Everton have been up and down so far since Sean Dyche took over, and fixing their chronic goalscoring issues might be the biggest job of his career so far.
The full-time whistle at Goodison Park on Saturday brought a familiar ringing to the ears of Everton’s players. Aston Villa had arrived there off the back of three consecutive defeats during which they’d shipped 11 goals. Everton’s performance in their previous game against Leeds United had again hinted that an injection of Dyche grade steel into their collective backbone might yield the results they need to ensure another season of Premier League football, but familiar ghosts revealed themselves again as Villa coasted to a comfortable 2-0 win.
One move in the first half seemed to sum up so many of their issues. The score was still goalless when Dwight McNeil was put in down the middle by an excellent pass from Alex Iwobi. For about a tenth of a second it looked like McNeil might be through on goal, but instead he momentarily paused and checked inside. With defenders starting to close in around him, he passed sideways to Neal Maupay, whose weak shot was comfortably saved by Emi Martinez.
How different might their afternoon have turned out had McNeil not taken that pass in his stride and thumped Everton into the lead? Everybody knows that Goodison Park can feel like a tinderbox at times, a ground that can become a huge fireworks display or a raging house fire at any point.
The lift that comes with the former can be audibly enervating, and the reaction of Everton’s players to those vast swells of noise against Arsenal was telling. They played as though visibly lifted by that reaction and by the end of that game the result felt like something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, even against the Premier League leaders.
But there again were those insecurities, laid bare again against Aston Villa. That nanosecond of hesitation followed by very rapidly finding himself in a dead end road. The pass back to another player who simply isn’t a great scorer of a goals, and a thoroughly predictable side-footed shot, far too close to the goalkeeper to cause him any significant discomfort.
No-one wants to consider themselves to be a Proper Football Man, but sometimes you just can’t help but shout, “PUT YOUR LACES THROUGH IT!” at such a moment. It was a move bereft of the confidence required to score goals at this level of the game.
Its’s fair to say that the four matches of Sean Dyche’s tenure with Everton have already been up and down. Four matches, two wins and two defeats. Big wins against Arsenal and Leeds United coupled with a Merseyside derby defeat to Liverpool and now this, the misery of the afternoon compounded by results elsewhere dropping them back into the bottom three.
Winning every other game they play for the rest of the season would keep them in the Premier League (with 14 to play, seven wins would double their current points tally for the season to 42), but when those defeats come, they seem to have a greater negative effect than the positive effects of winning. To put it another way, Everton seem considerably more likely to go on a losing run than a winning one.
This remains a mess that has been building for years. Overspending under successive managers under a policy so scattergun as to resemble names being pulled from a hat while layering template upon template in terms of an increasingly unbalanced-looking squad of players led to a close shave with FFP regulations and the sale last summer of Richarlison, their one reasonably sure-fire source of goals. And having only just escaped relegation with a game to spare, it’s hardly as though they had a considerable amount of slack to play with in the first place.
And Everton’s mis-firing on the pitch is an explicit example of how mismanagement at boardroom level can have a direct effect on a team’s fortunes. This critical cog in their wheel has not been adequately replaced. There remains an increasingly inexplicable looking optimism that Dominic Calvert-Lewin will at some point return from injury and save the day, but this always felt somewhat optimistic and is looking increasingly untenable as time progresses. Calvert-Lewin has played 13 times for Everton this season and has scored one goal. It’s almost March.
None of this is intended as criticism of the player. He has had phenomenally bad luck with injuries, and the stop-start nature of his season has prevented the build-up of any head of steam that he might have been able to turn to his advantage.
But this is the most visible point of a broader problem. Demarai Gray is their only attacking player to have scored more than twice in the league this season, and he’s only scored three. The joint-highest scorer remains Anthony Gordon, and he has been a Newcastle player for the last month. Of the players still at Goodison Park, the attackers have scored seven league goals between them, while the midfield have only scored two. For the record, Aston Villa’s midfielders have collectively scored eight Premier League goals this season.
At Burnley, Sean Dyche struggled for goals in his last two seasons in the Premier League, with 33 in the 2020/21 campaign and 34 the following season. He’s talked at length about people’s perceptions of him in the past and how misplaced they are. Well, now’s the time to prove them wrong.
There is a certain irony to the fact that life for Everton under Dyche, who was was presumably brought in with part of his remit being to offer some degree of stability to a club that has been teetering in recent years, has already included a couple of wild ups and downs.
With just 17 goals in 24 Premier League games this season, they’re the lowest goalscorers in the division, and the Aston Villa game offered few hints as to how this might be quickly resolved. Sean Dyche might well be amongst those keeping their fingers crossed that Dominic Calvert-Lewin will return from injury and save the day. That this looks close to his best hope of fixing this issue says a lot about the scale of the task ahead of him.
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