Matt Bigley reflects on Everton’s season so far as we head into the busy Christmas period.
It’s been a strange season up to now, there is no denying that. Injuries have played an extremely unfortunate part of our season up to now and there is no signs of it letting up for us either, however, we won’t moan about it unlike some, we will crack on regardless because, after all, 4 centre backs across our defence seems to be working wonders, eh?
There was, for a time, signs of ‘same old Everton’ post United, Leeds and Burnley, however, who are we to doubt the master? Carlo has a canny way of drawing us all back in and believing in the system. For sure, I was victim to feeling destroyed by the United and Leeds results and thinking its just going to be another mid-table struggle this season, however, upon reflection, it would hamper any team with the injuries, suspensions and, subsequently, having to find the correct formula to cope.
We tried different things, including that infamous day which saw Tom Davies playing left wing back. It didn’t worked. It was (rightly) scrapped. I’ll put the rocky patch down to an unfortunate series of injuries (Digne, James, Coleman etc) and us having to learn to cope without them. One bright spot of those few games was the upturn in the form of Alex Iwobi. Now, I’ve been his biggest critic during his time at Everton, but, I’m going to praise him here. His effort off the ball and running at the opposition has warranted such praise (and, yes, I never thought I would find myself saying that). He seems to have found his feet and confidence under Carlo in the attacking right wing back role and, I suppose, because he doesn’t know what he’s doing next, the opposition certainly doesn’t.
Anyway, let’s not dwell on the past for too long, we all know the United and Leeds games were unforgivable and we were not up to the standards we had set ourselves early in the season. Looking at Burnley, we came up against a team who are, even at this stage of the season, fighting for their premier league lives and, rightly so, gave us a game. Buoyed by Turfmoor’s new found fame as ‘a happy place’ it was to be expected that they would give us a game. We didn’t play as well as we can, we know that, we scraped a point, however, teams will go there and lose this season, so, in hindsight not a bad point. I know it’s easy for me to say this looking back after two fantastic results post-Burnley, but, I’m sure we can all agree it was a halt to the run of losses and that’s the catalyst for improvement (of the like we have now seen).
The Chelsea game provided us all with slight dread and I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that. We saw our run of fixtures and, possibly, couldn’t see where the next point was coming from. How wrong I was to think this. Never doubt Carlo is my lesson from this season. We tried and experimented and finally found our feet with a SOLID back four. 2,000 lucky blues were allowed back into Goodison and it felt so, so good to see and hear actual, passionate fans inside the Old Lady again. For me, it may have carried the lads through to get the 3, hard-earned points. The fans who were back made it a cauldron (by all accounts) and only sought to drive the 11 in royal blue on further. Outstanding displays all over the field and we could even appreciate Jordan Pickford’s efforts between the sticks after the final whistle blew. 3 points against a high-flying Chelsea side were extremely important going into the busy festive schedule, but, we didn’t have long to enjoy them. 3 days later, Leicester at the King Power provided a daunting prospect, due to their own performances and goal-scoring abilities this season.
Unchanged from Chelsea, aside of Robin Olsen (who, by the way, was extremely assured and did absolutely nothing wrong all game), we saw, yet again, a tactical masterclass in defence, which was pulled straight out of the Italian Book on How to Defend. Solid, confident, easy-on-the-eye and adventurous are just a few words I’d describe the Leicester display as. Michael Keane has really come of age in the past year at Everton and was, once again, a rock. Emptying his pockets in the dressing room, alongside colossal Yerry Mina, they would have found James Maddison and Jamie Vardy respectively, such was their ruthlessness in destroying everything they touched. All over the park we were just superior to Leicester and, rightly so, Abdoulaye Doucoure just pipped the Man of the Match award.
I can’t have been alone in being absolutely heart-broken seeing Allan (player of the season in my eyes, continuing to be exceptional) signalling a snapped hamstring to the bench, but, Doucoure extinguished those fears by putting in an equally demanding defensive midfielders display. Special praise for Gylfi Sigurdsson for the past couple of games too, he looks like he has stepped his game up for fear of never playing again, but, lets reserve judgement on that front, he has done this to us before. Ben Godfrey also looking like a fantastic acquisition as he is looking like he has found his feet. A proper, old-school defender that us Blues have loved in the past. Watch this space.
Looking ahead, I’m excited again, we’ve found a substitute formula for injuries and suspensions by the looks of things and it seems that the players have bought into it too. The depth may actually be in this squad after all. Although one question has been brought to the forefront of my mind. Without our wing backs (Digne and Coleman) constantly pushing on, is our defence, and subsequently, our midfield a lot more solid? I actually think this argument has legs.
There is no doubt that our defence looks a lot more solid when we have 4 proper defenders at the back who aren’t as capable getting forward as those missing. Godfrey and Holgate on the right and left respectively are two of the most athletic centre-halves in the league which is allowing them to play on the wings with all the quality of a tough centre half and with them staying in position, the midfielders aren’t required to plug the gaps at the back making our midfield even stronger. This aint Ancelotti’s first rodeo, he will have faced this before, and, maybe he has found his ‘Plan B’ for our defence. Its working thus far, and, well I love it.
One, maybe worrying, thing I have taken from the latest upturn in form is that it has come when James is not on the pitch. The past couple of games he hasn’t played, we have looked solid on the right, left and through the middle. With a willing runner on the right hand side, is this better for us? Maybe Ancelotti will start playing James through the middle as a number 10 as opposed to the wing. We definitely create more chances when he is on the pitch and he is certainly the answer for us when we need to break teams down that’s for sure, but. against teams who are deemed ‘better’, is he a luxury we can’t afford to have on the pitch? Maybe I’m reading too much into the good results without him, but, it bodes thinking about.
If we can keep this momentum up, we may, finally have a great festive period of results and, well, we’re definitely winning the league again, right?
And for those getting back to Goodison, make it horrible. Make it a cauldron.
Away from football, I think we will all be happy to see the back of 2020. Keep the loved ones safe, and have a Merry, Yerry Crimbo and a happy new year.
Photo Credit: Everton FC Official Facebook Page