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Everton 1-2 Luton Town: Three Takeaways | Worrying Sign as the Blues Falter Again

The Hatters travel up north to plunder another win at Goodison Park

Everton v Luton Town - Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round
Chaotic set-piece defending cost Everton dearly again
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The 4-4-2 Experiment

Many Blues fans have been urging manager Sean Dyche to pair Beto and Dominic Calvert-Lewin in attack in a 4-4-2 formation. The big Portuguese is a central striker - as is DCL - so the option to play one in support, or as a wide forward has never been on the table. It’s understandable that supporters would want to see the club’s biggest money acquisition of last summer - a €25m signing from Serie A club Udinese - get more game time, but Calvert-Lewin has proved unexpectedly durable so far this term and Dyche has shown faith with him despite a lengthy goalless run, now standing at 15 games in all competitions. Consequently, Beto has been forced to make most of his appearances from the bench.

Personally, I had misgivings as to how effectively the two would blend and, as it turned out watching Everton’s woeful performance in falling to defeat to Luton Town on Saturday, with good reason. The two showed no understanding of each other’s game, despite the manager’s assertion that the formation had been worked on beforehand. If so, and there’s no reason to doubt Dyche on that, then it wasn’t apparent. The pair took turns as to who would drop off behind the other, but when it was Beto his shortcomings were much in evidence.

The 26-year-old didn’t play at a professional level until he was 21 and it showed here. His first touch is poor, as is his holdup play and he seems to lack awareness as to where his teammates are - all indications of a player who hasn’t developed as much as maybe he should have. He is a formidable physical presence, strong and blessed with speed and his game is suited to playing off the shoulder of the last defender and running into space. In fact, he was a little more effective after Youssef Chermiti was introduced in place of DCL in the 78th minute.

A misfiring front man is a concern, though Calvert-Lewin offers a lot more to the team than “just” goals. Dyche’s approach is not to play direct, low-block counterattacking football, as Beto experienced in Italy and which suits his attributes, so it’s unlikely he will be able to displace DCL unless he can lose the rough edges and round out as a player. Can he develop the weak areas of his game? I wouldn’t write him off just yet, but he’s shown nothing so far that we didn’t see in his from the bench debut against lowly Doncaster Rovers in the Carabao Cup months ago.

Everton v Luton Town - Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round
The Beto and Calvert-Lewin pairing did not work
Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

It’s possible that a 4-4-2 may be more effective against a different team than the Hatters, a rugged, old school outfit who have progressed up through the divisions and are well acquainted with coping with the simplistic, battering ram style attack which Everton employed at the weekend. The opposition may be more susceptible, but for the Blues to enjoy any success with this approach then the front duo will have to show a lot more coordination than they managed against Luton.

An Alternate Explanation

Despite being pigeonholed as a 4-4-2 “dinosaur” when he arrived on Merseyside, Dyche has actually played the system comparatively rarely throughout his managerial career. When deploying a formation which used two true centre forwards, such as Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood at Burnley, one (typically the former) would drop off behind the target man, occupying a position best exemplified by Abdoulaye Doucoure at Everton, which has more obviously been a 4-4-1-1. In Doucoure’s absence, Andre Gomes has stepped in to maintain continuity, but without both at the weekend the manager had a decision to make.

Dyche has previously compensated by either deploying Jack Harrison, or Arnaut Danjuma in stead of either Doucoure or Gomes, in order to retain his preferred system, but has occasionally even shifted to a back five instead. Neither option has looked anywhere near as effective as those occasions when the unexpectedly influential Malian has been in the lineup, however. So, did the Blues chief cave into supporter demands to go with a two-man front line, or could other factors have influenced his thinking?

A back five means bringing in either Michael Keane, which would not be popular with most fans, or Ben Godfrey, who has been linked with moves away all month. Also, the last time Everton went with this formation, against Wolverhampton Wanderers at the end of December, they’d looked impotent in being hammered 3-0 at Molineux; few would be keen to see it brought back any time soon.

I’d consider a better approach would be to retain the team’s familiar shape and to shift Harrison inside. The on-loan Leeds United man lacks pace on the outside, but has decent feet, a bit of flair about him and has experience playing as an advanced midfielder. However, making this adjustment would require bringing either Danjuma or Lewis Dobbin into the side, something Dyche has shown little willingness to do. Neither are natural right wingers, but Dwight McNeil, who has not looked his usual self since making a surprisingly quick recovery from what appeared to be a serious ankle injury, is hardly pulling up any trees on the left, so why not move him over to the other flank?

