David Byrne talks about restrictions being liberating – how they spark creativity far more than a blank canvas or an unlimited budget.
That was certainly the case on Saturday evening at Goodison, when Carlo Ancelotti’s lack of on-field options inspired the sort of back-to-basics approach that has been at the heart of most of the best moments at Everton for decades. Clearly, the Italian icon’s over-arching mission is to eventually utilise Farhad Moshiri’s money to elevate the Toffees above that over-reliance on grit and bloody-mindedness, but for one night, with supporters back in the ground, it was heartwarming to see that this high-priced squad can still produce what’s become recognised even outside of L4 as a classic ‘Everton’ performance.
The back three has been problematic for some time – even archetypal ‘modern’ fullbacks like Seamus Coleman and Lucas Digne can struggle with the often contradictory demands it places upon them. Asking midfielders or central defenders to play in that system then – one that seems to come naturally to very few sides – always seemed unreasonable and overly complicated. Given the attacking threat of Chelsea then, the division’s form team, Ancelotti reverted to the traditional back four with makeshift fullbacks, Ben Godfrey and Mason Holgate, defending narrow and using their pace and strength to first and foremost make life difficult for the visiting wide-men.
They did that superbly all night, and with Yerry Mina and Michael Keane dominant in the centre, the visitors were reduced to shooting from long range on all but a handful of occasions.
Key to the defensive performance, preventing Frank Lampard’s team from really turning the screw in a manner that reflected their possession, was the fact the Blues always posed a threat on the break. Richarlison was ever-willing to drop deep, turn and run with the ball, while Dominic Calvert-Lewin was available to chase anything more direct.
It was one such long pass, straight down the middle from Jordan Pickford, that decided the match on 22 minutes. Calvert-Lewin beat Thiago Silva in the first challenge and then, chasing the loose ball, got side-swiped by Chelsea keeper Edouard Mendy for a proper, old-fashioned, no-need-to-measure-it-in-microns, foul in the box.
Right, two things about the penalty that Gylfi Sigurdsson rolled home like a crown green bowler.
Firstly, there was a bit of discussion with Richarlison about who was going to take it.
That should just never happen – you’ve had all week to decide it. The opposition will try and psyche you out and put you off the kick – you don’t need it from your teammate as well.
Secondly, it does look ‘dead cool’ when you stroll up like a smoothy with your hands in your pockets and slot like that, but why do it in all these weird ways? Some Leeds tit did something similar the night before and had his saved, only for a VAR retake to give him another chance he didn’t deserve, and Ademola Lookman surely still wakes up sweating in the dead of night after his abomination against West Ham.
Has there been any research into why players seem increasingly intent on finding new and often bizarre ways of executing what really should be a fairly simple function of the game?
In 1976 when Antonin Panenka took his famous kick straight down the middle against West Germany, it must have stood out simply because at that time penalties were pretty much a trade-off between placement and power. To steal an old Dennis Leary joke about Lou Gehrig’s disease, it’s called a Panenka, how did the keeper not see that coming?
What’s changed so much since then? Have keepers evolved so far in terms of their anticipation, size and agility that new methods of subterfuge and slight-of-foot are now required in order to even up the odds in an attempt to beat them from 12 yards out?
Or are players just posing bastards?
Jesus, you’re thinking, imagine if he’d missed.
Reese James and Mason Mount skimmed the woodwork for the visitors, while VAR saw Calvert-Lewin denied a penalty for an earlier offside, and while Chelsea knocked the ball around nicely enough, there was never any real backs-to-the-wall desperation about the Everton defending.
It got a little bit tense, but this felt more like what you’d think of as an Italian-style controlled, defensive performance than that of a team just being outclassed and clinging on for dear life. Or it did afterwards, anyway.
It was certainly a much needed win, especially given the upcoming fixtures, starting with Leicester on Wednesday.
Finally, we often like to finish with a recommendation. So, if you are interested in what it takes to survive at the top of English football for years, and want to read searing behind-the-scenes revelations about some of the highest profile incidents and personalties of the Premier League era, then don’t read Arsene Wenger’s autobiography My Life in Red and White.
The sessions with the poor ghostwriter must have been like one of them post-match interviews when Robert Pires got a penalty for kicking himself up the arse. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Wenger’s career gleaned from the newspapers could have written this, the memoirs of a man who claims not to have really noticed his own life as it was down the other end of the pitch.
Literally, the only vaguely surprising little nugget was the Frenchman’s claim to be a great dancer. Although, as a taller gentleman with some sick moves of my own, maybe even that should come as no great surprise.
Seriously, avoid it like the bog on the Millennium Falcon.