Playing the Opponent’s Game
When the team news became available an hour before kickoff, it was apparent that Everton would be lining up in some type of back three (or five, more accurately) formation. They’ve successfully used this setup before this season, against Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup and more recently Burnley, in the league. In the case of the Clarets game, the shift from Everton’s regular 4-4-1-1 was due to the suspension of Jarrad Branthwaite, with Sean Dyche opting to replace the impressive young centre half with two players, in Michael Keane and Ben Godfrey, rather than going with a direct one-for-one swap. This was a surprising call, though an understandable one given the drop-off in quality between Branthwaite and either Keane or Godfrey.
At Turf Moor, the switch worked well. The Blues weren’t exactly dynamic, but Burnley are an easy team to play against and so they didn’t really need to do anything special to go two goals up midway through the opening half. Wolves were an entirely different prospect, a genuine Premier League side who have enjoyed success playing out of their 3-4-3 formation this season under Gary O’Neil. Right from the kickoff, the hosts looked comfortable in their system, whereas the visitors did not. It was apparent that communication in the defence was going to be an issue, especially with the high line that Everton persisted with throughout the game.
Wolves may not be one of the more threatening offences in the division, but they have pace and willing runners and it was alarming to see how easily they were able to get in behind the Toffees defence from the opening minutes. The Merseysiders did not appear to know how to press from their 5-2-3 shape, leading to no pressure being put on the ball and the Blues defence being turned frequently and having to run back towards their own goal. With only Branthwaite possessing recovery pace it seemed a matter of when the hosts would score, not if. Wolves didn't take advantage, or the game would have been all over with an hour left to play.
As bad as the Blues were defensively, the attack was almost non-existent. The team had no idea how to progress the ball up the pitch. Up against three physical centre halves, lone striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin could do little and resorted to drifting wide, or dropping deep. With no focal point to aim for, Everton’s direct game was redundant. Wingbacks Vitalii Mykolenko and Nathan Patterson provided the team’s width, but were unable to advance, being forced to pass inside and back, or to punt hopeful balls into the channels for Calvert-Lewin to chase. Outnumbered in midfield, the visitors found it tough to progress centrally also.
It was an organizational mess from back to front and it was disappointing to hear Dyche dismiss questions regarding the formation and to assert that Everton had been playing reasonably well up to the second goal. That’s not what I saw unfolding at Molineux.
A Day Late and a Dollar Short
Somehow, Everton weren’t punished until the 25th minute, at which point it should have been obvious to Sean Dyche and his staff that urgent action was required. Most fans watching (and even Leon Osman on TV commentary) could see the back five was not working and that change was needed sooner, rather than later. Frustratingly, the Blues kept plugging away aimlessly, but resembled an out of his depth fighter hanging around waiting for the knockout blow to land. Even those in the cheap seats could see it, so why Dyche didn’t is a mystery.
Mercifully, the visitors managed to make it to the interval without further damage. The game was still salvageable, with just the one goal deficit, but Everton needed to be proactive, make at least one substitution, alter the shape and reorganise; none of which occurred. I can understand the reluctance to throw Andre Gomes into a third game in a week, considering how long he’s been out, but Dyche had other options, all of which involved taking Keane off and reverting to a back four, which has worked great for the side all season.
One option would be to bring Arnaut Danjuma on at left wing, switch Dwight McNeil over to the right and move Jack Harrison behind Calvert-Lewin. The on-loan Villarreal winger showed the ability to have an impact against Tottenham Hotspur, so why not give him meaningful minutes again? He has different attributes to the club’s other wingers, being more direct, faster and capable of attacking wide, or coming inside. The Dutchman is tricky, possesses an eye for a goal and has a proven record of playing well and scoring in La Liga, but is apparently an afterthought at Everton. Yes, he’s not defensively solid, but how many wingers are? I can’t figure it out.
Another alternate would be to throw Beto on in support of Calvert-Lewin, tuck the wingers in narrow to get more bodies in the middle of the pitch and commit to going long. The Portuguese striker isn’t the most natural footballer, but he’s big, rapid and a handful and would have at least have given the home defence a question to answer if paired with DCL. That type of direct football isn’t my favourite thing in the world to watch, but Everton have the personnel to make it work, if necessary and right now I’ll take wins and points over aesthetics.
But no, the Blues remerged for the second half having made no changes, in the same formation that had fared so poorly in the opening period. There was a brief surge of energy from the visitors, but will and hard work can only get you so far in this game and once that momentum subsided Everton found themselves two goals down in the 53rd minute. Still, there was no reaction from the bench and eight minutes later the game was done, with Wolves firing home a third. Then Dyche acted, bringing on Gomes and Seamus Coleman and shifting to a 4-4-1-1, but it was all too little, too late.
Fatigue Was a Factor
The Blues face a trip to the capital to face Crystal Palace on Thursday, in an FA Cup Third Round tie, following which they have ten days off to prepare for a tough league match at Goodison Park against Villa. Whether the club rotates for the cup game, I don’t know though I’d like to see some players given extra time to recharge and others an opportunity for some competitive minutes. Right now, Everton’s league campaign has to be given priority, considering where the team sits in the table.
Luton Town came very close to avoiding defeat on Saturday, rallying from three goals down to have Chelsea hanging on at the end. Burnley were unlucky to lose 3-2 against Villa, coming up on the short end of several contentious officiating incidents. Both teams showed fight and Everton could easily have ended the day in an even more precarious situation. Injuries and fatigue played a part in the team’s defeat at Molineux and have shown that, whilst the Toffees may be a better side qualitatively than their relegation rivals, we are talking small margins - possibly even just an Abdoulaye Doucoure, or Branthwaite.
It’s apparent, going off director of football Kevin Thelwell’s recent comments, that there will be little to no additions during the January transfer window, so Dyche will have to get the most from what he has available, much as he did last season. On the plus side, he’s proven capable of this already and the squad he has now is a little better and more balanced than the one he inherited eleven months ago. However he has to move away from the approach he has of sticking with the same starting team week in and week out, drop those out of form, or in need of a rest and give genuine opportunities to those maybe capable of contributing.
Competition for places is healthy for the group.