Listening to the Noise?
Everton boss Sean Dyche had come under early pressure to shake up his starting eleven in the wake of the Blues’ abject performance being routinely dismissed at Villa Park last weekend. Out was under-fire centre half and Dyche favourite Michael Keane, to be replaced by Jarrad Branthwaite, fresh off an impressive loan spell in the Eredivisie at PSV, but with less than 700 minutes of Premier League action under his belt.
There was a high degree of expectation placed on the 21-year old’s shoulders, but fans had grown disenchanted with Keane’s level of performance last season and were in no mood to see the ex-Burnley man retain his place following a poor effort against Aston Villa. It appears his old Turf Moor boss had received the message.
In what felt almost like a debut for the defender - more than 15 months have elapsed since the Goodison Park crowd had last laid eyes on him in a competitive fixture, it’s fair to say that it could hardly have gone better for the young man - scoreline aside. It is far too early to make a definitive call on how he will fare as the campaign progresses, but on the evidence of Saturday’s outing it is easy to justify the admiring glances Branthwaite has been receiving from other clubs. Comfortable with both feet, the tall centre half adds much-needed balance to the Toffees backline, allowing James Tarkowski to shift across to the right side of central defence, where he has played for most of his career.
It is clear that the Carlisle-born defender’s experience of regular high-level football in the Netherlands, which included two full 90 minute appearances in Europa League knockout ties against a top side in Sevilla, has brought the youngster on as a player. Unusually quick and agile for his size, Branthwaite demonstrated a calmness and composure in possession and in his defending that belies his tender years. He ended up with an 82.8 percent pass completion rate, led the team in ball recoveries (ten), won all three aerial duels and easily dealt with any individual defensive challenges.
Consistency will be the key determiner for how the centre back’s season will progress and this is often difficult to attain for young players. His performance has convinced me that the club should rebuff any late moves for the player during what remains of the transfer window. He’s a significant asset on the pitch that will only grow in value with continued exposure in the English top flight.
Evaluating the Debutants
Injuries to important players in Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Alex Iwobi required further rejigging. In their places and making full debuts for the Merseysiders were Arnaut Danjuma and Lewis Dobbin and later, from the bench, new signing Youssef Chermiti.
The Dutchman was selected in preference to Neal Maupay, who is a specialist striker - albeit an underperforming one, whose days on Merseyside seem numbered - and led the line fairly effectively. Danjuma is clearly far more comfortable operating wide left, a position he was shifted to following Dobbin’s withdrawal and Chermiti’s introduction in the 66th minute, but he offers the side pace, directness and a willingness to get shots off: his five efforts generated an xG (Expected Goals) of 0.50. The on-loan forward can be a tricky customer, confident in taking on defenders, brings excitement when on the ball and will surely do damage when used regularly in his best role, on the left wing.
Dobbin fought his way into Dyche’s thinking during preseason and largely due to a dearth of wide options available to the Blues boss, was selected to start on Saturday. Deployed on the left, the fleet-footed, energetic attacker demonstrated that he may be closer to Premier League level than was apparent during an underwhelming loan spell at Derby County last season, in the third tier. Only 20, he appeared unfazed by the huge step up in level and demonstrated some good attributes, including quickness and a willingness to take on opposite number Nelson Semedo. He showed confidence and a good first touch, but too often attempted too much, leading him to lose out after winning the initial battle. Still, an encouraging outing for the youngster.
Fans were getting a little impatient to see Chermiti, considering how impotent the Blues had been up front in the opening two games of the campaign and his appearance midway through the second period was warmly welcomed by the Goodison faithful. The 19-year old immediately offered a focal point for Everton’s attacking play that has largely been absent for the last two seasons - given Calvert-Lewin’s lack of availability; a mobile big body that gives the team some reason to go direct. The Portuguese striker looked robust enough to deal with the famed physicality of the Premier League, holding off defenders and demonstrating good control when the ball was played into him. His link-up play showed promise and he demonstrated intelligent movement, alternating dropping deep with making runs off the defence. I think Everton have bought well here.
The side is in need of revitalisation - hence the importance in bringing in additional reinforcements during the final days of the transfer window - but all three new faces provided some reason for optimism.
As already mentioned, deploying Tarkowski as the right-sided centre half should help bring an experienced head to stablise what is a youthful and relatively inexperienced right flank of the Blues team. Unfortunately, the 30-year old put in an uncharacteristically hesitant showing, including a mix-up with Jordan Pickford that almost cost Everton dearly and being easily beaten for the visitor’s winning goal, scored by giant substitute Sasa Kalajdzic. The centre back’s overall game was decent - after all, Wolves rarely threatened during the match - but he needed to be stronger, more decisive in crucial moments. The veteran has been a stalwart presence since arriving last summer, so it is likely this was just one of those days, likely from the shift back to the right side.
Ashley Young’s errant pass into midfield put the home side in trouble, which led to them being punished, but other than some weak corner kicks (the team really needs to work on set-piece situations) he wasn’t as terrible as is being portrayed in some quarters. Understandably, he lacks the pace and engine to get up and down the flank in support of attacks at 38, but this is not really what Dyche expects from his full backs anyway. Some of his deliveries were on point, as evidenced by the three key passes he contributed, which led the team.
Still, that wayward ball was awful and he failed to close down Pedro Neto subsequently, allowing the winger all the time he needed to pick out Kalajdzic. Perhaps, given Young’s age he needs spelling late in games when fatigue plays a part?
Everton’s midfield was much improved - some early poor passing aside - after being largely absent at Villa Park. Abdoulaye Doucoure put in an energetic effort and was more involved then we’d seen to date. He pushed up in support of Danjuma, providing an active link from midfield to attack, was a little unlucky to be ruled marginally offside when scoring and racked up a combined seven tackles and interceptions, winning nine of 12 ground duels; much-improved from the Malian.
Likewise for Amadou Onana, who again showed signs of developing into a dominant defensive midfielder, one allying uncoachable physicality with composure on the ball and an impressive passing range. He is the latest to attract criticism from some fans, but the Belgian, who turned 22 just ten days before the game has a high ceiling.
Final thoughts: James Garner impressed, even playing out of position still on the right. He created two chances, battled away well (winning three of five ground duels) and showed impressive stamina, covering endless ground. Idrissa Gana Gueye was guilty of a couple of sloppy giveaways early in the match, yet still finished with a team-high 92.3% passing accuracy. Sitting as the deepest of Everton’s midfield three he helped snuffed out service into the visitor’s most dangerous attacker, Matheus Cunha.