All the Fun of the Fair
On a crazy, thrilling, incident-filled Monday night in the East Midlands, Everton came away from the King Power Stadium having secured a point from a game that could randomly have yielded none, or all three. The roulette wheel came up with a draw, which helps both teams a little, but possibly not enough come the end of the campaign. We won’t know how to really feel about this wild match until the final reckoning, when all the cards are played and Everton’s fate (and that of their opponent, Leicester City) will be determined.
In some respects, the performance put out this night by the Blues was astonishing, in terms of the attitude, battling spirit, attacking élan and from several players - notably Alex Iwobi, and Dwight McNeil - quite remarkable stamina. A notoriously goal-shy Toffees outfit scored twice, generated 23 shots and put up an xG (Expected Goals) tally of 3.1, even higher by some calculations. The visitors attempted 38 crosses, as they tried to exploit the home side’s vulnerability to aerial attack and dead-ball deliveries and combined for 15 Key Passes (those leading directly to a shot) and 31 touches in the opposition penalty area.
The Blues started the game on the front foot, playing as direct as is typical under their boss, Sean Dyche. We have seen this approach before; sometimes it pays off, but on other occasions, as against Newcastle United several days earlier, it peters out with no end product. This time, Everton's aggression appeared to seriously unsettle the Foxes who were perhaps feeling the weight of expectation from their home crowd, given their own parlous situation in the Premier League. The visitors got off five unanswered efforts at goal before James Maddison managed Leicester's first, in the 13th minute. Two minutes later, however the Blues took the lead, courtesy of Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s expertly taken penalty.
Everton continued to dominate and Caglar Soyuncu’s equalizer, prodded home after some appalling set-piece defending, was very much against the run of play. Eleven minutes later and the Blues somehow found themselves behind, a sloppy horizontal pass from Iwobi intercepted and the team exposed once again in transition, this time 36-year old Jamie Vardy breezing past the statuesque Michael Keane to fire past Jordan Pickford. Shocking stuff, really, but the ball in behind the Everton defender to the Foxes striker had been open all game and would continue to be throughout.
The Toffees showed impressive resilience, however and responded well, first McNeil offering a tame effort from his unfavoured (to say the least) right foot, then Calvert-Lewin somehow missing from point-blank range, when it was far easier to score. Undismayed, the Merseysiders proceeded to boss the game after the restart, perhaps given extra belief from Pickford’s inspired penalty save from Maddison deep into added time, or possibly inspired after seeing captain Seamus Coleman stretchered off with what initially appeared initially to be a serious knee injury. Iwobi redeemed himself for his first half error with a well-taken strike to tie the match in the 54rd minute and the game appeared there for the taking.
The Illusion of Structure
With his side floundering as the hour mark approached, Dean Smith did what he’s done in all four of his games as to date, as the new Foxes boss: change its flow. The introduction of a forward, Patson Daka for defensive midfielder Wilfred Ndidi shifted Leicester from their initial 4-3-3 and into a 4-2-3-1 formation, emptying out a midfield that had largely been bypassed by both teams and moving the influential Maddison from the right flank and into a classic number ten position. From that point onwards, the Foxes assumed control of what had so far been a completely unstructured match. From after Iwobi’s equalizer, until the 80th minute, Leicester enjoyed 71.2% possession and outshot Everton by seven to one.
The Blues somehow found a second wind and rallied down the stretch, finishing strongly as the hosts - particularly their primary threat Vardy - ran out of steam themselves, which is to be expected in what was a goalmouth-to-goalmouth slugfest. Still, it was frustrating watching the Blues run themselves into the ground during the final half hour, crossing the finish line with a hard-earned point through sheer determination, if not guile or strategy. This is what made it all the more puzzling; Dyche is very much a “first eleven” man, meaning he wishes to avoid disrupting his side through substitutions, as he feels the team loses structure, but in this match any organisation was little in evidence.
