The Ebbs and Flows of Fortune
To a major degree, the way the game played out on Monday night would have been pretty much exactly how Everton manager Sean Dyche would have planned - with the notable exception of a relatively short period, when all calculations were undone. The home side started off in much the same vein as they have under their newish boss, which is on the front foot, showing plenty of aggression and energy and generally making life difficult for any opponent at Goodison Park, whomever they may be. So it was with Tottenham Hotspur, helmed for the first time in an official capacity by caretaker Cristian Stellini. Everton’s early pressure subsided rapidly as Spurs adjusted and got into the game, gradually asserting a measure of control, resulting in decent chances for Harry Kane in the ninth and 16th minutes.
Midway through the opening period the hosts reasserted themselves and, although they were unable to dominate possession for any extended spells they were able to deny Spurs another sight on goal for the remainder of the half, whilst racking up four attempts themselves. Once more, a lack of clinical finishing, in addition to difficulty in playing the right final ball let the Blues down and ensured the two sides headed back to the dressing rooms all square at 0-0. The pattern continued after the restart, Everton slowly picking up momentum, handling the North Londoners’ vaunted attack with ease, yet failing to capitalise themselves, the most obvious occasion being Idrissa Gueye’s shot from a good position in the 47th minute. Still, signs were promising and it appeared that a point was fairly secure, with a decent chance of all three as the game headed towards the hour mark.
The match took a major turn for the worse in the 58th with Abdoulaye Doucoure’s brainless straight red card. The visitors bossed the game thereafter (enjoying 77.3% possession over the next ten minutes) against the ten men and the only question was whether Everton would be able to hold out under mounting pressure. Michael Keane’s concession of a penalty in the 68th appeared to doom the Toffees to defeat. But then a strange thing happened, as Spurs retreated into a passive shell, allowing the Blues to push forward and start getting off shots on goal. From the 70th to the 85th minutes, Everton somehow managed a 51.6% share of the ball, despite being a man down. They showed all the signs of being able to turn things around, even before Lucas Moura’s dismissal for a rash challenge on Keane in the 88th.
A Costly Error
Quite what Doucoure was thinking is anyone’s guess. With Everton looking the better side just before the hour, the Malian got involved needlessly with Kane, who took full advantage of the situation, resulting in the midfielder, an ever-present in the team since Dyche’s arrival, being issued a direct red card and with it a three match ban for violent conduct. Although the England captain hardly covered himself in glory with his overreaction, this is sadly part and parcel of the modern game and it was instantly obvious that Doucoure would have to go. The 30-year old is an experienced player and should know a lot better at this point in his career, so that he lost his head so readily is disappointing.
He’s been a vital cog in the manager’s new-look system and his absence is going to be keenly felt. For key matches, starting with a visit to Old Trafford to face Manchester United on Saturday, followed by successive games against Fulham (at home) and relegation rivals Crystal Palace (away), the Blues are going to be missing one of their most important performers. Doucoure’s energy and athleticism have been important to the function of the team’s three man midfield. He’s also appeared the most suitable of the unit to play higher up and join the attack, as was the case at the weekend, when at times he was almost level with forward Demarai Gray.
Dyche now faces an unwelcome dilemma, in terms of who fills the gap left by Doucoure’s loss. If he’d succumbed to injury, that’s one thing but the player’s lack of professionalism, particularly considering Everton’s precarious position in the league, would certainly have frustrated his boss. So what options does the ex-Burnley head honcho have? One solution would be to reinstall Alex Iwobi into the midfield. He arguably played his best football under Frank Lampard when used there, either just in front of Gueye and Amadaou Onana, or to the left centre, but the Blues are short of wide men and this would mean bringing Gray back to play on the right. Given the winger’s lack of defensive acumen, this appears unlikely.
The other approach would be to retain the system as is and bring either Tom Davies or James Garner in as direct replacements. The former has been used from the bench by Dyche on seven occasions in the nine matches he’s taken charge of, though the most minutes he’s enjoyed is 17 against Leeds United, back in February, so there’s a limit as to how trusted he is. Davies hasn’t exactly pulled up any trees during any of his cameos, with the proviso that he’s hardly been given much of a chance to impress. Garner has only recently returned from injury and has been building up fitness over the past few weeks. Of the two, I’d prefer to see Garner given a shot.
Whilst he’s barely played for the Blues this season and was only introduced with six minutes (plus added time) to play on Monday, he did see 108 minutes of combined action over two games on international duty for England Under-21’s towards the end of March. Before that welcome boost to his competitive fitness he had made the Everton bench for the previous three games, so must have been considered as being close to ready. He looked lively and fit against Spurs, completing seven of eight passes (two of them progressive) and getting around the pitch well. Assuming Dyche wants to retain the basic style of play, then Garner could be a good fit for the Doucoure role. Also, as an ex-Manchester United player, he’ll definitely be super-motivated to impress on a return visit to Old Trafford.
Onana put in probably his best performance since his first under Dyche, against Arsenal at the start of February. It’s been known that he’s been playing carrying a knock, but there were no signs of that on Monday night. He demonstrated his typical physicality and enthusiasm, which can really bring the crowd into things. Although he only registered one of those signature snaking tackles, he blocked three passes and made eleven ball recoveries, tied for a team high. He was far more involved in play than we’ve seen recently, being second in total touches (60), just behind Iwobi, despite not playing the full match and used the ball intelligently, making two progressive passes and completing 87.2%.
Gueye continued his recent uptick in form. Sitting in front of the back four, the veteran broken up play well, making four tackles - including all three on opposing players attempting to dribble past him - and making eight recoveries. Offensively, he showed composure on the ball, posting an 89.6% completion rate and making five progressive passes, second only to Iwobi.
Iwobi continues to function as the side’s major creative influence. The winger succeeded in only 37.5% of eight attempted dribbles, but was way ahead of his teammates in terms of progressive yardage with the ball at his feet (205 yards) and carried it into the opposition area three times. He was a little sloppy with his passing in the first half, but made eight progressive passes, including two key and contributed to the team effort with eleven recoveries.
Keane had a mixed evening, giving away what looked like a decisive penalty only to smash home a long-range thunderbolt to more than make amends in the dying minutes. Otherwise, he showed guts and durability to carry on after Moura’s ugly foul and played in a controlled fashion, leading the Blues with a 91.1% pass completion success and dominating aerially, winning four of five challenges. He’s clearly enjoying being back in the fold under a manager who knows and trusts him and if he can hit another blast like that before the end of the season, we can excuse him the odd error.