Lack of menace and confidence leaves Everton exposed
Midway through the Europa League defeat by Lyon at Goodison on Thursday, just before the fighting broke out in fact, the chap in the next seat turned to me and said he wouldn't mind sticking £100 on Everton to beat Arsenal at the weekend.
"They are clearly concentrating on that game," he argued, pointing to the fact that Wayne Rooney, Leighton Baines and a couple of other regulars had been left out of the side to face Lyon. "And come on, Everton always beat Arsenal."
Not true, actually. If you look back over the past five years there have been just two home league wins over Arsene Wenger's side. There was the one last season, when a late goal from Ashley Williams sealed a 2-1 victory that ended a sequence of five winless games and put a little momentum back into Everton's league campaign, and a tidy 3-0 trouncing in Roberto Martinez's first season that the manager described as "tactically perfect".
There were two draws and one defeat in the other three games, so there are no grounds for suggesting Everton usually have the upper hand at home against the Gunners, though the myth seems to persist that this fixture will find Wenger at his most fretful, one of those pesky northern bearpits where the raucousness of the fans lifts and energises the home players while simultaneously shrinking the spirit of the visitors.
After being pulverised then publicly mocked by Troy Deeney and his mates at Watford last Saturday, Arsenal's fragile confidence must be steeling itself for another physical onslaught, yet that intimidatory aspect of Everton's game is precisely what has disappeared under Ronald Koeman. Perhaps the former Ajax coach deliberately set out to replace it with something more refined, in which case he admitted defeat in the aftermath of the Lyon game.
"We have not got the finesse or the confidence at the moment to try and play out from the back, we make too many mistakes," the Everton manager said. "We are better when we play more direct."
Full marks for honesty, but before the Arsenal central defence reach for their tin hats it might be noted there is a flaw in Koeman's logic. To play direct you need, to borrow a phrase of Deeney's, someone with cojones up front. Everton do not have anyone fitting that bill. Rooney is too short and these days too slow to play as a traditional centre-forward. While he might have been able to surprise Arsenal 15 years ago, it would be an even bigger shock were he to come up with anything as dramatic now. Dominic Calvert-Lewin is not sufficiently robust, and neither is Sandro Ramirez. Oumar Niasse is in danger of being forgotten again.
Everton, by Koeman's own admission, failed to get hold of a target man or a reliable goalscorer in the summer, so good luck with the long-ball game. Also, if long and strong is now the aim, Everton have even less need of all the No 10-type players Koeman brought in. Gylfi Sigurdsson on his own would probably be enough; there is no point trying to find room for Rooney and Davy Klaassen as well.
An idiosyncratic approach to team-building means that Everton supporters have been forced to watch an unfocused mish-mash all season, and it is hard to see how the situation can change until the next transfer window.
In Koeman's defence there is no question he has been unlucky with injuries. Key performers such as Seamus Coleman and Yannick Bolasie have suffered potentially career-threatening setbacks and he has also had to do without experienced squad members in James McCarthy and Ramiro Funes Mori. Even Ross Barkley, whatever the state of the relationship between player and manager, has been unavailable all season.
Everton could do with someone of his creativity at the moment, even if his presence and preference for playing in the hole would make that hole even more absurdly crowded.
It is not just signing too many similar attacking players that has unbalanced the side, however; in terms of age and experience Everton are also strangely polarised. Very few players available to Koeman for regular selection could be said to be enjoying their peak years. Sigurdsson may be an exception, along with Idrissa Gueye and Morgan Schneiderlin, but almost everyone else is either a prospect for the future or someone whose best seasons are behind him.
It is not just Romelu Lukaku's goals and physical strength Everton are missing, it is his youthful vigour and confidence. With Lukaku in the side opponents knew Everton possessed at least one player who would be at the top of his game. His absence, coupled with that of Barkley, has left the front end of the team looking short of character as well as short of menace.
The Everton manager accepts he is in a difficult position now, because he needs results, Arsenal and Chelsea are next up and confidence is extremely low. "Confidence comes from winning games, and we have not been doing that," Koeman said.
Arsenal have not exactly been pulling up trees either but the chances are they will find Everton less problematic than they did Watford. Few imagined that when Koeman took over but, as Lyon demonstrated so neatly in midweek, a side that can pass the ball is always going to have a chance against one that cannot.
Arsenal can certainly pass, will probably take heart from Lyon's example, and still have the services of Olivier Giroud. As long as they can avoid a brawl to wake up their opponents - copyright Bruno Genesio, Lyon coach - there seems no reason for the visitors to fear any more unpleasantness at Goodison.
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