Leicester wanted to play in a controlled manner, as evidenced by Smith’s tactical shift an hour in; Everton never did. For them, this was a game of random things happening - randomly. There were bits of great play and skill, but the midfield never imposed any control, defensively or in terms of composed possession. The idea the Blues would have compromised organisation, or cohesion by substituting off clearly fatigued players, particularly James Garner and Abdoulaye Doucoure, is laughable. But Dyche just stood there in the dugout, throughout, exhorting extra effort from his charges, showing no interest in his bench. In this kind of frenetic, unstructured game, surely Demarai Gray’s individual flair counted for more than any deficiency in positional defending?
A cautious, pragmatic approach, which fans figured we’d get when Dyche was hired has been absent for some time. Grinding out 1-0 wins behind a stable defence, as we saw from two of the first three games under the new boss, has been replaced with errors, gaffs and the strange inclusions of players that are out of form, not good enough, or both. What organisation there was in those early weeks is long gone; now the side leaks goals for fun - 22 in eleven matches, matched by an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) of 22.5. Yes, the side shows more offence than during Frank Lampard's tenure, but it has still scored only ten across that same span of games. If the Blues are not going to be hard to play against, then it is hard to see them beating opponents through superior firepower.
Perversely, this was maybe the one game that could, should have been won by an Everton side going for it, throwing off the illusion of structure. They’d dodged the bullet offered up to the hosts by Keane's careless handball - by virtue of Pickford’s excellence - and had landed a hammer blow less than ten minutes into the second period via Iwobi. Smith tried to alter the pattern of play and succeeded, even if his side couldn’t find a winner. Dyche left it up to the Fates. This intransigence, in refusing to make use any substitutions, to alter his initial plan and lineup, I cannot understand it. A dogged refusal to countenance changing his central defensive partnership, by replacing the error-prone Keane has cost Everton again here and may cost the club dearly come season’s end.
Watching Leicester target Keane right from the opening kickoff, by having Vardy run off him into the channels and onto through balls, suggests that opposing managers consider the 30-year old defender to be a weakness, much as stand-in full back Ben Godfrey had been in previous matches. That Dyche is apparently blind to this is disturbing, because it is going to happen time and again until Everton run out of chances to blow. Twice within the opening five minutes on Monday, the veteran striker left Keane for dead: the first time the pass was overhit, the second, he was marginally offside. The warning signs should have been picked up, but weren’t; Vardy was still making the same runs off Keane late in the game, despite being exhausted. Dyche’s stubborn insistence that the ex-Burnley defender is playing well, despite Everton conceding an average of two goals per game when he is in the starting eleven, is mystifying.
Coleman’s return was as heartening to those suffering through watching a variety of centre halves make an absolute mess of playing right back, as his exit was heart-breaking. The captain’s knee injury looked serious, but appears less so than feared, but it is a moot point whether the 34-year old will play any further part in Everton’s remaining four fixtures. Thankfully, neither Godfrey or Mason Holgate were available, or you can be sure the Blues boss would have turned to them, in preference to the club’s only other senior right back, Nathan Patterson. True, Conor Coady and Yerry Mina were on the bench, but even Dyche would have reservations about using either of them in a wide defensive position. The Scot acquitted himself well and surely has to start next Monday, against Brighton & Hove Albion, should the Irishman not be available, as is expected.
Since I’m going all in on Dyche today, I’ll add that despite the great effort at the King Power, Everton's winless streak now stands at seven, four points from a possible 21. With just four left to play, the Toffees remain in the drop zone, second from bottom on 29 points, a point behind relegation rivals Leicester, Leeds United and Nottingham Forest. It is hard to see the team getting more than a point from the next two fixtures - away at the Seagulls and Manchester City at Goodison Park - and even that may be optimistic, which would leave the Blues probably needing to win both of their last two. For a side that has taken six wins from 34, this is a big ask, underlining what a missed opportunity this was last Monday.