Not a Defining Result
At Goodison Park on Sunday, Everton lineup as anticipated, minus the unexpected omission of Vitalii Mykolenko, the left back suffering a (hopefully) minor thigh problem the day before the team took to the pitch to face Manchester City. Replacing the Ukrainian was Mason Holgate, last seen being sent off against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, on that occasion playing at right back. Sean Dyche set the team up in a 4-5-1, with the clear intention of replicating the game plan that had proven so successful a week earlier as the Blues shocked Brighton & Hove Albion 5-1 at the Amex.
Coming into the match off such a great result, the team would have been high on confidence, which is a big asset of course, but could not make up for the discrepancy in talent on the pitch, between an Everton side battling to stay in the Premier League and a City side on the verge of winning their fifth title in six years. And so it proved, but not after the home side had given a decent account of themselves during the opening 37 minutes, holding the visitors at bay fairly comfortably, whilst occasionally showing that they may be capable of inflicting pain on the break.
This has been Everton’s approach against stronger sides, such as Arsenal and City since Dyche took over at the end of January. Sometimes - as in the former case - they are able to frustrate and capitalize on transitional opportunities, or set-piece situations; other times, as on Sunday and in their second meeting with the Gunners, at the Emirates Stadium, they hang tough, fail to achieve a breakthrough and concede, at which point they face an uphill struggle. Sometimes the goal is shipped via an unforced error; on other occasions due to an individual piece of skill, or well-orchestrated team move. On Sunday, it was the latter case, with Riyad Mahrez allowed a little too much time and space to deliver a low cross into Ilkay Gundogan, who had the quality to collect and finish adroitly.
Undone in an instant, the Blues were probably still reeling two minutes later, allowing the most dangerous striker currently operating in European football, Erling Haaland to evade lax marking and head home past Jordan Pickford. Deflating as all this was, the next goal would be decisive in determining whether Everton could possibly find a way to battle back for an unlikely point, or not. Unfortunately, an unnecessary foul on Phil Foden by James Garner gave Gundogan an opportunity from the resulting free kick and the German showed his class in putting the ball over the wall with ease and with that, the contest was over. The Toffees kept on going, but from that point on it was a damage limitation exercise.
Pep Guardiola’s side, with all three points secured and an eye on Wednesday’s Champions League Semi-final second leg matchup with Real Madrid, eased down into low gear and saw out the remaining time without any discomfort. The Blues threatened from a couple of corner kicks, but nothing too alarming and the game proceeded at a leisurely Sunday afternoon pace, like drifting along on a boating lake with a cool drink, enjoying the sun and a cool breeze off the water, with no need to be anywhere in a hurry. Not a particularly engrossing spectacle, but one that both sides accepted readily enough.
Ultimately, that’s what this game was. A half-chance of a point against a far superior outfit with bigger fish to fry which, when it didn’t play out that way, could be dismissed, allowing a refocus on games where the Blues can actually compete. Not a great look for a club with Everton’s proud history and passionate fanbase, but this is the reality.
More important that actually coming away from this game with any points, was navigating it intact, allowing a full-strength Everton side to be “unleashed” (sorry, couldn’t help myself) against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday at Molineux. That expectation was shaken a little before kickoff, when Mykolenko’s absence from the squad was revealed. Now, nobody claims that the Ukrainian is a key player, or a particularly good one - though I’ve defended him in this column on a couple of occasions from from what I perceive as overblown criticism - but he’s the only left back we’ve got. OK, there’s Ruben Vinagre, but the on-loan Portuguese has clocked up a mighty 26 minutes of league action this season and is currently injured anyway.
Everton's only other senior left back, Niels Nkoukou is busy playing very well indeed on loan at Saint-Etienne in the French second tier, leaving Dyche once again with no good options. The one he did take, fielding the right-footed Holgate out there, was kind of understandable given the paucity of alternatives, but he was withdrawn after 56 glum minutes of predictable ineffectiveness, cutting an unhappy figure as he trudged off, maybe for the last time as an Everton player. It was hard not to feel sympathy for him; he’s a centre back who is probably fifth or sixth place in his preferred position, shoehorned into playing full back out of expediency, due to being a little quicker and more mobile than other bad options such as Michael Keane, or Conor Coady.
His numbers were bleak: ten touches, seven passes attempted (with a 57.1% success rate), two failed attempted tackles and a couple of fouls conceded. Unsurprisingly, he looked uncomfortable, ill at ease when faced with his direct opponent - the tricky and skilful Mahrez. Everton’s loss had nothing to do with the fact Holgate played left back; even if his defending of Haaland for the second goal was weak, a good argument could be made that James Tarkowski was more responsible, completely losing the Norwegian in the penalty area as he did. However, his use there as cover highlights the threadbare nature of the Toffees squad in several areas, which could prove costly in the last two, crucial matches remaining in the team’s fixture list.
Mykolenko brings natural left-footed balance to the defence and if he’s unavailable for the trip to Molineux, then Dyche has to either again deploy a centre half out of position, or change formation to what we saw during the last 35 minutes at Goodison, when the team shifted to a back three, with Dwight McNeil deployed as a left wingback. This move looked decent enough in order to see out a game that was already a de facto 3-0 loss, but it’s an entirely different proposition trying to play a competitive match this way. Not only has the team not used this formation under Dyche, but moving McNeil back into a mostly defensive position robs the side of one of its most effective attackers.
Even more worrying was Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s non-appearance for the second half, due to a minor groin issue that precluded further involvement on a precautionary basis. This was a necessary move by Dyche, as the striker picking up anything like a significant injury at this stage of the campaign would spell disaster. He’s only contributed one goal in the four and a half matches he’s played since making it back into the side, but is absolutely vital for Everton’s shape and style of play.
Nathan Patterson fared reasonably well against Phil Foden, despite City focusing much of their attentions on their young Scot’s flank: 45.1% of their play went down Everton’s right. He remained composed on the ball, completing 79.5% of his passes, put in one accurate delivery into the visitor’s penalty area (from three attempts) and combined for four interceptions and tackles. He’s a work in progress, given his lack of real senior football prior to arriving on Merseyside 16 months ago, but games such as this will help his development enormously.
Likewise, Garner enjoyed another solid outing, making a third straight start, following an injury-hit debut campaign. He posted an 80.6% pass completion rate, including making one classed as “key” (leading to a shot), carried the ball forward well on occasion (succeeding in both of his attempted dribbles) and linked up with his teammates effectively. He can struggle with his defensive positioning, but has plenty of ceiling for improvement and is showing encouraging signs with increased game time.
Watching relegation rivals Leicester City getting booed off at both halftime and the final whistle at the King Power Stadium during their 3-0 defeat to Liverpool on Monday night, gives insight into how important it is for Blues fans to stick with the side - as they did at the weekend. Both teams suffered identical home setbacks, to stronger and in-form opponents, but it was heartening to see the reaction from the remaining fans at Goodison at full time. The Everton players left the pitch with confidence intact, whereas the Foxes looked a demoralised outfit.
Stats provided courtesy of fbref.com