Averting Disaster, Barely
Wolverhampton Wanderers, despite some abject recent performances away from home as the season wound down and it became apparent that Julen Lopetegui had succeeded in his initial objective, to keep them up, have remained very solid at Molineux. In fact, they’d won their last four home games heading into this one, against Sean Dyche’s battling Blues and by a combined score of 6-0. Whilst Everton have improved their anaemic offensive output under their current manager - which wasn’t hard considering how pitiful the attack had been under former boss Frank Lampard - they are still hardly prolific. Entering this match, they’d scored 17 goals in 16 matches, with the five plundered at Brighton being a clear outlier, so expecting offensive success against Wolves was optimistic.
Beforehand, a point would have seemed a solid enough result, though a win would have given Everton a fantastic platform for their survival campaign, potentially even securing safety before the last game of the season. As the match progressed, however it was apparent that the hosts were putting forth only a medium effort, opening the door for the Toffees to take control and seize three valuable points. Although the visitors struggled to maintain possession for extended periods, during the opening 29 minutes they were able to occasionally threaten a breakthrough, racking up six unanswered shots and an xG (Expected Goals) tally of 0.90.
Nathan Patterson's withdrawal due to injury in the 29th minute appeared to unsettle the Blues, who lost shape and were outshot by seven to two until the interval, falling behind due to Hee-Chan Hwang’s finish after Jordan Pickford had palmed Adama Traore’s effort into the South Korean’s path. Disappointingly, this was yet another goal that Everton have conceded via a counterattacking situation, an unfortunate tendency that plagued the team during Lampard's stint in charge and which Dyche is showing no signs of curing. Further disruption occurred as Dominic Calvert-Lewin limped off with an apparent hamstring injury just before halftime.
The second period comprised an odd, uncoordinated performance by the visitors, involving the odd half-chance, or speculative effort, none of which looked likely to reset the balance. Twice, the Toffees were exposed on the break, the second time requiring a solid save from Pickford off Matheus Nunes in the 92nd minute, which would ultimately prove crucial. Still, the nagging impression continued, as time ticked down, that this Wolves side were eminently beatable and that this would end up joining the long list of blown opportunities this season. Everton’s equalizer, when it finally came at the very last gasp, from influential defender Yerry Mina brought massive relief and could make all the difference come the final reckoning next weekend.
A Muddled Mess
Dyche has had to operate within the constraints of a thin squad of dubious quality; a lamentable situation which preceded his arrival at Everton and for which he bears no responsibility, however hard he was working the phones on Transfer Deadline Day back at the end of January. He is, however a manager not known for flexibility; in the formations he deploys or the style of football he plays. Indeed, it’s fair to say he is a fairly conservative operator, who plays in a rigid fashion, with players in highly defined roles within an overarching system. This is hardly unusual in football managers, of course, but some adapt more easily than others.
We now have a reasonable body of work with which to assess Dyche, aside from a necessarily more distanced view from his time at Burnley, in the 17 league games he’s had in the Big Seat at Goodison Park (which, to the best of my knowledge doesn’t exist, but it makes for an intriguing image). He is a head coach who, when all the necessary parts are available, can structure a team to play in an effective way: defensively solid and capable of doing some damage behind an aggressive high press, or via direct counterattacking football, best exemplified probably by his debut 1-0 win over Arsenal and that stunning 5-1 upset of Brighton. In both situations, he had a close to full strength squad available to him and his initial strategy reaped dividends.
Where we’ve seen him struggle, however is in effecting the game if Plan A does not work, or by the use of the substitutes bench. To an extent, the obvious deficiencies in the Everton squad mitigate the latter, but in the former case it appears to be down to a lack of adaptability in the manager himself, an inability to change on the fly. That in itself, whilst a limiting factor in terms of how high a ceiling Dyche has - something I’d feared may be the case - is not altogether unusual. Of more concern is how he deals with key players not being available, as was the case on Saturday. No Vitalii Mykolenko and a lack of any natural left back cover meant Dyche elected to use Dwight McNeil as a makeshift replacement.