Everton v Luton Town - Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round
Harrison scored a soft goal but was otherwise poor, as was McNeil
Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

My personal take is that Dyche played a front two in order to avoid having to use either Dobbin or Danjuma, for reasons that escape me. I have doubts about whether the former Everton academy youngster is yet a Premier League calibre player, but he’s shown flashes recently such as scoring against Chelsea last month and coming close with a neat back-heeled attempt in the FA Cup win over Crystal Palace. The Dutchman’s continued underusage, considering his decent pedigree in La Liga and obvious attributes mystifies me. If Everton’s other wingers were tearing it up, I could understand why he is relegated to the bench, but both McNeil and Harrison are offering little currently.

Offering Dangerous Encouragement

It’s true that Dyche has a small squad and some players are unavailable, but the fact that the Toffees seem unable to secure a result without Doucoure boggles the mind. His importance has grown in direct proportion to the exodus of quality from the club, that much is clear. I do give Dyche a lot of credit in finding the perfect role for the Malian, one which gets the most from the strong points in his game, but the Everton manager has to find an alternative way of playing which doesn’t rely on the Malian, who will not feature in Tuesday’s visit to Fulham and perhaps not for the game against Tottenham Hotspur next weekend.

It was worrying to watch the Blues look so out of form and lacking in intensity on Saturday, coming off a ten-day break. The wide men, who rarely fail to complete 80 or more minutes, irrespective of how they are performing, looked flat again. James Garner, who has played a lot of football following a campaign in which he missed a lot of games through injury, is showing signs of wearing down. The midfielder is already up to more than 2,300 minutes this term, after playing just over 900 all last season. He's started 26 of 28 possible matches, being unavailable just once and has completed the full 90 on 24 occasions, including ten times since December 10th.

This was a cup match and yes, while I want to see the club do well in all competitions the manager has more room for manoeuvre in these situation, given the team’s position in the league. With no senior midfield cover, Dyche’s hands are tied, though perhaps a start for one of the club’s Under-21s may have been worth a shot, or even just bringing on of them on in relief of Garner, or Amadou Onana - who played on to complete the match after picking up a knock - for the last half hour? The manager did possess valid options for the wings, but again we saw a jaded McNeil and Harrison play 78 and 90 minutes respectively, despite both being needed for what is a vital league game on Tuesday.

Keeping faith with players and putting out a consistent first eleven produces benefits, in terms of trust and in building of team cohesion - although the latter hasn’t been apparent in recent matches, it has to be said. Putting out obviously fatigued, or underperforming players every game, however has the obvious negative effects of running them into the ground, so we see diminishing returns on the pitch and also the potential alienation of those who feel their chance to contribute meaningfully will never arrive. In the case of Danjuma, the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that the club could possibly lose the attacker at a point where the Toffees are struggling in the final third, having scored just twice from five outings.

Everton v Luton Town - Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round
Garner appears to be tiring recently
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Being beaten by the Hatters was in some ways more important than actually exiting the FA Cup itself. Luton have developed into Everton’s primary opponent in what figures to be a continuing battle against the drop this season, barring an unlikely overturning of the ten-point sanction imposed on the club. Twice, the Bedfordshire club have travelled up to Liverpool and handily beaten the Blues at Goodison Park. Astonishingly, all four of their goals have come from dead-ball situations, which is hard to fathom considering set-piece defending should be a strength of a Dyche team, being all about organisation and attitude.

If the league game back in September showed Everton at their profligate worse in front of goal, then the weekend’s setback was more troublesome, because this time Luton outplayed the home side. Make no mistake, the visitors have improved in the intervening four months and are showing all the signs of being a team who will not be routinely relegated, much the same as the Blues did in November and much of December. Having lost only one of their last eight in all competitions - whereas the Toffees have now won just one from their last eight - momentum is with Luton and, more concerningly they now know that they are not an inferior side to Everton, providing encouragement at exactly the right time for them and at the wrong moment for the Blues.

Statistics provided courtesy of transfermarkt.com