Sean Dyche has had some head-scratching to do over the past month or so as a variety of players, some key, some not have been sidelined through injury or otherwise become unavailable for selection. Actually, this period has just been a particularly intense one for the Everton manager, as his entire tenure at the club has been spent juggling the matchday team sheet, accommodating for crocked or underperforming players and generally trying to put together something approximating a competitive, functional on a game-by-game basis.
This is par for the course of being a football manager, admittedly, at all levels of the game, but the Everton job is a particularly difficult one in the present period, given the club’s financial constraints, which have induced it to dispense with most of the talent in the squad and to face pressure to hang on to whatever remains, or that it develops from within. Luckily bids for the likes of Jarrad Branthwaite and Amadou Onana, two players whom it is vital for the Toffees to retain, did not materialise.
The situation is so bad - though whether it has reached a nadir yet is a moot point, with the team’s future ownership still unclear, further sanction from the Premier League a serious possibility and even the spectre of administration looming in the shadows, just out of view, like Marley’s ghost - that Everton seem incapable of even getting a much-needed loan signing or two over the line. That it has come to this is hard to fathom, but is the current reality and a result of years of utter incompetence at the ownership and executive level at the club.
A Patchwork Side
I think many fans seeing news of the Everton team sheet break an hour before kickoff at Craven Cottage would have been perplexed as to what formation Dyche was going with and where some players would be lining up. That Onana didn’t recover in time for the game was not unexpected, as the manager had implied this would be a possibility beforehand, and with Andre Gomes also missing through a calf injury and Idrissa Gueye still at AFCON, the team was left with James Garner as its only available senior central midfielder. Consequently, it came as a surprise to see the visitors take to the pitch in their familiar 4-5-1 shape against Fulham.
Ashley Young, who had made the bench a few days earlier for the FA Cup loss to Luton Town as a strictly emergency option, was handed a start upon his return from a six-week absence. Also in the team were Arnaut Danjuma, along with a rare outing for Ben Godfrey, both of whom have been linked with exits throughout January. Most figured the central defender would line up in a back five system, or possibly even be used as an auxiliary midfielder, but instead he came in as a replacement for the underperforming Nathan Patterson at right back.
With Young providing stalwart support in front and rarely venturing too far forward, Godfrey put in as solid a game as we’ve seen from him in some time and in a position in which he’s looked far from comfortable in the past. Dyche puts defensive responsibilities foremost for his fullbacks and this clearly suits the 26-year-old, who made a goal-saving last man challenge in the second half when the visitors were caught in possession and Fulham broke in numbers, demonstrating the remarkable recovery pace that first caught the eye during his first season at Everton. It’s unlikely that Godfrey’s future on Merseyside extends beyond the summer, but he’s stepped up when called upon, proving a reliable and professional option.
The maverick on-loan Dutchman has been underused by Dyche since the start of Autumn and has only recently seen an uptick in appearances amid emerging news that his home club, Villarreal are unhappy with his minutes in England. Used in his favoured left wing position he again showed flashes of what he can offer, but drifted in and out of the game. His effort cannot be questioned, as he’s doing what he can to help out defensively, but he’s a wide forward, someone who thinks only of scoring, rather than creating for others. The Blues do need goals, however and if he can start showing greater composure when in the good positions that he does manage to get into, then he can still come good.
Dwight McNeil was the surprise choice to partner Garner in the centre of the park, given that - to my knowledge - he has never been used as a central midfielder as a senior player. The winger, surely the most one-footed player that I can recall watching in recent times, acquitted himself reasonably well, with the exception of a terribly underhit pass to Branthwaite which almost cost Everton dearly. Garner was accordingly pressed into a more positionally defensive role than we’ve seen from him previously and the 22-year-old performed creditably, considering the extra work he had to put in to shore things up. He lead the team with ten interceptions and tackles combined, in addition to eight ball recoveries.