Of course, his go-to in such situations has been to shoehorn a centre half in (more on this below), as has occurred with Ben Godfrey and Mason Holgate, with less than spectacular results. McNeil, though targeted early on by Wolves, as you’d expect, actually fared fairly well, but his deployment in a defensive role (and Dyche’s fullbacks are defenders first) deprived the side of its leading scorer (seven) and most in-form attacker, with five goal contributions over the previous six matches. Not ideal for a team with limited offensive firepower. The change opened up a new gap at left wing, requiring Alex Iwobi to shift flanks and for central midfielder James Garner to play on the right.
Still, the side was reasonably balanced, but the wheels came off when Patterson was substituted off in the 29th minute, to be replaced by Michael Keane, surely making his debut as a right back at the age of 30. Again, the Blues bench is nothing if not threadbare, but one had the feeling that Dyche would find a way to get Keane back on the pitch some way or another, though I doubt anyone called this particular move. Soon after this change, Everton conceded and although it would be churlish to blame Keane for this, he was stranded helplessly up the pitch at the time Wolves broke and of course lacks any pace to get back and help out.
Calvert-Lewin’s departure forced another shift after the restart with Keane now playing in a back three, with McNeil and Garner as wing-backs and Iwobi pushed up alongside Demarai Gray as a front two. The Toffees looked ill at ease in this new shape, failing to develop much forward momentum and being carved open through the middle and in behind the wing-backs on several occasions around the hour mark. In the 82nd Dyche removed both Idrissa Gueye and Amadou Onana, for Neal Maupay and Mason Holgate and the formation was now a narrow 4-3-3, with Keane operating as a central striker between Gray and the Frenchman, Holgate at right back. It was kind of difficult to keep up for the viewer, so I’m not sure how the players were coping with the myriad of positional changes.
Regardless, it was hurly-burly up and at ‘em stuff for the last 18 minutes of the game, unstructured and chaotic, totally unlike what Dyche vocally wants from his side. Desperate times call for unorthodox thinking, perhaps but this just felt as if he was throwing random players on with little idea as to patterns of play. A sobering thought - moreso than just the simple statement that Michael Keane has now played striker for Everton - is that the Toffees ended up with the dream team of him, Holgate and Maupay on the pitch in May of 2023 in a crucial match that could play a big part in determining the club’s future prospects. Words fail me.
I use match and player data quite a lot and much of it can be quite informative, allowing insights that would not necessarily have been picked up by the naked eye, but there can be areas where it falls short. xG is one of the bluntest measures and Everton’s last three matches show its limitations quite starkly. In their dominant victory over Brighton, they lost the xG battle by a score of 2.3, to 3.2 for the Seagulls, who scored only from a fluke rebound shot. Against Manchester City, the 3-0 victors racked up a paltry xG of 0.8, whereas the Blues posted 1.6. On Saturday, Everton generated 2.0 xG, compared to 1.6 for Wolves, which was more reflective of the game, but I didn’t feel that the visitors generated as much of a threat as that raw number indicates.
Everton’s midfield put in an unimpressive outing at Molineux. On paper, Gueye, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Onana would be the side’s first choice three in the middle, but the whole was less than its constituent parts, with all performing poorly. The Malian managed just 26 touches and completed 72.2% of his passes, whereas Gueye made only a single tackle. Onana completed a couple of dribbles but was an oddly peripheral figure, his three ball recoveries by far the lowest of Everton’s midfield.
Dyche gave the impression post-match as it things had gone according to plan, securing a well-earned point by persevering to the end and whilst last-minute scrambled-in goals are part of football lore, it’s a tough ask to buy any grand overarching strategy from what felt to most observers as a lucky escape. The manager namechecking the involvement of all three centre halves in the goal also implied that he knew what he was doing with this all along, keeping a cool head whilst all around are losing their composure - which is hard to buy, even for those in charitable mood. The team displayed admirable battling qualities, to keep on going right to the death, but Everton were fortunate that Wolves goalkeeper Daniel Bentley made a terrible decision to come for Gray’s cross, vacating his goal and allowing the three defenders to force the ball home.