Marcel Brands and Marco Silva were successful in not only pruning a bloated squad but also in then adding genuine quality to the Everton team. It means that the manager has some tough decisions to make when everybody is fit.
A cursory look at the starting XI from last season’s Anfield derby in comparison with the team sheet for Saturday’s game against Cardiff reveals just how much Everton’s squad has changed in just a short amount of time.
Just three of the 14 players who played a part in January’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool — Jordan Pickford, Idrissa Gueye and Gylfi Sigurdsson — are likely to be in the line-up for the 232nd Merseyside derby on Sunday and only three more — Phil Jagielka, Tom Davies and Dominic Calvert-Lewin — are likely to be in the matchday squad.
Four of them — Ashley Williams, Cuco Martina, Wayne Rooney and Aaron Lennon — have been offloaded, either on loan or in permanent deals and for another three — Jonjoe Kenny, Mason Holgate and Oumar Niasse — there probably won’t be room on the substitute’s bench.
It’s a measure of how effective Marcel Brands and Marco Silva were in not only pruning a bloated squad over the summer but also in then adding genuine quality to the team. It also means that the manager has some tough decisions to make when, as is the case at the moment, everybody is fit.
In some areas, there is just no argument. So impressive and consistent has Idrissa Gueye been in his customary, tigerish role as the chief disruptor in the middle of the park that he is an early contender for player of the season. André Gomes, meanwhile, has stepped into the role previously occupied by Tom Davies or Morgan Schneiderlin with incredible poise and command; to the point where he is already living up to predictions that he could be Everton’s next Mikel Arteta and fans are wondering what would need to be done to sign the Portuguese permanently as soon as possible.
The result has been that Davies, a player who played 42 times in all competitions last season, hasn’t appeared in a Premier League fixture in two months; Morgan Schneiderlin, who featured 40 times last term, has only started give games so far; and James McCarthy hasn’t been able to get near the team to complete his recovery from a double leg fracture.
Other parts of the team aren’t so cut-and-dried, however, and while keeping the same team from week to week, where possible, has been a convenient “out” for Silva in terms of some tough choices so far, it doesn’t make it any easier on those players champing at the bit for game time.
Three into two won’t go
Central defence is a particularly vexing case in point. In Michael Keane, Everton have a player who has undergone a remarkable transformation in fortunes. On the back of a worryingly shaky first season following what looked back then to have been an exorbitant £25m (rising to £30m) move from Burnley and a 2018 pre-season during which he hardly covered himself in glory, there were many Evertonians who felt that the 25-year-old was in danger of being surplus to requirements with the arrival of Kurt Zouma and Yerry Mina.
Fast forward a few weeks and Keane has gone from being regarded as a liability, a weak link and being behind the aforementioned new signings and Mason Holgate in the pecking order under the new regime to being another leading candidate for player of the year even at this early stage of the campaign.
That he struggled through last season with a potentially career-threatening infection in his foot and was forced to play in outsized boots to accommodate the padding around the injury goes a long way to explaining why his form was such a concern. Combine that with the fact that he was playing in a struggling team and is it any wonder that the wisdom of his acquisition was being questioned by Blues fans and his World Cup prospects evaporated as Gareth Southgate turned to other options. It is testament to his talents as a player and mental strength that he looks every inch a £30m player these days.
Zouma may have arrived almost literally at the last minute but he has proved to be a very astute and valuable loan signing who provided almost flawless cover while Mina recovered from successive foot injuries before finally making his debut in the goalless draw at Chelsea two weeks ago.
That game came at an inopportune time for the Frenchman. He had cemented his place in Everton’s starting XI at the expense of Holgate who had struggled to find his feet early in the campaign and earned a recall to the French international side as recognition of his excellent form in the heart of the Blues’ defence.
He had kept the fit-again Mina on the bench for two games but was forced to step aside when the team travelled to Stamford Bridge as he was ineligible to play. Now, given how well the Colombian played in that match and again against Cardiff last Saturday, Zouma has been relegated to the role of deputy and late substitute.
All three centre-halves have exhibited a similar level of performance so far but given that Everton have invested heavily in Keane and Mina and that Zouma officially belongs to another club until (and if) circumstances change next summer, it is perhaps understandable that the former two get the nod while everyone is fit and healthy and Silva is using a flat back four.
The latter case may not always be, of course. Silva has used a three-man central defence before and hasn’t ruled out deploying it again. Indeed, he has thrown an extra centre half on at the end in recent games to shore up a result but it doesn’t look likely that he will opt for that formation from the start in many games. Because while it does free up the fullbacks to be more attacking, it does so at the expense of one of his more natural attackers and the four-man offensive unit has proved to be an effective weapon in many matches this season.
