If the headline theme of last week’s match review might have been “what a difference Richarlison makes” (I’ve been travelling so didn’t write a report on the win over Fulham, even though I watched the stream), one of the main feelings after this deflating loss to Leeds United was “what a difference an on song Richarlison makes", not to mention “how important are our two first-choice full-backs?”, especially Lucas Digne.
Given the way the match panned out, it’s possible that it may have yielded a very different result had Digne been playing but what is very clear — and the point has been made on these pages before — is that beyond Carlo Ancelotti’s first-choice XI, this isn’t a very convincing Everton team. That goes for the personnel and the manager himself, whose team selections seem to get more perplexing the more players he loses from that preferred line-up and who was bested by a coach of similar international repute to himself this weekend, even if Marcelo Bielsa’s silverware haul pales in comparison.
Individually, Leeds United aren't any great shakes but as a collective, coached to move quickly in transition, accurately find team-mates and peel off their markers in expert fashion, they are a dangerous team built to punish mistakes in midfield. And their hosts at Goodison Park made plenty of them and had to be thankful to Jordan Pickford for ensuring that the Blues only conceded the one goal on the day.
Everton, for their part, are a team of individuals with questionable fitness, playing on this occasion in a dubious lineup who lacked conviction and that clinical edge in the final third. Richarlison underlined his importance to the side last week with that display at Fulham and was conspicuous again this evening by being well below his best.
As he demonstrated at Newcastle at the start of the month, Ancelotti takes his maxim of “I don’t have a set way of playing” to extremes sometimes. That day he compensated for Richarlison and Digne’s absences by stringing four centre midfielders across the middle of the park. Here, with Digne out again, Seamus Coleman sidelined again through injury and the Italian clearly having made his mind up about Jonjoe Kenny, it was another case of square pegs in round holes
After having one of his best outings in Blue since arriving from Arsenal last week playing at right wingback, Alex Iwobi was shunted out to the opposite flank where — entirely predictably — he failed to influence the game going forward or provide much width. On the right side, Tom Davies did well but without genuine pace, he, too, was never going to be able to support Calvert-Lewin to the degree that the increasingly frustrated striker needed. Everton just lacked balance and shape, particularly without the ball… which became an issue every time they gave it away, sometimes in unforgivable fashion.
And yet, after Everton had survived a very early scare and a portent of the threats Raphinha would consistently pose when the Brazilian raced onto Patrick Bamford’s chest-off but failed to get enough purchase on an attempted prod past Pickford, things had started well enough for the home side. Davies and Calvert-Lewin combined at the end of a smart move for the former to arrive on the overlap and pick Abdoulaye Doucouré out in front of goal but, on the stretch, the Frenchman steered his shot too close to Illan Meslier and the goalkeeper made a good one-handed save near his goal line to keep the ball out.
Leeds’s threat in transition was underscored in the 10th minute when a dreadful pass by Mason Holgate, skipper for the day, was picked off outside the visitors’ box and within seconds Raphinha was away behind Iwobi and he slid a pass inside the back-tracking Michael Keane towards the back post where Jack Harrison seemed certain to score until he fired narrowly wide.
And the pattern of tit-for-tat would continue over the course of a first half that somehow ended goalless. An impressive driving run and dummied shot by Allan, Everton’s outstanding outfield player on the day, deserved better than Richarlison’s powder-puff finish before Pickford denied Bamford with an out-stretched leg. The England ‘keeper then dived at full stretch to claw a Raphinha header away while Ben Godfrey, again playing as one of three centre-halves, helped preserve parity when he stretched to clear Harrison’s shot off the line following Luke Ayling’s cut-back.
In between, Everton had had the ball in the net when James Rodriguez had cleverly kept the ball in in the byline, wriggled back in front of goal and knocked it in but his effort was chalked off for offside. And after Holgate had see a close-range volley off a James free-kicked pushed away by Meslier and the French keeper had turned an excellent Richarlison effort around the post, the Toffees again thought they had scored three minutes before half-time.
Richarlison appeared to connect with Rodriguez’s corner to head it home but his celebrations were cut short by the linesman’s flag which presumably was raised against Godfrey who had been standing in Meslier’s line of sight.
Then, after another weak finish from Richarlison’s right boot, Harrison really should have put the Yorkshire side ahead but planted a header off the post and Ezjgan Alioski side-footed another decent chance just wide as the first half came to a close.
If it felt to Evertonian eyes that Ancelotti’s side was struggling with its existing shape and two ill-suited wingbacks to contain Bielsa’s enterprising charges, the Italian didn’t see fit to make any changes during the interval. He was nearly vindicated when Calvert-Lewin forced a save from Meslier in the first minute of the second half before clipping another shot across the goalie but disappointingly wide of the far post a couple of minutes later. However, the pattern established in the first period, one which would see Everton finish with their worst defensive xGA for three years as Leeds racked up 21 attempts on goal, would continue.
Mateusz Klich fired over, an Everton free-kick in Leeds territory inexplicably went backwards before the Blues lost possession and Bamford blazed off target and Harrison tested Pickford with a low drive after the increasingly ragged Doucouré had lost out weakly in midfield.
A rare error from Meslier had earlier gifted the ball to Rodriguez but the keeper managed to scramble back in time to prevent the Colombian from chipping the ball over him from outside the box while Allan, more and more the most potent offensive weapon in the Blues’ arsenal, embarked on another brilliant driving run and was unfortunate to see his shot deflect agonisingly past the post.
