Saturday’s match against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, which ended in a comfortable 2-0 win for the hosts, unfolded pretty much as anticipated. Sadly, since Everton’s last away victory against the current defending league champions, back in 2010, the gap on the pitch between the two clubs has widened to Grand Canyon scale. The visitors’ latest defeat stretches the winless run for the Blues against the Mancunians to 15 in all competitions, the only positive results being a pair of draws, both secured on away turf.
So, Sean Dyche’s approach to the game at the weekend was a sound one: to be pragmatic, press energetically in a disciplined fashion, avoid costly mistakes and to take full advantage of what figured to be limited opportunities in the final third. This, the team carried out at a near-optimal level during a competitive opening period, with the important exception of that last point - capitalising on transitional situations. The Blues contained the hyper-dangerous City frontman, Erling Haaland and generally restricted the hosts in an attacking sense.
The Citizens didn’t manage a shot until the 19th minute and Pep Guardiola cut a frustrated figure in the technical area as he watched his team pass the ball around a little lethargically, allowing the visitors to shuffle across from side to side, maintaining their defensive cohesion. A half-chance from a Haaland header was the most threatening the hosts got and they trudged in at half-time having failed to trouble Jordan Pickford. Most dangerous for City was the rapid left winger Jeremy Doku, who was able to trouble Everton’s right back Ben Godfrey throughout. The 21-year-old completed five of eight dribbles and carried the ball ten times into the opposition penalty area.
The Blues defender departed ten minutes after the restart, and had struggled with the pacy winger, having been dribbled past three times from four attempts and managed only a single tackle. Still, even when Doku had broken through down the flank the Everton defence had dealt well with his crosses and City were held to an xG (Expected Goals) tally of 0.68. If the visitors could maintain their effort, then a result appeared possible.
Sadly, the hosts turned the tempo of the game up a notch in the second half and were able to introduce substitutes of the calibre of Kevin De Bruyne, Kyle Walker and Bernardo Silva. Everton’s intensity had dropped off onwards the end of the first period and flatlined after the break. With no pressure being put on the ball, the Toffees dropped deeper and lacked an out-ball. Eventually, the team’s Achilles’ heel appeared once again and they conceded to another set-piece goal, on the ninth occasion in league outings. It was game over at that point and Haaland’s breakaway with five minutes to play merely cemented City’s superiority.
The Blues had pressured the hosts effectively in the first 45 minutes, causing turnovers in possession a number of times. Unfortunately, if Everton are poor at actually converting chances - and their xG now stands at 36.0, ten higher than the team’s number of goals scored - then they are absolutely terrible at developing promising situations in the final third in any meaningful, or consistent capacity.
Time and again, the visitors would win the ball, or make an interception, but the player in possession would either not see someone offering a supporting run, fail to complete the next pass, or take a hopelessly optimistic shot - as Dominic Calvert-Lewin chose to do in the 15th minute. Despite creating a number of potential opportunities to inflict damage on the home side, Everton ended up taking just three shots in the first half, for an xG of 0.27.
Playing a team like City, however is tiring and the team’s gas tank looked at a decidedly low level in the second half. The Blues had put some pressure on, but the hosts still posted a 91% pass completion percentage and enjoyed a 74% share of possession. Everton had failed to take advantage of what would surely prove to be infrequent chances and their threat diminished from low, to negligible in the second period; an xG of just 0.05 from two long-range efforts.
Everton’s winless streak in the league now extends all the way back to December 16th. While acknowledging that this barren run was never likely to end at the Etihad, this still represents a return of just three points from seven games - a sizeable chunk of the campaign - and has to be a concern. Over that span, the team’s already seriously underperforming attack - in terms of goals scored compared to its xG - has continued.
In those seven matches, the Toffees have scored four times, from an xG of 9.1, a deficit of 5.1. If this was just a poor run of chance conversion, at odds with what we’ve seen from the rest of the campaign, it could be written off as a statistical outlier, but this is not the case. As already mentioned, Everton have now scored ten goals less than the data models suggest they should have and to a slightly lesser extent this deficiency continues into last season, after Dyche’s arrival at the end of January.
The Blues had the completely unsuitable Neal Maupay - or a winger in Demarai Gray - leading the line during the second half of last season, so a lack of cutting edge in the final third was understandable and something the manager just had to work around. This term, the club’s primary centre forward, Calvert-Lewin, rendered a bit-part player over the previous two campaigns due to a variety of injury problems, has been fit and available, posting close to 1,400 league minutes and starting 17 times.
Last summer, the club brought in a viable alternate striker, in Beto a man who - whilst not prolific - had scored double figure league goals in consecutive Serie A campaigns with Udinese, along with the inexperienced, but promising teenage forward Youssef Chermiti. The team added Jack Harrison, a semi-regular scorer at Leeds United who averaged seven goals per season and Arnaut Danjuma, who’d fired ten for La Liga outfit Villarreal during the 2021-2022 campaign, so a need was recognized and appropriate signings made within Everton’s limited budget in order to address it.
Without the ten points deducted from the club as a penalty for a breach of the Premier League’s PSR rules, Everton would sit joint 12th with Fulham, on 29 points - a position of relative safety with 14 games left to play. This remarkable turnaround in the team’s fortunes by comparison to the previous two seasons, where the Blues just skirted relegation, is down to many things, an improved solidity and defensive structure being a major one. Currently, the team has conceded the joint fifth fewest goals in the division.
However, a lack of goals is becoming a major problem, as the club will probably need to find at least five wins during what remains of the campaign and victories require efficient chance conversion. Everton have only hit 12 goals from open play and one in transition, by comparison to 13 from set-pieces. This is too one-dimensional. The Blues only really threaten meaningfully from set-piece situations and this route was predictably a non-factor at the Etihad, with the team failing to get high enough up the pitch in wide areas to win any corners.
Dyche has to intensify the work on attacking schemes in training and commit to giving players who are invariably offered few minutes, or starts more opportunities to step up and add to the team’s goal threat. Everton need to beat Crystal Palace next Monday evening and cannot just rely on a dead ball attack.