This is the Reality of the Situation
Few Blues fans would have travelled down to Villa Park on Saturday, or tuned in to the TV broadcast of the match with much expectation of the team securing all three points; a hard-fought draw was a more realistic positive result, given the gulf in quality between the two sides currently. Sadly, most Toffees supporters would have accepted a battling loss, but the nature of Everton’s dismissal by Aston Villa in the first leg of Sunday’s Premier League double feature was as demoralizing as it was, in some ways predictable. Yes, the Villans, coming off a strong season under inspirational boss Unai Emery had been shocked in the opening weekend by a rampant Newcastle United at St. James’s Park and Sean Dyche’s Blues had somehow found a way to dominate, yet lose at home to a poor Fulham outfit, but the expectation was that the hosts would be looking to rebound immediately.
What they needed was an acquiescent opponent. They got that, to order in Everton.
In truth, Villa did not need to get out of third gear in order to put the hapless visitors to the sword. By the time Leon Bailey fired past Jordan Pickford in the 51st minute - making the score 3-0, it was abundantly clear that any semblance of a contest was over and it only took Emery another ten minutes or so to substitute a trio of influence starters, indicating that fact to all watching. The Blues huffed and puffed for the remainder of the match, without laying a glove on the confident Midlanders, but shipped only an embarrassing fourth goal for their meagre efforts. They deserved nothing better, so poor were they almost across the board.
The Toffees showed urgency during the initial stages of the game, pressing the hosts in a coordinated fashion high up the pitch, but when that slackened off problems in the side’s structure and tactical approach manifested. Everton had set up in a typical narrow formation, vacating the wide areas of the pitch. Emery’s game plan, designed to exploit this tendency, was simple but effective. The Villans set up in a 4-2-3-1, with Moussa Diaby in behind the mobile Ollie Watkins, Leon Bailey hugging the touchline on the right, whereas by contrast John McGinn tucked inside on the left, allowing space for a highly progressive Lucas Digne to roam down the flank. On the opposite side, Young was occupied by Bailey and Matty Cash hung back, keeping an eye on Everton’s sole creative outlet, Alex Iwobi.
The Blues tried hitting Iwobi with long switches from primarily Garner over on the right, but Villa swiftly snuffed this out, to the extent that the Nigerian was limited to a paltry 14 touches, before being forced off with a hamstring problem in the 50th minute. Shorn of Iwobi’s influence and with Dominic Calvert-Lewin limited following a collision with Emi Martinez, that would eventually force him off with a fractured cheekbone in the 37th, Everton’s attacking threat diminished to almost zero. By contrast, Digne was given the freedom of Villa Park in order to fire in crosses at will; he finished with ten deliveries, double any other player. Diaby - operating in the hole and often joined by McGinn - avoided the attention of a Blues midfield that was either pressing their opposite numbers, or caught in static positions.
This pattern carried on until Villa decided the game was won. There was no reaction to events from the Toffees bench, just a dogged, aimless continuation of what was a clearly failing approach. Make no mistake, this was comfortably as bad from a tactical and organisational standpoint as anything we saw under the ineffective Frank Lampard.
No Case for the Defence
We are two weeks into the new campaign and alarm bells are ringing already. Last term, Dyche went through three partners for James Tarkowski in turn: the incumbent Conor Coady, replaced by the long-serving Michael Keane and finally, with the haunting prospect of relegation staring the Blues boss in the face, most fan’s first choice, the fit-again Yerry Mina. The first shift was somewhat understandable, as Coady appeared a poor fit for a back four system which Dyche has always utilised and it always appeared likely that the manager would want to give his ex-Burnley player a shot. That it took ten games - full of errors from Keane - for him to eventually be benched in favour of the Colombian, was concerning, as it appeared that Dyche had bowed to pressure, rather than being entirely happy to make the change himself.
Alarmingly, for those of us who had sat around thinking about the areas that needed improving in the squad over the summer, the defence has seemingly been down the list of priorities for those empowered to make those decisions. Maybe that is a misperception and in reality the recruitment team at Everton are working to identify defensive targets, but if so we’ve heard little of it amidst constant links to a variety of strikers and wingers. The squad lost the on-loan Coady and the out of contract Mina at the end of June and have to date added only Ashley Young. Another possible alternate (in theory, anyway) in Mason Holgate is surplus to requirements and may leave the club before the transfer window closes on September 1st.
So, from a reduced pool of options, Dyche has elected to go with Young at left back, with Vitaly Mykolenko working his way back to fitness, leaving Nathan Patterson to take up station on the right, during Seamus Coleman’s ongoing rehabilitation of a knee injury suffered towards the end of last season. At centre half, along the ever-present Tarkowski, the choice is between Jarrad Branthwaite, Keane, and Ben Godfrey. The latter has never started a competitive match under Dyche, the former coming off a successful loan at PSV Eindhoven, but young and lacking in Premier League experience, so it was always likely that Keane would be reintegrated.
Last week, against Fulham, the 30-year old was competent, but whilst he is capable of the occasional solid performance, consistency has been a problem for a long time and has blighted his Everton career; an error is always just around the corner. So it proved on Saturday. Bad positioning, poor touches - as was the case for Villa’s third and sluggish reactions, evident for the fourth (though Young bears most of the blame, with his incomprehensible decision to attempt a long throw back to the centre half) contributed to an awful overall display by the defensive unit.
Keane isn’t the only problem - far from it - but if the manager continues to select him and to overlook a viable alternative in Brathwaite, then he is heaping unnecessary pressure on his own shoulders, for in 2023 there are no good reasons for the defender to be part of Everton’s starting lineup.
If Calvert-Lewin has any luck, it’s all bad. It was typical of the way his career has gone in recent years that he’d pick up a fluke injury in what was a long-awaited return. When fit, he adds so much to the team’s effectiveness, but we saw this just a couple of times before he was hurt. Now, the striker figures to be out for a minimum of several weeks before he’ll be able to return to action wearing a protective facemask. At least this was a freak incident, rather than a continuation of the various muscle injuries that have hampered him for two seasons. His luck will surely turn at some stage.
The experiment of using Abdoulaye Doucoure as a kind of second striker should be brought to an end. Other than his early chance against Fulham, the Malian has been a virtual spectator or two matches. It must be apparent now to Dyche that Doucoure is best used as a box-to-box midfielder, operating from a deeper position where he can use his energy and physicality. Right now, he’s not offering much of a goal threat and Everton look light in midfield.
Speaking of midfield, I’m uncertain what the plan is with Amadou Onana. He displayed some impressive long passing during the Fulham match, but I don’t know what he was supposed to be doing at the weekend. Playing as part of a two with Idrissa Gueye, he looked as lost on the pitch as I was watching him. Either he doesn’t understand what Dyche is demanding of him, or it is not in his skillset at present. His positional defending needs improvement: too often he was caught ball-watching, or reacting too late to events. I’m sure this side of his game will improve, but a midfield two is just not working with the current personnel.
Sole highlight was the performance of substitute Arnaut Danjuma. Initially replacing Calvert-Lewin up top, he was moved to the left when Iwobi came off and immediately looked more comfortable. Quick, direct and lively, he at times carried the Blues offence all by himself. He seems nailed on to start in next weekend’s vital home game against Wolverhampton Wanderers, whether up top or on the left flank.
Stats provided courtesy of fbref.com