Ancelotti’s first tactical move was to withdraw Davies, throw Fabian Delph on and move Iwobi to right wing-back but the Nigerian would last only a few more minutes before going off in favour of André Gomes. Neither player did their continued selection any harm but they weren’t substitutions that carried any guarantee of greater attacking productivity; that would come later when Bernard was introduced in place of Holgate and Doucouré ended up at right-back and by that stage Everton were a goal down.
That’s because after Meslier had spilled a decent drive from James and Richarlison had sliced wildly off target after good work from the Colombian, Raphinha produced the moment of clinical finishing that would elude the hosts. Leeds worked the ball down their right flank, Klich easing it inside past four blue shirts to Harrison who in turn found Raphinha 25 yards out from goal. He shaped to feed the ball out wide but instead took advantage of the space in front of him by drilling a shot through Godfrey’s legs and inside the far post.
Damningly, Everton failed to produce a shot on target after falling behind. Whether that’s because of a comparative lack of fitness, particularly in contrast to Bielsa’s players, a lack of sufficient quality or a suspect collective mentality is something for Ancelotti to ponder but the feeling was that the game was up once the visitors made the breakthrough.
Just like against Southampton, Everton came up against a quick, well-drilled outfit and were found wanting. Depressingly so. The inquest by supporters in the aftermath has raised inevitable calls for patience as Ancelotti and Marcel Brands plot their next moves in the market but at some point you have to stop searching for answers in upcoming transfer windows and start fashioning winning teams from what you already have at your disposal.
Ancelotti’s insistence on playing players out of position while an exciting young natural left full/wingback in Niels Nkounkou wasn’t even in the matchday squad was not justified either by fielding an awkward Iwobi in that role or by the final result. The same was said about the glaring omission of Anthony Gordon at Newcastle. So while Godfrey, a player not yet fully ready to play week in, week out at centre-half, is allowed to grow into the side, the manager’s baffling inconsistency where the other promising youth players are concerned is starting to grate.
This weekend presented Everton with the chance to go third with a win; instead, they’re left looking over their shoulders as the familiar environs of mid-table obscurity beckon once again. There is now significant pressure on the team to beat Burnley before four very difficult fixtures loom but as the defeats mount up and the goals against keep flowing, the onus is also growing heavier on the shoulders of Ancelotti to prove his worth as a coach by making the best of what he has while his first-choice stars are unavailable.
Everton take on Leeds United in the Premier League for the first time at Goodison Park since Steve Watson's famous hat-trick in 2003 as Carlo Ancelotti has to address the loss of another player key to his team's prospects this season.
Forced to try and adapt without Richarlison for three games before he made a typically productive return from suspension last week against Fulham, the Blues have been rocked by an even bigger blow with the news that Lucas Digne will be out for at least two months with an ankle injury.
The Frenchman had been solidifying his reputation as, in Ancelotti's words, a “fantastic left-back, one of the best left-backs in Europe at the moment,” and was an integral piece of Everton's attacking arsenal, particularly when James Rodriguez is on song. His absence hands his manager a significant headache as the club heads into a hectic part of the fixture schedule.
With Seamus Coleman's injury problems on the other side of defence — the Irishman is ruled out again this weekend as he continues rehabilitation from a hamstring injury — and Ancelotti needing to address his porous defence, the Italian might already have the formation in place best suited to compensating for the loss of Digne. The three-man central defence he implemented at Craven Cottage is perhaps the best way to incorporate the exciting but raw talent that is Niels Nkounkou.
After making three scintillating — and very wingback-like — appearances in the Carabao Cup, one of them against top-flight opposition in the form of West Ham, the 20-year-old made his Premier League bow at Newcastle at the start of the month but his attacking exploits were limited by what was a poor overall team display.
A 5-3-2 line-up against Marcelo Bielsa's Lilywhites might provide Nkounkou with the ideal platform to grow into the side and show he can be Digne's replacement but Ancelotti also has the option of using Fabian Delph as an emergency left-back. The veteran played in that role for Manchester City and was deployed as a rotating full-back with Nkounkou at St James's Park but it wasn't a successful experiment in an attacking sense.
Alex Iwobi's impressive outing as right-wingback at Fulham means that he could well have convinced Ancelotti that 5-3-2 is the way to go for now but Ben Godfrey's somewhat unsteady performance could provide Mason Holgate a route back into the line-up after an unconvincing performance of his own against Manchester United before the international break.
Jonjoe Kenny is available and could fill the right-wingback role with Iwobi switching to the left but, according to his manager, the former isn't yet at 100% following his ankle injury.
Ancelotti will need to get the back line right because Leeds under Bielsa are a side built better than any to exploit the gaps that Everton have been leaving in front of their defence in recent weeks. Indeed, for many Evertonians, this is the fixture that they have regarded with a healthy dose of trepidation given how quickly and effectively Leeds move the ball between the lines and swarm opposition back lines.
They arrived back in the Premier League amid a flurry of goals and looked like they could have been this season's Sheffield United, stumbled to a degree in October but appeared to have re-found their mojo when they destroyed Aston Villa 3-0 behind a Patrick Bamford hat-trick. Since then, however, they've suffered back-to-back 4-1 defeats and then been held by Arsenal to a goalless draw, results that have dropped them to 14th in the table.
Again, though, they remain a dangerous attacking side even while their setup and attacking bent makes them vulnerable defensively. The two sides have a few similarities and, with Everton incapable of keeping clean sheets, it could be an open, high-scoring affair.
Kick-off: 5:30 pm, Saturday 28 November 2020
Referee: Chris Kavanagh
VAR: André Marriner
Last Time: Everton 4 - 0 Leeds United (2003-04)
Predicted Line-up: Pickford, Keane, Mina, Holgate, Iwobi, Nkounkou, Allan, Docuouré, Rodriguez, Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin