Reminder: Everton Were at Home
Mikel Arteta surprised most with his team selection, dropping big-money signing Kai Havertz to the bench, but more unexpected was his decision to give the on-loan David Raya his first start of the season in goal, replacing regular number one Aaron Ramsdale. Considering Arsenal had been ambushed at Goodison Park in what was Sean Dyche’s inaugural outing as Everton manager back in February, this shift may have opened the door for the home side. Not that the excellent Raya was a downgrade, exactly - in fact statistically the Spaniard outperformed Ramsdale last season, when guarding the net at Brentford - but the lack of an understanding between goalkeeper and defence could have presented the Blues with an opportunity to exploit any uncertainty.
Consequently, I’d expected the Toffees to go at the visitors from the opening kickoff, pressing their backline aggressively, looking to pressure them into mistakes. Of course, it is impossible to play that way for extended periods, but intensity in the first ten minutes could have made it difficult for Arsenal to settle, ruffle a few feathers and get the crowd behind the home side. Maybe nothing would have come of it, but at least Goodison may have gotten rocking and the North Londoners would have at least known they were not going to be getting it easy. Sadly, none of that happened.
Instead, the Blues retreated into their own half immediately and as the minutes ticked by with Arsenal comfortable in possession, knocking the ball around almost casually, it was apparent what Dyche’s game plan was and it was not going to be pretty. Amadou Onana had been deployed in a deep defensive midfield role, with Idrissa Gueye and Abdoulaye Doucoure in front and wingers Dwight McNeil and Arnaut Danjuma operating withdrawn in a 4-1-4-1 formation. Gueye would pick up Oleksandr Zinchenko whenever the left back would drift into midfield, which was often, with Everton sitting deep and very narrow, essentially trying to stop Arsenal playing.
In that, they were successful, escaping a scare via an offside call on Eddie Nketiah which denied Arsenal a goal, otherwise stifling the visiting team. But as a spectacle, it was dire stuff, unimaginative and in sporting terms, somewhat cowardly. Rarely did the Blues venture outside their own half and when they did it was not in numbers and possession was quickly surrendered. There was none of the counterattacking play that such a defensive approach requires, just passivity on and off the ball. The Gunners were certainly frustrated as the period came to a close, but the only thing the quietened home crowd had to hold onto after watching such sterility was a goalless scoreline.
Things Did Not Improve
Arteta’s men came out with renewed energy after the interval, zipping the ball around with a higher tempo in reaction to what had been a soporific opening 45 minutes. Immediately, it was apparent that Everton were going to struggle to contain them. In Dyche’s system, the Blues adopt a narrow structure, effectively abandoning the flanks to the opposition, relying on rapidly shifting the formation across to close down whoever has the ball - particularly in the event of a switch from one side to the other. The visitors’ increased tempo made this defensive adjustment more difficult to accomplish and the Gunners starting getting in behind, looking for cut-backs towards the penalty spot. The hosts were able to put in the blocks to avoid falling behind, but finally succumbed to the pressure in the 69th minute.
Everton’s rally was not really worthy of the name. Dyche had already subbed off Beto for Dominic Calvert-Lewin in a like-for-like change and the Merseysiders’ showed no alteration in their approach by way of reaction; not that it was ever at all apparent at any stage how Everton intended to actually score a goal. At no point in the match was it possible to determine a pattern of play from the home side, a plan of attack, or even how they wanted to progress the ball up the pitch. Arsenal applied pressure on the ball-carrier and blocked off passing lanes on the rare occasions the Toffees managed to gain possession. With few bodies in advanced positions and little creativity in the team, Everton rarely retained the ball for more than a few harmless passes.
It was demoralising to see just how poor the Blues were when constructing offensive play. Beto was the only Everton player to end up with an average position in the opposition half, compared to eight for Arsenal. It was a tough day for the Portuguese striker, so isolated was he and starved of any opportunity to impact the game. After 65 minutes he’d managed 17 touches, just one in the opposition penalty area, won one of four aerial duels, lost the ball four times and attempted nine passes. Onana occupied the role of sole defensive pivot, but touched the ball 30 times and was unable to orchestrate attacks from a deep position. The team couldn’t feed the wide men - Danjuma and McNeil - either: the pair combined for a paltry 35 touches; Arsenal right winger Bukayo Saka enjoyed 56.
With no clear route up the pitch, the Blues were reduced to aimless punts. Jordan Pickford’s 45 pass attempts comfortably led the team, but with 32 of those going long and only nine finding a blue shirt, this was crude fare and an exercise in futility.
Why Everton Lost
Dyche’s post-match press conference was quite instructive in terms of how he sees the game. The Blues boss identified three areas of concern: his team’s efforts in transition, a penalty claim for Doucoure and the time added on at the end of the match by the officials. None of these were the reasons Everton lost, however.
No doubt the manager was disappointed with how poorly his players used the ball when they were able to regain it, but a strong argument can be made that this squad is not the most technically adept, so expecting crisp one-touch passes springing counterattacks, when the players are repeatedly deprived of the ball for long stretches, is optimistic thinking.
The assertion that Everton deserved a penalty award for a clear dive by Doucoure, with no contact whatsoever, is not even worth consideration. Dyche had a point regarding the decision to add just four minutes at the end of regulation time, but the Toffees offered nothing over 94 minutes, so how long would they have had to play in order to generate a worthwhile attack?
No, the Blues lost for other reasons. One of those is that Arsenal are a very strong side. The other, damning factor was the approach selected by the boss: a decision to set up to kill the game as anything resembling a footballing spectacle and to trust to dumb luck in order to get a result. Make no mistake, the Toffees were not set out to compete with the Gunners on any level. Such a tactic is possibly tolerable on the road, but at Goodison? No, never. There is a whole spectrum of possibilities between playing expansive attacking football and whatever anti-football strategy Everton attempted on Sunday. To be defensively responsible? Of course. Organisation? Sure. But the passivity, the lack of any intent to carve out a positive result through the team’s own efforts, is inexcusable.
Everton probably fielded their strongest attacking lineup since Carlo Ancelotti was able to select a front three of Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison and James Rodriguez. Danjuma, last season’s leading scorer McNeil and the imposing Beto should be able to threaten almost any team at Goodison, but none were given any chance at the weekend; nor was Calvert-Lewin, from the bench. This was a total waste. I like statistics as much as anyone, but I don’t want to hear the manager claim that Everton are in the top four of the Premier League as regards xG (Expected Goals) after watching them score once in five games and none in three at home; anyway, they’re now 12th in xG after the weekend’s fixtures.
It’s tough to gauge where Dyche stands as the club’s ownership status is in a state of flux currently, but the next three games should be pivotal for his future. Five wins in 23 league games, two in 16 with eight defeats tells its own tale. The football is not good enough and the image Dyche has constructed for himself is showing all the signs of wilting under the spotlight of managing Everton.
Stats provided courtesy of fbref.com