Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
They say that the thrill is in the chase, never the capture. And for Everton owner Farhad Moshiri, that old aphorism must surely be ringing true right about now. One hopes Moshiri extracted maximum enjoyment from his protracted pursuit of Marco Silva. Because now that he’s got his man, he and the Toffees are firmly stuck in a dead-end relationship.
Four defeats in five, including two consecutive blanks in front of goal, sees Everton sitting in 10th, one place worse off than they were at the same stage last season. While heavy defeats to Manchester City and Tottenham are somewhat excusable, consecutive 1-0 reverses to Brighton and Leicester City are very much not so. Particularly given Silva’s failure to conjure a single big-chance in either game.
The Portuguese manager’s decision to field three centre-backs against Chris Hughton’s conservative Seagulls was a headscratcher. Reversion to 4-2-3-1 for the visit of Leicester, therefore, came as no surprise. But perseverance with midfielder Andre Gomes, out on his feet throughout Saturday’s defeat, was several degrees odder; homegrown talent Tom Davies continues to receive the cold shoulder from his manager.
Still, despite Silva’s reluctance to rotate, Everton did trouble Leicester with their customary high-block in the early going. Claude Puel’s side, once again boasting the ‘trivote’ of aggressive central midfielders that bested both Chelsea and Manchester City, nonetheless failed to string two passes together. Misplaced passes from Foxes defenders offered Gylfi Sigurdsson his best chances of picking the Leicester lock. Sigurdsson, otherwise crowded out by Puel’s defensive midfield trio, prevailed upon a Harry Maguire error to tee up Richarlison. Fortunately for Leicester, Jonny Evans was on the scene in a timely manner to execute a crucial block.
Richarlison, who started up top against Brighton, was restored to the left-flank for this one. But there he met Danny Simpson, the out-of-favour right-back making just his second start of this Premier League season. And the former Manchester United man, a regular starter throughout Leicester’s 2016 title win, set about arguing for his continued inclusion with a super-effective individual performance. Reluctant to advance beyond the halfway line, Simpson stayed tight to Richarlison throughout, rarely allowing the highly-rated Brazilian to give him the slip. Aided and abetted by Hamza Choudhury, who dutifully shuttled across to help double-mark Silva’s star pupil, the 31-year-old has certainly given Puel something to think about.
Especially when one takes into account the performance of regular right-back Ricardo Pereira, whose attacking acumen may well outstrip his defensive instincts. Fielded here as an inside-left, with instructions to run at Everton’s exposed centre-backs at every opportunity, only Pereira’s final-third decision-making let him down. Then again, the Portuguese, who also assisted Jamie Vardy’s winner, was not exactly alone in that regard; neither side cracked the 75% pass-completion barrier, in a quintessential early New Year’s Day kickoff of the scrappiest order.
Everton, who enjoyed most of the ball, probably deserve most of the flak for the eyesore that greeted recovering revelers. Unable to progress the ball beyond the build-up phase, thanks to Puel’s ‘trivote’, the Toffees instead looked wide where Lucas Digne once again menaced on the overlap. Untracked by languid inside-right Rachid Ghezzal, Digne’s crossing prowess represented Everton’s best chance of an opener. No surprise then that Jonjoe Kenny’s brush with the woodwork was facilitated by the former Barcelona defender.
Puel, to his great credit, solved the Digne problem at half-time by introducing Marc Albrighton in Ghezzal’s stead. With his teammates beginning to engage Everton higher up the pitch, Albrighton proceeded to play as an outside-right, pinning Digne back by giving the attack-oriented Frenchman something else to think about. And, needless to say, the industrious Englishman proved far more responsible in the defensive phase than his Algerian forerunner had previously been.
Meanwhile, over on the other flank, Digne’s opposite number Ben Chilwell was enduring a mixed bag performance for the ages. In a team replete with players intent on passing the ball to the opposition (Nampalys Mendy, for example), Chilwell proved the worst offender; the left-back’s questionable accuracy of pass matched only by an appalling first-touch. Still, at least Chilwell’s back-post defending was on point; the 22-year-old bested Theo Walcott to several Digne deliveries.
Walcott, whose performances throughout this Premier League season have been truly appalling in all phases of the game, unsurprisingly wasted the opportunity afforded by his marker’s attacking intent. Dispossessed frequently and displaying poor off-the-ball timing, Walcott also produced the misdirected header that inspired Leicester’s winner. Michael Keane’s attempt to control it left a lot to be desired, of course, but Vardy’s finish did not; one of only 26 touches the isolated striker managed to effect.
With a half-hour remaining, the onus was firmly on Silva to work some magic from the touchline. First up came the arrival of Bernard, with the spent Gomes finally called to shore. Sigurdsson duly dropped into Gomes’ midfield slot, with the Brazilian substitute incorporated into the side at number-10. But that configuration lasted only eight minutes, as Silva’s tactical tinkering quickly gave way to a 4-4-2, featuring Cenk Tosun up top and Bernard shifted to the right; hardly convincing in-game management from the indecisive Silva.
Everton barely improved as an attacking force after the changes, their first shot on target arriving only in the 75th minute as a result of a rare Evans error. But Bernard did trouble Chilwell in the latter stages, and when he entered the penalty-area in the 87th minute Everton’s striking woes were neatly summed up; neither Tosun nor Dominic Calvert-Lewin attacked the six-yard box to tap in the Brazilian’s low centre.
Chilwell capped a bizarre showing by playing Tosun onside at the second-phase of an injury-time corner. But Kasper Schmeichel stood tall to make only his second save of the afternoon, copper-fastening Leicester’s third win in four games in the process. Festive defeats to Crystal Palace and Cardiff underline how poorly Puel is faring at turning Leicester into an incisive, possession-based side. But this victory, coupled with wins over Manchester City and Chelsea, show that the old defensive, counterattacking magic is still there. Three defensive midfielders may be justifiable against gung-ho teams who press, but even two is hard to argue for against the likes of Neil Warnock’s side. Alas, for frustrated Foxes fans, passers like Vicente Iborra and Adrien Silva remain frozen out.
Still, it could be worse: they could be stuck with the lot of an Everton fan, months removed from the tedium of Sam Allardyce football and, therefore, feeling obliged to defend Silva’s nice-but-dim brand of football tactics. Remember: prior to this game, Everton were the only side to concede one set-piece goal for every two games, and Silva’s Watford side were equally porous in that regard, too. Watching the relatively diminutive Jonjoe Kenny mark Maguire here, while both Kurt Zouma and Keane marked space, was a sight to behold. As was Silva’s failure to devise a way to either break Leicester down or change the game from the sideline. Moshiri, once smitten, is surely already casting a wandering eye elsewhere. For the steel magnate, the Silva era is likely to stand forever as a harsh lesson in the value of being careful what you wish for.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112