A Missed Opportunity
Make no mistake, this was a big chance for Everton to kick off the new campaign in style, by taking all three points against a Fulham outfit who have experienced an unsettled summer. The visitors had capped off an excellent return to the Premier League under Marco Silva, finishing tenth last term and earning many plaudits en route, but the lure of Saudi Arabian money had turned star striker Aleksandar Mitrovic’s head, resulting in him starting the match on the bench. The Cottagers were missing the injured Palhinha and the influential Andreas Pereira from their first eleven and on Saturday’s evidence appeared a very ordinary outfit and certainly one that the Toffees should be favouring themselves to beat at home.
Of course, the hosts did dominate, in terms of creating opportunities to score, registering an xG (Expected Goals) stat of 2.7 compared to 1.5 and 19 attempts to seven, hitting the target with nine efforts, as opposed to just two for Fulham. But, as feared beforehand, the club’s sluggish approach to bringing in attacking reinforcements proved costly, as the side could not find the back of the net, spurning some major opportunities. Neal Maupay has borne much of the brunt of post-match criticism, with none of his four shots being able to beat the impressive Bernd Leno guarding the West Londoners’ net; a personal xG total of 1.3 shows that he should have come away with a goal. However, the Frenchman has never been a clinical finisher and his current futile streak at Everton provides ample proof that a replacement is long overdue.
One look at the Blues lineup before kickoff told fans that goals could be in short supply. The ten outfield starters had scored a total of 12 league goals between them last term, five of those contributed by Abdoulaye Doucoure, himself guilty of squandering a gilt-edge chance during the first half. Amadou Onana had bagged one last season, Idrissa Gana Gueye none. Nominal wide attackers Alex Iwobi and James Garner had managed two and zero respectively, the latter albeit with limited exposure due to various injury problems. New left back Ashley Young’s strike had come for his previous club, Aston Villa. So it was with hope, rather than expectation that Blues fans arrived at the old ground, or tuned in from a distance.
Ultimately, this loss resulted predominantly from the club’s limited capacity for manoeuvre within the transfer market, which had seen the arrival of Arnaut Danjuma - unfortunately deprived of a starting opportunity due to a minor knock picked up in training - alongside promising young striker Youssef Chermiti, who was only announced as a signing the day before Everton’s season opener. It’s been a case of too little, too late this summer and the campaign is now upon us, with the Blues still struggling to be ready for it. That is a disappointment; though not one that was entirely unexpected, given the parlous state of the club’s finances.
The State of the Side
Sean Dyche was left with restricted squad options for the opening match of the new Premier League campaign. He opted for the underperforming - and, in terms of the attributes he brings to the table - almost completely unsuitable Maupay to lead the line. The forward put in a reasonable all-around performance: his movement was good and his hold-up play decent. But Everton under the ex-Burnley boss play a direct style and it was telling that the diminutive striker competed for just one aerial duel (which he lost) in 71 minutes of action. Next weekend’s match is on the road, against a Villa side that will be determined to rebound following a heavy defeat to Newcastle United last time out and it is predictable that Maupay will struggle, with the Blues sitting deeper and potentially seeing even less of the ball.
Alex Iwobi was far better on the left, than is typically the case on the right flank. He was the attacking focal point for the side, winning three of four dribbles, leading the team with 29 of his 44 touches in the final third and providing three key passes. He was the standout creative force on the pitch, with a huge eleven SCA (Shot-Creating Actions). Positionally, the Nigerian linked up well with Young, whereas Everton’s right side was problematic. Nathan Patterson and James Garner - playing as a stand-in winger - were too often right on top of one another, as demonstrated by examining both players’ average positions over the 90. There was plenty of industry on show, but neither were able to offer anything of quality going forward and the young Scot’s passing was careless (57.1% accuracy).
The Blues right presented an obvious target for Fulham, who directed 49% of their attacks down that flank. Patterson was a weak link on Saturday and it is possible that shifting Garner to right back could be an option at Villa Park, assuming someone is available to play in front of him, who can offer more natural wing-play than we saw at the weekend. Although Michael Keane had a solid enough game, the right sided centre half needs to be someone conferring a calming veteran presence, such as James Tarkowski would offer if moved across, allowing Jarrad Branthwaite to come in alongside another experienced head in Young, to his outside. This would balance out the Everton defence.
Everton’s midfield ceded control a little too comfortably, but this is how Dyche sets up, rather than any deficiency amongst the players themselves. They pressed effectively, preventing Fulham from taking advantage of the possession they commanded. Gueye was an invaluable a defensive screen - seen during much of last season - winning a combined seven tackles and interceptions, blocking three passes and making a enormous number of loose ball recoveries: 15, far more than any other player on show. He often got the Blues moving forward, tying the side for touches (70) and using the ball neatly (84.2% completion rate). Onana was noteworthy in moments, firing some raking long passes but defensively he was a non-factor and managed only 38 touches. Doucoure was used an auxiliary forward, rather than a midfielder. Promising signs.
Breaking Down the Goal
Fulham’s winner came from Everton’s right side and neither Patterson nor Garner covered themselves in glory, but it’s instructive to look at the developing picture before the ball hit the back of Jordan Pickford’s net. The Blues had kept the visitors offensively very quiet during the first period (one effort, xG of 0.04), but had become more vulnerable after the restart. They’d begun the second period slowly and Raul Jiménez had given them a scare in the 57th minute, his shot striking the post well beyond an outstretched Pickford. Everton had spurned another big chance ten minutes later, with Patterson’s inexplicable miss, but they’d generally lost momentum and were in need of a shake up. This finally took the form of Danjuma replacing a tiring Maupay in the 72nd, immediately before the decisive move of the game.
Silva had taken the initiative, introducing Mitrovic and Pereira in the 58th and this eventually reaped dividends. The Brazilian and fellow midfielder Harrison Reid pushed forward, vacating the centre of the park. With the visitors attacking down the right, Everton's defence was naturally dragged across, Young engaging high, Tarkowski picking up Reed and Keane forced to engage the big Serb. Pereira cut diagonally into the box and Patterson had to track him. This left the entire right of the Everton defence wide open, Fulham winger Bobby De Cordova-Reid being totally unmarked and able to score at will. What went wrong?
The Blues midfield had played well, but none went with either Pereira or Reed, allowing Fulham to overload the defence. Gueye belatedly moved to assist Keane with Mitrovic, but this was too little, too late. Onana never reacted at all and Doucoure was playing in an advanced role. Everton’s last chance, Garner realised the danger far too late, rushing back only to watch Reid fire home. Whether the team’s concentration had been disrupted momentarily by the substitution, or due to fatigue is impossible to say, but once again an opposing manager’s adjustments had proven pivotal, all three substitutes being involved in the goal.
To a degree, Dyche’s hands last season were tied by the limitations inherent in the personnel available to him and that situation still exists, though hopefully not for much longer. When he has viable options on the bench, eyes will be on the Blues boss, to gauge whether he is actually able to impact an evolving match decisively, or is merely able to set a team up well initially, but with no flexibility to adapt on the hoof. Time will tell.