Boats Against the Current
It is tough to decide - after watching Everton’s collapse against Newcastle United on Thursday, in what could potentially be the last time the team play “under the lights” at Goodison Park as a Premier League entity - how much blame to attribute to the manager, Sean Dyche. Without a doubt the situation the club finds itself in, sitting in 19th position in the table, with just five games left to rescue itself from the potential oblivion that a fall into the Championship involves, is far from being the sole responsibility of a man that arrived only three months ago. That blueprint for failure was laid down long ago, in complacency, a lack of oversight and accountability, wasted money, poor decisions, all at a level far above the person who takes training, selects the team and gives anodyne press conferences.
Without offering any intended slight to Dyche, he is a symptom, not the cause. He is here, representing Everton Football Club, no doubt to the best of his abilities, because of the predicament the Grand Old Team has gotten itself into. That the choice, when Frank Lampard was finally, belatedly dismissed in January lay between him and Marcelo Bielsa, speaks volumes as to the chronic level of dysfunction undermining the efforts of all those who want to see the best possible future for the Blues. The word is that the owner, Farhad Moshiri wanted the veteran Argentine, whereas the Chairman, Bill Kenwright, favoured the ex-Burnley chief. That Bielsa stated firmly the need for wholesale change at the club and Dyche did not made the eventual decision a foregone conclusion, to anyone closely following events at latter-day Everton.
For a club that had spent poorly, beyond its means - whilst still paling by comparison to the excesses of those seated at the big table in the Premier League - to then dispense, through fiscal necessity, its last remaining talent over the last two years, has removed the rickety legs that have propped up the whole rotting, creaking mess. Finally, at long last the fuel is spent. There is no longer anything in the engine to resist the tide of inevitability, a surge relentlessly, remorselessly pushing the club out of the top flight for the first time since Clement Attlee was Prime Minister. The inability to secure desperately needed additions in January, whilst at the same time selling off another asset (whether an important one, or not) in Anthony Gordon, made the scale of the job apparent for Lampard’s successor.
Whatever Dyche felt, below the surface when interviewing for the position, he accepted it and has publicly demonstrated nothing but an apparent surfeit of confidence as to the merits of the squad he has inherited. That may be the correct approach as regards getting a demoralized collective of players onside, but is increasingly wearing thin with fans as a positive beginning fades in the memory and results continue to slide. Since defeating Leeds United 1-0 at Goodison on February 18th, the Toffees have won just once from ten matches, none of the last six and Thursday’s defeat was the third in four games. At a time that the team needs to be picking up momentum, Everton are in reverse gear. Rivals are picking up points, whilst the Blues flounder.
Against Newcastle, Dyche had as close to a full strength squad to select from as he is going to get; a not-quite fit Seamus Coleman aside. They started the game playing the only way we’ve really seen under the current boss: high tempo pressing, intensity and blood and thunder effort, feeding off a supportive crowd. The visitors appeared vulnerable, coughing up the ball several times during the opening 25 minutes, but if Everton’s willingness to attack was there, the edge was blunt, despite the presence of Dominic Calvert-Lewin leading the line. The hosts got off seven attempts at goal, to Newcastle’s one, compiling an xG (Expected Goals) tally of 0.55, compared to 0.03 for the Magpies. As the half progressed and Everton’s pressure ebbed, so they were punished, defensive frailties exposed by Eddie Howe’s team’s first real attack.
Everton did not give up. They were a hair’s breadth away from an equalizer courtesy of the side’s one, last big hope, Calvert-Lewin and were still in the game until effectively it was decided by Joelinton in the 72nd minute. Dyche’s response was to turn to one-goal Neal Maupay, replacing Amadou Onana; in reply Howe introduced Alexander Isak, a €70m addition last summer and scorer of seven in as many appearances prior to this. A minute later the visitors fired home again, to make it 3-0 and ending any faint hopes of a late fightback, not at all mitigated by Dwight McNeil’s fluke consolation effort. All that remained was an embarrassing fourth goal. Statistics for the second period unsurprisingly told a story supported by the naked eye: Newcastle registering an xG of 2.01 to Everton’s 0.18.
The Blues had been flagging since around the hour mark, but Dyche is nothing if not a reactive manager. If the initial plan, the first eleven fail, then there will nothing from the dugout that will redress the balance. There’s little to be found there, to change a game, but the boss fails to act and appears risk-averse, unwilling to trust those that he doesn’t select for the starting eleven. His first change on Thursday was in the 73rd minute, with the Blues 2-0 down; the other two substitutions were at 4-1, in the 83rd, in order to rest those needed for Monday night’s crucial visit to the King Power Stadium, when the side faces relegation rivals Leicester City.
