How do Everton fix this winless run – and stop sliding down the table?
So, Manchester City 2-0 Everton on Saturday. Sean Dyche’s side defended well, restricting the Premier League champions to no shots on target in the opening 70 minutes, but then the quality of Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne told.
This was a game that followed the usual script to the letter. In truth, that’s as much as you probably need to know. Given the disparity in resources between these two teams, any deeper analysis of those 90 minutes feels somewhat redundant in the grand scheme of things.
It is over 12 years since then-Everton manager David Moyes likened trips to the Etihad to taking a “knife to a gunfight” but the gap has only widened in that time. When it comes to budgets and transfers, City are in a different galaxy. Does this iteration of Everton, stripped back to the bare bones in an attempt to stay on the right side of financial regulations, even have a knife in this gunfight anymore? Perhaps not.
Ultimately, Everton’s season was unlikely to ever hinge on the outcome of Saturday’s game. Instead, it is how they fare in their two PSR hearings and crucial fixtures like the one against Crystal Palace at Goodison later this month that will decide their fate.
So the key considerations are these:
- How does Sean Dyche get a team that last won a league fixture against Burnley on December 16 back on track?
- What has happened to their goal threat?
Since Everton played City in the reverse fixture at Goodison just after Christmas, they have scored just four goals in eight games. Worryingly, it is 18 games, across all competitions, since Dominic Calvert-Lewin last scored.
The temptation in both cases is to highlight the absence of Abdoulaye Doucoure, who has coincidentally played just once — the draw against Aston Villa in January — since their last league win.
It shouldn’t be this simple but Dyche has yet to find a consistent way forward without the French-born midfielder, who is both a second forward and a third central midfielder in this system. Without his speed and athleticism, Calvert-Lewin lacks someone to shoulder the burden and can look isolated.
Doucoure gives Everton’s play brawn and verticality, but the extent of the over-reliance is concerning. Of the six league matches he has missed this season, Everton have drawn two and lost four, winning none. They average 1.5 points per game with him and 0.3 without. The former Watford midfielder is still their top scorer, three clear of the next-best in the squad.
Some of this is perhaps a quirk of the fixture list. Since that victory at Burnley, Dyche’s side have played City and Tottenham twice, Villa once and both Wolves and Fulham away. They have created chances in those games, registering a higher expected goals (xG) total than their opponents on three occasions, but have not been clinical enough to capitalise.
The good news is that Doucoure is expected to return to training at some point in the week, with another influential midfielder — Amadou Onana — having made his comeback at the Etihad off the bench. But the need for a Plan B when the former is not there is still clear.
Dyche has suggested previously that long-term resolutions may need to come in the market. He has made them tough to beat — even City struggled to break them down at times — but knows they need to find different ways to win. To kick this project on. Without their points deduction, Everton would probably already be safe and attention would no doubt be turning to how and if they get to the next level.
At their worst, Dyche’s side can look too direct, too one-dimensional. When things are going wrong, they double down, using largely the same individuals in the same way and leaning heavily on work ethic. The belief has been that if they continue to get bodies in the box and register a high shot count their luck will eventually turn. Such unshakeable faith in their way of working can be a positive, but what happens if these problems persist? Surely then you need to look outside the box?
“We remind them of the positives,” Dyche said. “We are asking for more quality moments. We have some very good technicians but the final moment of truth is the hardest thing to manage. They are the things we have to continually look to find.
“The shot count remains high. Haaland doesn’t think about scoring trendy goals: whippers, dippers and clippers. He just smashes it. That is why players end up being worth fortunes.”
Everton missed Doucoure at the Etihad but they also lacked an unpredictability and a threat in behind — even compared to last season’s 1-1 draw at the same venue.
Their wingers that day, goalscorer Demarai Gray and Alex Iwobi, were sold over the summer to ease financial concerns. With injuries biting, this time they had 38-year-old Ashley Young filling in on the flank. Arnaut Danjuma, the one potential point of difference in the squad, is not expected to return from an ankle injury over the next couple of weeks and has yet to earn Dyche’s trust in any case.
Everton’s plan to play in behind City’s high line was executed poorly and the quality was not there to fashion chances when they did regain possession. There was a lack of chemistry, with players often appearing on different wavelengths.
“The frustrating part is we didn’t keep the ball,” Dyche added. “We constantly challenge the players to find the pass in behind but and we didn’t find it against their high line.
“Seeing the picture is difficult, easy for me sitting in the stands. The challenge is to turn good displays defensively into offensive ones. It can be a big task for players to go from defence mode to attack.”
City have a habit of turning even good teams into mere mortals, but Everton will need to show more on the ball in the key games ahead if they are to finally arrest their slump.
(Top photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)