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Sheffield Utd 2-2 Everton: Three Takeaways | The Season Begins Here

The Blues didn’t win, but at least they are off the mark, at last

Doucoure follows up on his own shot to put the Blues into the lead
Photo by DARREN STAPLES/AFP via Getty Images

Getting off the Launch Pad

Entering Saturday’s early kick-off against Sheffield United with zero points from their opening three Premier League fixtures, the pressure to come away with something was on Everton. In what was billed as a “relegation six-pointer”, as was the team’s previous outing versus Wolverhampton Wanderers, which the Blues of course lost, this time they managed to avoid defeat at the very end of the game and to at least get out of the starting blocks for what will undoubtedly be a 38-match race to beat the drop. That the unfortunate label of relegation battlers has been already attached to the Blues in early September - with some justification - is a sobering reflection of the piteous state Everton has been reduced to under years of Farhad Moshiri’s stewardship.

Realistically, given that the Toffees have a couple of tough games after the international break - against Arsenal and Brentford - they could have done with getting a first win of the campaign. A draw gets them off the bottom of the table and consecutive games without defeat, following a midweek Carabao cup win over Doncaster Rovers, should aid the mood within the camp. It helps confidence also that Everton have managed to hit the back of the net four times over the last two matches, since new striker Beto arrived. The burly Portuguese’s pace keeps defender’s honest and his physical hold-up play gives the team a new focal point for the direct style that manager Sean Dyche favours.

By any measure, the Blues attack is much-improved this season, with xG (Expected Goals) numbers up over the last, though undermined by erratic chance conversion. Everton had registered an xG of 4.6 across their opening three league games, but failed to score. On Saturday, the team’s xG was 2.5 (it should have been 1.7 but Abdoulaye Doucoure’s initial shot, from which he scored on the rebound was also counted, in error) and they netted twice. Last season, the team underperformed xG by a sizeable amount, but with Beto, Arnaut Danjuma and players like Dwight McNeil, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Jack Harrison to return when the league recommences, there is some optimism that the team will at least be able to score goals this time around.

Sheffield United v Everton FC - Premier League
Danjuma slots home Everton’s second half equalizer
Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

The Shape of Things to Come

Everton may well need to be firing at the other end of the pitch, because when it comes to keeping the opposition out, the team is as effective as a paper hat in a rainstorm. They may be creating plenty of chances, but opposing sides are finding it equally easy to open up the Blues in return. In the four league games played, the Merseysiders have permitted an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) of 6.7 and conceded eight - two per match. Alarmingly, the Toffees have faced no elite teams to date and only one (in Aston Villa) that could be considered strong; the other three - Wolves, Fulham and the Blades will be among the bottom third of the table come the final reckoning and none are exactly offensive powerhouses. This has to be a major worry given Everton’s hierarchy chose not to strengthen the defence during the transfer window and the team will have completed more than half the league schedule - 20 games - before the next opportunity arises.

The problems are both of personnel and structure.

Defensive reinforcements arrived only in the form of veteran winger-turned-fullback Ashley Young, who has started all four league matches of the campaign in the left back spot. As a depth and competition option - for a variety of positions - the 38-year old is fine, but it’s a concern he’s being forced to see out the full 90 minutes each time in a league that emphasises the physical aspects of football. At the other end of the age spectrum, Nathan Patterson is enjoying an unbroken run in the side on the opposite flank, but whilst the 21-year old has potential - as demonstrated by the perfect cross he delivered for Danjuma’s equalizer - he’s finding the Premier League learning curve to be a steep one and it doesn’t help that the Everton defensive unit is weak as an ensemble.

James Tarkowski was a solid citizen last term, but has not started the new campaign off in particularly strong fashion. I felt he was at least partially at fault for both United’s goals on Saturday. For the first, he was drawn to double up Ollie McBurnie alongside Jarrad Branthwaite, leaving the other Blades striker Cameron Archer free to take aim, whereas for the second, a backpedalling Everton defence caught in transition left the experienced defender isolated with Archer, who beat him easily. Collectively, the defending wasn’t optimal on both occasions. The lone bright spot was Branthwaite, who again looked the best of the back four, assured in possession (87.2% pass completion) and competitive in individual duels (winning six of ten aerially, three of five on the ground).

Tarkowski can’t get close enough to stop Archer’s shot, which led to United’s fortunate second goal
Photo by DARREN STAPLES/AFP via Getty Images

If the defence is in need of support, then it’s not getting it from midfield. In terms of the squad, Everton do not have a natural sitting defensive player. Idrissa Gueye, the deep man in Dyche’s 4-1-4-1 formation nominally has this role, but the team is leaving a huge gap in front of the back four. Gana is an active defensive midfielder by inclination, so either he isn’t being told to sit, or he can’t do the job by himself. Clearly, having just one player responsible for screening the defence and two in more advanced roles is leaving Everton exposed. The hosts tried catching the Blues in transition from the kickoff and were successful in doing so all match; even after the visitors took the lead. This implies a systemic problem, which can only be solved by dropping Amadou Onana in alongside Gueye, giving the side a 4-2-3-1 shape.

The Toffees are exposed on the flanks due to the narrowness of their set up. As outlined by the boss in his “Masterclass” video, the team shuttles across toward where the ball is, in a compact shape, which leaves the entire opposite flank open to opposing wide men. In the tactical video, Dyche acknowledged this vulnerability to the switch pass and stresses that the players must recognize that the pass is coming and rush to fill the space, closing down the receiver quickly. This is not happening., or at least not consistently. Everton are constantly struggling to get near enough to effect the cross being subsequently swung in, as was the case for Archer’s goal. Every opponent has hurt the team this way this season and Dyche must go back to basics, if he’s going to stick to this defensive formula.

Random Observations

It was great to see McNeil be fit enough to make a cameo from the bench. Everton’s leading goal scorer last term will be an important player going forward, though exactly where Dyche is planning to use him is moot, considering how overloaded the side are with left wingers. Danjuma has started well and operates best off the left, also appearing to strike up a good initial understanding with Beto, so it would seem foolish to disrupt that. McNeil was used on the right on Saturday, but has yet to show any real form on the few occasions he’s played there, so it’ll be interesting to see how the manager arranges things once he has more options to choose between.

Referee Andy Madley and his VAR compadres had a day to forget. Not only did they miss what was a clear handball incident in the first half - Beto’s shot glancing off the elbow of a blocking Sheffield defender - but the respraying of the line in a different position for an Everton free kick, following Young’s pointing out that the defensive wall had encroached upon the initial one was farcical and summed up his overall performance.

Sheffield United v Everton FC - Premier League
McNeil makes his first appearance of the season as a late substitute
Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

Once more and this is not entirely Dyche’s fault, given the paucity of options he had available to him at the weekend - no thanks to an ownership more concerned with recouping fees for outgoing players than spending on new acquisitions, evidenced by Everton’s transfer deadline day inertia - the team flagged over the last half hour. The Blues opted to avail themselves of only seven of nine substitute berths, using two spots for goalkeepers and one for youngster Tyler Onyango, who played in League One last term, leaving only McNeil, the returning from injury Vitalii Mykolenko, Ben Godfrey and Youssef Chermiti as options. After the 56th minute Everton rarely threatened, being outshot seven to two and were lucky to get over the line, relying on Jordan Pickford’s 99th minute double save to do so.

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