McNeil gave the side a little more attacking thrust in the centre than is usual from the team in the first half, completing a team-high six passes into the final third. He’s known for possessing a great engine when operating on the wings, but flagged badly down the stretch on Tuesday night, looking to be running on empty during the last 25 minutes, as the Blues were often overrun and stretched by the hosts. Clearly, he was not used to the constant workload required of a midfielder and did struggle defensively, winning just two of eight ground duels.
Overall, this goalless stalemate away from home against a side in Fulham who would sit three points below the Toffees, if Everton had not been penalised by the league due to its breach of PSR, was a solid result. The Cottagers had won six and lost four at Craven Cottage coming into the match, so are hardly pushovers, but rather a competent, well-coached outfit. While it’s true that the hosts were missing a few starting players - including former Blue Alex Iwobi and defender Calvin Bassey - their squad depth is superior to Everton’s. That Dyche was able to assemble a first eleven that was able to compete for stretches of the game was an achievement in itself.
The xG (Expected goals) model suggests that the Blues may have had the better of the game and that opinion could be valid when looking at the opening period, in which the visitors held their own, largely stifled the Fulham attack and created several presentable scoring chances. After the restart, however Marco Silva’s adjustments, which focused on targeting the edges of Everton’s compact formation, creating overloads and mismatches, bore dividends. Everton were forced ever deeper and into a rearguard action for long stretches, often being unable to find an out ball. The pressure mounted and the team were reliant on Jordan Pickford to show his class and to keep the hosts out.
A late flurry from the visitors, resulting in a couple of corners in added time skewed the xG figures, giving the impression of a more even second half than was the case. Beto missed a huge opportunity when presented with a free header from point-blank range and minutes later both he and Godfrey somehow failed to scramble the ball over the line in the closing seconds, when it seemed easier to score. It’d be extravagant to claim that Everton deserved the win; in fact they were second-best for the majority of the match, but they did generate some big chances which they absolutely have to start taking going forward.
Fulham also turned up a blank, obviously but their failure to score resulted more from Pickford’s outstanding shot-stopping, plus a couple of last-ditch blocks and challenges by the Blues defence. The Cottagers are still exceeding their xG of 26.9, having scored 28 league goals this term. For Everton on the other hand, Tuesday’s inability to capitalise on good attacking positions continued a familiar theme. The side have netted 24 times, despite racking up an XG of 33.1, which is a quite remarkable discrepancy in what the modelling suggests should be happening and what is actually taking place; a stunning 27.5% of Everton’s predicted goals are not being converted on the pitch.
Last season, the team were plagued with an often injured Dominic Calvert-Lewin, and with no reliable backup striker were forced to rely on McNeil and Abdoulaye Doucoure to make up the shortfall, most notably after Dyche arrived at the end of January. It’s worth noting that Everton still underperformed their xG over the course of the campaign by a staggering 11.2 goals, so this is an ongoing issue stretching back some time. Just examining the 18 league matches which Dyche took charge of last term, the team scored 19 times from an xG of 24.8; failing to convert almost 23.4% of the chances which the model stated they should.
It can be observed that the team’s inability to score at a rate suggested by the data this season is not actually much of a dip from last term’s efforts under the same manager and this tendency now stretches back over 40 league games, which is both a serious concern and enough of a dataset to infer significant structural issues at the club. There’s been a shift in attacking players available to Dyche for the current season: Beto, Jack Harrison, Danjuma and a healthy Calvert-Lewin all coming in, so it’s difficult to apportion blame entirely to those on the field. What’s going on here?
Whether it’s due to a style of play issue, or what the team are working on in an attacking sense in training, I have no idea. Whatever the reason, Dyche and his staff have to reverse this lengthy trend of impotence in the final third, or for all there’s been an overall improvement under the manager in the year he’s been at the tiller, Everton will continue to struggle to achieve the wins they need in order to fight clear of relegation.