFL Cup loss to Bournemouth, in which he’d been unceremoniously hauled off after 50 minutes, way back in November. His sole appearance under Dyche was as a halftime midfield substitute for Gueye in another 4-0 defeat, this time to Arsenal on March 1st.
So, with just 45 minutes of competitive football under his belt over the last five and a half months, Holgate was put in trouble in the 80th by Jordan Pickford’s underhit pass towards the sideline (something the ‘keeper was guilty of throughout), which was intercepted by Ayew and the fullback attempted to win the ball from behind, an action that gives the referee a decision to make if the player does not get the challenge exactly right. Consequently, it came as no surprise to see him given his marching orders. With the defender's dismissal, Everton’s chances of winning the match disappeared and it became a matter of grimly hanging on to earn a draw. The visitors withstood a flurry of shots five minutes later, putting in a series of excellent blocks and got over the line.
Holgate has predictably been receiving a lot of criticism, which is to be expected, but this is exaggerated in my view. Yes, he almost cost the team what they had at the time of his exit: a hard-earned point and the possibility of something more in the ten minutes that remained, but I feel that Dyche should carry his fair share of the blame. The player is known for being aggressive, someone who will go in to win the ball when maybe that’s the wrong choice. He lacked match sharpness and would have been tiring as the game neared its conclusion and mental fatigue plays a major part in decision-making. Unfortunately, Dyche seems to imagine that if the players are drilled into maximum fitness levels, then they can stay the course with no adverse effects, but this is blinkered thinking.
Hodgson made three changes between the 71st and 78th minutes, a period which saw Everton fade and lose the control they’d exerted up to that point. The Blues boss only turned to his bench after Holgate’s red card, in order to restore the four-man backline. It wasn’t until added time that Calvert-Lewin was replaced by Neal Maupay. Dyche was known for relatively little use of substitutes during his years at Burnley and he’s continued this pattern on Merseyside. It is true that the Blues squad is thin, lacking in quality depth but there are still options within it to relieve tired legs and minds as a game reaches its latter stages. The boss is strangely reluctant to do this and it is potentially costing the team.
Calvert-Lewin’s return gives hope that the club may still be able to fight its way out of trouble. Having not played since Dyche’s first game in charge, at the beginning of February, the striker was understandably lacking in sharpness, but overall the impression he made was very positive, both in terms of personal performance and team structure. He offered a focal point for Everton’s play - which is direct whoever is leading the forward line - winning six of 15 aerial duels. His hold-up play was decent, losing the ball only twice and taking 23 touches, including four in the opposition area. I thought he looked to be tiring with ten minutes to go, but Dyche surprisingly only withdrew him in the 91st. Given his importance to the side, I hope that he can be recovered fully for what is a huge game against Newcastle United at Goodison Park on Thursday night.
Gueye put in another strong performance, showing once again how vital he can be when used correctly, in a midfield three. Iwobi and Garner are not Doucoure and Onana, but the extra body helps a lot in cutting down the amount of ground the veteran has to cover. At Selhurst park, the 33-year old racked up five tackles and interceptions combined and made nine ball recoveries. He was instrumental in maintaining possession, leading the Blues with an 81.0% pass completion and was one behind Michael Keane, with 61 touches. His midfield partner, Garner put in an encouraging effort, the highlights being four progressive passes and eight recoveries, though he only touched the ball 34 times. He has plenty of potential and games such as this will aid his development.
Iwobi and Vitalii Mykolenko have continued to receive the usual criticism, which is disappointing. The Ukrainian’s limitations are well known, though it should be considered that he is still only 23 and with just 15 months experience playing in a top league and in, it must be said a very poor team. It appears that he is destined to be a scapegoat in some quarters. On Saturday, he was part of a defence that conceded no goals, no big chances and an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) of 0.5. The left back tied Gueye with nine recoveries and led the team with a combined six tackles and interceptions. His direct opponent, the impressive and in-form Michael Olise, was kept relatively quiet.
The narrative with Iwobi is that he’s regressed, but this is not supported by either the eye test, or the data. Operating in support of DCL, the Nigerian contributed five SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) and six progressive passes, four of them key, leading the Blues in all categories. Without his presence, what remains of Everton’s creativity would be virtually non-existent.
There’s been mixed reaction from many fans regarding the result. I think a lot of it has been fallout due to the side receiving another red card and a tendency that is perhaps natural, given the club’s predicament, to focus on the negative. On the face of it, however, Everton came away with a point that could prove critical, given how tight it is down in the lower reaches of the table. The Toffees came into this match with an away record of one win and six draws from 15 games this season, whereas Palace at home had five wins, five draws and five losses. The Eagles were also on a winning streak, defeating three relegation-threatened sides in a row, before Saturday. The idea that the Blues had to win this match, or should have expected to, is not borne out by what had gone before.