Shuffling the Deck
Everton finally kickstarted what had been a sluggish (read: disappointing) opening to their Premier League campaign, with a resounding 3-1 dispatching of Brentford at the Gtech Community Stadium at the weekend. Understandably, most fans were focused on an upcoming “must-win” league game against Luton Town at Goodison Park, with a midweek away Carabao Cup tie against Aston Villa considered almost a throwaway match by comparison. After all, the hosts had clobbered the Toffees 4-0 just a few weeks earlier, were coming off a 1-0 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and had won all three matches at Villa Park this season by a combined 10-1 scoreline.
However, momentum is a powerful force in football, so the need to retain that positive feeling resulting from the Brentford performance was important, whilst acknowledging that the upcoming game against the Hatters must remain the primary focus. Accordingly, Sean Dyche shuffled his pack as much as possible, whilst still putting out a starting eleven that looked very comparable to what we saw last weekend - the inclusion of Michael Keane being the obvious exception. The boss - a proven fan of the flat back four - surprised virtually every Blues fan (and no doubt Villa chief Unai Emery too) by setting the side up in a 3-4-3 formation, used only once by him last season and for the first time this campaign.
In doing so, the manager was able to call upon Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Arnaut Danjuma, Nathan Patterson and - most encouragingly of all - debutant Jack Harrison, newly recovered from the hip injury he was carrying when joining the team on loan in the summer. All of these players will be pushing their claims as regular starters this season, nicely demonstrating the alternates Dyche has to choose from going forward. Considering the paucity of options he’s had available since he arrived at the club at the end of January, this newfound shift in what he can do in terms of a starting eleven and the ability to change the game from the bench is very welcome for both Dyche and the fans.
The Toffees proved surprisingly effective within the new formation, able to retain their intended style and approach without compromise and I can definitely see the manager using it again as and when required.
The Art of Playing Without the Ball
Formations aside, for consecutive games the Blues boss has demonstrated that he can set up the side to present all sorts of problems to opponents who want to get on the ball in order to try to dictate play. The Bees, more direct during their first two campaigns in the top flight, have shifted toward a possession-based system this term - probably due to the unavailability of Ivan Toney, a versatile traditional number nine - whereas Villa, under Emery are determined to play out from the back and are accepting of the risks inherent in doing so. Dyche’s system is designed to exploit this type of playing style and I feel we are seeing it reach peak efficiency currently.
There are several factors which go into ensuring the system works as intended.
Firstly, the team must be able to press the opposition in a coordinated fashion. This was carried out on Wednesday night with aplomb by Everton’s front line, Harrison in particular showing how valuable an asset he is going to be when he’s fully fit. Well-versed in the demanding style of play required by Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United, the winger showed remarkable energy and ability to press, considering this was his first competitive action since May. He lasted 65 minutes and is clearly an exceptionally diligent trainer with excellent natural fitness levels. The 26-year old also immediately appeared by some margin the most comfortable of the squad’s wide alternatives for the right flank.
Secondly, the centre of the pitch must be made difficult to play through for the opponent. Again, the narrow formation adopted by the Everton players without the ball at Villa Park frustrated the hosts, who were either pushed back into aimless possession retention deep in their own half, forced to go wide or long, or to risk coughing the ball up under pressure, which occurred for the Merseysiders’ third goal at Brentford and their second against Villa. The visitors’ midfield duo of Amadou Onana and James Garner constantly harried the opposition whenever they managed to bypass the high press of the forward line.
Thirdly, to support the press in the opposition half a moderately-high defensive line must be utilised. Other than Jarrad Branthwaite, the Blues centre halves are not blessed with pace, but they were protected via a congested, active midfield and energetic press. Mostly, the three central defenders were left to deal with high or long balls, either played hopefully or under duress and all were able to do so without major issues.
Finally, such a style requires a central striker possessing the qualities demonstrated by Calvert-Lewin, in addition to the willingness and ability of players to get forward in support when opportunities presented themselves, either due to good play in possession by the Toffees, or in transition. These were all apparent at Villa Park.
Villa’s first half stats showed them enjoying 64% possession, with an 89% pass completion rate, but only 23.7% in the Everton half and an xG (Expected Goals) of 0.13; by comparison, 44.1% of the visitors’ completed passes were in the opposition half and the Blues managed an xG of 1.06. The data reflected what the eye saw: a side completely unable to impose its style of play, leading to frustration, lapses in concentration and an inability to course-correct during the match.
Garner was outstanding in central midfield. In addition to scoring an excellent first goal for the Blues, he was tenacious in the challenge, winning 11 of 13 ground duels, full of energy and intelligent movement. Blighted by injury problems last season, he is now showing himself to be the player that many Manchester United fans were unhappy to see leave Old Trafford and looks a steal of a pickup at around €10.3m.
Alongside Garner, Onana put in another strong performance, setting up his midfield partner’s goal, completing ten passes into the final third and winning four of six duels, as well as making eleven ball recoveries. The two complemented each other really well, at least in a 3-4-3 formation and the prospect of the two 22-year-olds occupying Everton’s midfield for hopefully some time to come is a promising one.
Calvert-Lewin displayed what Everton have largely missed for more than two years. A scorer from the bench against Brentford and now Villa, he possesses an unusual combination of speed, athleticism, aerial ability and attacking instincts which at his best make him one of the league’s most dangerous forwards. The 26-year-old striker looks razor sharp and the Blues are a different prospect with him fit and firing.
The team goes into Saturday’s game against Luton at Goodison in great form and with morale elevated. The Hatters are undeniably a far weaker side than either Villa or the Bees, but present an entirely different prospect: an opponent that will play direct football and get men behind the ball. Everton will have to do all the running and look to break them down, which we haven’t seen them attempt successfully for quite some time. It should be interesting seeing what game plan Dyche will devise for the occasion.