Turning a Simple Problem into a Complicated One
I’m not sure what Dyche has seen from Ben Godfrey’s recent outings to suggest that he is the answer to the conundrum of what to do in Coleman’s absence. That we are still having to scramble around to cope for the 34-year old not being available in 2023 is another, quite troubling question entirely. Actually, he has access to all of Godfrey’s outings on tape, going back well to before the manager’s arrival in Liverpool at the end of January, providing ample evidence to suggest the defender’s unsuitability to play the right back position. The ex-Norwich man has - on occasion - served competently on the other flank of the defence, though this adaptability hasn’t been much in evidence since his restoration to the side under Dyche.
What he has offered at left back is solid defending, the occasional crunching tackle beloved of fans and the odd burst of impressive pace carrying the ball up the pitch, though typically such forays go nowhere in particular. Missing has been any ability to contribute in an attacking sense, other than the aforementioned storming runs. It is true that Everton’s incumbent in the position, Vitalii Mykolenko is hardly Leighton Baines or Lucas Digne in terms of being an outstanding attacking left back - or even an average one - but at least he is able to provide support going forward and the occasional left-footed delivery, though the Ukrainian went zero for two in attempted crosses against Newcastle.
But on the right side perversely, the right-footed Godfrey struggles horribly. He was destroyed lining up there at Villa Park last season, in a game Everton lost 3-0; coincidentally after having been competitive for an hour. In that match, Villa’s Leon Bailey was left with the entire left side of the pitch to run into as Godfrey drifted inside and was unable to recover. That was 19 months and two Blues regimes ago, back in the Rafa Benitez days and nothing has changed. Against the Magpies, Ben showed all his centre back instincts, constantly lining up too narrow, leaving Everton horribly vulnerable to the switch pass. Howe clearly realized this, as his side completed seven such passes, targeting Everton’s vulnerable right side. In space, his one-on-one defending was proved badly wanting, as he was beaten easily by first, Joelinton and then, Joe Willock for the visitor’s first two goals.
The defender, a €27.5m capture from the Canaries in the summer of 2020, initially looked an exciting addition, an athlete possessing pace otherwise lacking in the squad, with a liking for a big tackle and at 22, plenty of upside. Nearly three years on, that potential has failed to manifest and we are left with a player in search of a position; a centre back that is - at best - fourth choice, who has demonstrated an inability to provide serious cover at full back. Injury and the aftereffects of Covid appear to have robbed Godfrey of some of the pace and strength that was so apparent a couple of seasons ago, but right now he needs to be pulled out of the firing line.
Overlooked by Dyche so far is the obvious solution: Everton’s other senior right back, Nathan Patterson. The Scot has been dogged with injury setbacks and has registered only 1,025 minutes in the Premier League since arriving in January 2021. He did begin the season encouragingly, starting the club’s first seven league matches and consistently selected by Lampard until succumbing to knee injury at the start of this year. Since returning to training, he has played 35 minutes from the bench and not featured at all in the last two matches. Patterson is inexperienced, but is a positional specialist, unlike Godfrey or Mason Holgate, sent off against Crystal Palace. If Dyche has reservations about him, fine, but the 21-year old is surely the only sensible option going foreword, if Coleman is again unavailable.
Onana was a welcome returnee, following a short spell out with injury. The midfielder got through 72 minutes and was a big part of Everton’s defensive effort, compiling a combined ten tackles and interceptions and making nine ball recoveries. He was cool in possession, completing 95.5% of his passes.
Back from a three-match suspension, Abdoulaye Doucoure added much-needed physicality to the midfield, putting in four blocks and added a couple of key passes, but was also dispossessed seven times.
Idrissa Gueye, completing Everton’s ideal three-man midfield, was guilty of poor use of the ball, with a 68.6% pass completion, but defended adroitly for the most part, with three tackles and interceptions combined, two blocks and 13 ball recoveries.
In his second consecutive outing, Calvert-Lewin was sharp and strong and could transform the Blues attack during what remains of the campaign. He was a shade offside in the first half, but finished with aplomb and looks dangerous, despite not being set up with high quality chances. If the striker can stay fit, he gives Everton a shot at survival.