Is it something he would consider at Anfield this
summer Sunday? It’s unlikely — it’s hardly the occasion for too much experimentation — but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. It would add an extra defensive component to deal with one of the most deadly forward lines in the league and also, perhaps, provide a reason for taking one of his less-than-consistent wide players out of the side or, at least, from the starting line-up.
In search of the right blend
It’s fair to say that each of Everton’s signings this year, from Cenk Tosun and Theo Walcott to the six additions acquired over the summer, have had a positive impact on the side, albeit to varying degrees. Of the new attacking players, Tosun has clearly found it hardest to hold down a starting berth, with Richarlison proving more effective in a central role.
Bernard and Walcott, meanwhile, have been preferred down the flanks but with neither operating at their peak at the moment, it creates a window of opportunity that Ademola Lookman looks more and more likely to climb through with each passing week exciting cameo.
The young England midfielder has come a long way from the sullen demeanour he displayed after the transfer window closed and the kibosh was put on his desired permanent move to Red Bull Leipzig. From barely looking like he was interested in playing during pre-season, Lookman now has the look of a player fully committed to taking any chances that come his way and he is pushing hard for his first Premier League start.
Whether that is in place of Walcott or Bernard is up for debate but there is a growing feeling among the fanbase that one of the two could do with a spell on the bench where they could swap roles with Lookman to become the impact substitute.
Walcott’s move from Arsenal to Goodison presented the 29-year-old with an chance to finally shed the image he had cultivated in his years in North London of a man who was always falling tantalisingly short of fulfilling his rich potential. In new surroundings and now under a dynamic, ambitious young coach in Silva, the hope was that the former Southampton prodigy could find the consistency lacking in his game but it appears that it continues to elude him.
That’s not to say that he hasn’t weighed in with some important contributions, of course. Two goals early in the season and a key role in the sending off of Bournemouth’s Adam Smith in August were evidence of a player getting his first full season at his new club off to a flyer but Walcott has become progressively less reliable in the final third, his key role in Sigurdsson’s goal against Cardiff notwithstanding. He was found wanting against his old club when he probably should have scored in a one-on-one situation with Petr Cech and his heavy touch let him down at Chelsea in what was a rare chance for the Blues to score in a key away game.
Meanwhile, after making a scintillating start to his Everton career, Bernard has shown signs that he will need a lot longer than at first thought to get to grips with the transition from Ukraine’s Premier League to England. His composure to set up the third goal against Fulham having only been on the field a few minutes, and then his brilliant skills to carve out a goal for his compatriot Richarilson on his first League start vindicated those who felt that of all of Silva’s summer signings, he was the most exciting.
If there has been concern around the diminutive Brazilian from some quarters in the weeks since it’s that he has, perhaps, lost some of that early confidence, his distribution has been iffy at times and he has generally been erratic. Substituted initially for fitness reasons — he hadn’t played since March when he arrived on a free transfer from Shakhtar Donetsk in August — Bernard largely has been withdrawn by his manager more because of diminished effectiveness in recent weeks, although he was improving as the game against Cardiff wore on and was probably unfortunate to make way.
The knocks on Bernard are possibly overdone. Only Gylfi Sigurdsson and Lucas Digne have a higher percentage of key passes per game than him so far this season and, as his role in the lovely breakaway goal against Brighton showed, he can make vital contributions over the course of a game even if he still lacks consistency. Silva clearly agrees and, by starting him week in, week out, he is allowing the winger to gradually find his feet and get much-needed game time and experience under his belt.
Lookman coming into the side for one of Walcott or Bernard feels like it’s inevitable at this time but whether the manager elects to take that decision for a game as important as the derby on Sunday is another matter. (The home game with Newcastle would seem to be a much more obvious test case.) In a contest in which Everton will be more reliant on counter-attacking than is the case at home, there is an argument for retaining Walcott in the XI for his pace and experience.
Bringing him in for Bernard would seem to be a more like-for-like change but the Brazilian might be better suited to the pressing game and the need for tracking back than Lookman, whose defensive weaknesses were an issue for Ronald Koeman and Sam Allardyce.
These are, by Silva’s own admission, nice problems to have and if he can find the right attacking blend and draw the requisite consistency from all his attacking players, there is no question that Everton will be in a far better position to challenge for a top-six place over the second half of the season.
Competition among the players can only help in that regard, as could a key signing or two in January to bolster that front line, but in the interim the challenge is to cultivate the best environment for the obvious quality that exists in this Blues team to become a consistently dangerous team going forward against the best teams in the division
The upcoming games at Liverpool and Manchester City and against Tottenham at home will be a stern examination of just how far Silva has been able to do that. He has some selection dilemmas to work through but ultimately it’ll come down to whether the players can perform when the time comes.