Monday, May 23, 2022

Everton inch toward Premier League survival against Watford side offering little hope for the future

WATFORD — No one plans for their season to head in the direction of Alex Iwobi playing right wing back and being a creative fulcrum. When Farhad Moshiri took his money out of Arsenal and ploughed it into Everton six years ago his vision was probably not for his new club to grind their way to Premier League survival in early May using a team and system that surely won’t last through the next preseason.

But with Everton’s need as great as it is now, Frank Lampard has fathered something of real inventiveness and intrigue.  The visitors may not have done enough to break through the Watford lines on a night when they seemed to conclude that one point was plenty in their pursuit of survival, but if anyone was going to break this game out of its torpor it was the Nigerian international.

On his own he created five chances, had 20 more touches than any other player in Blue and recovered possession 13 times, the most of anyone on the pitch. He did not stint in tracking the dangerous Samuel Kalu without the ball either. And when it came into his possession, his passes down the line gave Demarai Gray and Richarlison plenty to work with. He’s been at his best in years gone by as something of a secondary creator, an accelerant to more ball-dominant attackers, but here he was the cornerstone of the few good things Everton did with and without the ball.

A repurposed left winger masquerading as Trent Alexander-Arnold is certainly not the career trajectory anyone who remembers Iwobi breaking through at Arsenal might have expected. It is equally fair to assume that few at Goodison Park bought him in the sincere belief that in a pinch he might be able to help cover for the problems on the right flank that  have been apparent for some time.

But then, this is where Everton are for now, asking Lampard to eke just enough out of the hodgepodge of a squad at his disposal to keep them in the top tier for one more season. It is just about paying off. With a game in hand the Toffees are two points clear of a subsiding Leeds, a rather limp attacking display (Iwobi aside) going unpunished by a Watford side missing almost any player that could have realistically threatened Jordan Pickford’s goal.

Everton did not do too much to ask questions of Ben Foster at the other end. There were flashes of something more expansive; twice around the hour mark Iwobi found Gray in good positions only for a heavy touch and an undercooked shot to put the opportunities to waste. To the delight of his former supporters, Richarlison’s night was a frustrating one, much as his season has been, and his fellow former Hornet, Abdoulaye Doucoure, never looked like making a major impact on this game.

Better crosses from Anthony Gordon in injury time might have been enough for the visitors to nick a goal and all three points at the death but this will do, the blue flares that decorated the Vicarage Road pitch at full time expressing the relief of a fanbase who are beginning to believe this may not be a waking nightmare.

Unlike Roy Hodgson, who named three academy graduates on the bench, Lampard is not in a position to think about what he might do next season. His side’s recent uptick in form has been based around tried and tested principles for getting out of a relegation scrap: tighten up as much as possible at the back and trust your players to nick one at the other end. Eleven points from six games is all the vindication this approach needs, but it does not hide the fact that major reconstructive surgery is needed at a time when Everton might struggle to pay for a quick facelift.

Fabian Delph has emerged as a solid anchoring option in midfield but is out of contract at the end of the season and has not come cheap. The rest of Lampard’s options in those positions are a mishmash of players who work well as accoutrements to the main men, not building blocks around the team. 

So often at Vicarage Road Doucoure would charge up the pitch, not really involving himself in much, wait for a move to die down and then charge back, a fast moving passenger. When Dan Gosling, making his first Premier League start in nearly two years, is comfortably holding his own in the Watford engine room it is apparent where strengthening is required.

There are at least some players that offer cause for optimism; the left side of Mason Colgate, Anthony Gordon and Vitaly Mykolenko looked promising but struggled to find its way into the game. The latter in particular looks like something of a benchmark for how Everton might go about a rebuild, find someone to take a high earner (Lucas Digne) off your hands and replace him with a talented prospect with room to grow.

Doing that while retaining a place in the Premier League is a hard needle to thread but it at least offers the semblance of an identity that Everton seemed to lack on their steady slide away from the Premier League’s top half.

Another season in the top flight is not yet secured but the odds are growing more favorable. The only table Leeds are moving up on current form is the disciplinary, which they now lead in both categories, Daniel James earning them their third red card of the campaign to go with a Premier League record 97 yellows. The Welsh winger will join Luke Ayling in missing the remainder of the season, a small squad by design, racked by injuries, is now inflicting further damage on itself. They seem bound to join Norwich and Watford in the Championship.

This has been a crushing season for both those yo yo teams, riven by mediocrity. Even this first home clean sheet of the campaign felt deeply frustrating for a Watford side that offered little to suggest they might keep Everton from getting one too. Perhaps the best the Hornets can hope for right now is to wipe the slate clean. Even that is not being done entirely effectively. Wednesday morning brought the announcement of a new manager to succeed septuagenarian Roy Hodgson as he rides into the managerial sunset like Leonard Nimoy departing the Springfield monorail.

Rob Edwards is the sort of manager to reinvigorate supporters, a young coach with a track record of success in the English Football League, he had taken Cotswolds side Forest Green Rovers to the top of League Two with the division’s best attack. He has a track record of working with youngsters, entrusted with the nation’s best and brightest under 16s by the English Football Association. 

And yet with crushing irony this season of searching for deeper nadirs — from the bizarre Claudio Ranieri interregnum to their attempts to keep Emmanuel Dennis from the Africa Cup of Nations — ends with them being accused of “deceit” in their appointment of Edwards, one which Forest Green insist took place with no dialogue between the clubs. The Hornets responded by stating that their new manager had “a contractual provision allowing him to leave Forest Green Rovers at any time to discuss employment opportunities at other clubs”.

Edwards will have his work cut out to turn the tide even if the likes of Joao Pedro strived to make a good impression on their future manager. There were parts of Vicarage Road with more empty seats than occupied ones, if the atmosphere in most of the ground was anything to go on they had only been filled out of a sense of grim obligation. A young child held aloft a sheet of A4 paper bearing the demand “Duxbury out” (Scott Duxbury, Watford CEO) ahead of kick off. That was a rare display of mutiny from a supporter base that would appear to be more resigned than raging. In such circumstances an outbreak of gallows humor, chants of “we’ve got the ball” swiftly followed by “we’ll get it back”, was altogether welcome.

There was precious little else from Hodgson’s side, shorn of Ismaila Sarr and Dennis among others, to warm the support. Joao Pedro ran dangerously behind the lines and Samir offered hard work aplenty at the back but the reality is this did not look anything like a Premier League side. In a few weeks it will not be. For now it is cause for jubilation at Everton that these two will not be meeting next season in the Championship.

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