Danger ahead: Everton's relegation problems not being solved by Lampard

Frank Lampard Everton Getty Images

Alex Iwobi’s 99th-minute winner was the sort of moment that changes seasons; shock therapy for a club that was sinking fast.

That is the potential significance of Everton’s victory over Newcastle United on Thursday evening, but the three points by no means spell the end of their troubles. 

In fact, looking back over the first seven league games of Lampard’s tenure, there are more reasons for concern than optimism, especially if we consider the longer-term future and their hopes of pushing back into the top 10 next season.

Article continues below

Survival is not by any means guaranteed.

Everton are only three points above the bottom three with nine matches left to play, and while games in hand give them an advantage over Leeds United and Watford, performances up to – and including – the Newcastle win suggest Everton will not pull away from their rivals before the end of the campaign.

The problems pre-date Lampard, of course. Everton’s malaise is chiefly caused by a diabolical string of transfers and an erratic policy towards hiring managers, with the club lurching between tactical styles to create a squad that is a mishmash of ideas. 

The swing from Rafael Benitez to Lampard is the latest, and arguably most dramatic, of these moves and it is partly to blame for the tactical confusion at Everton right now.

But worse than that, Everton have a long history of being attracted to celebrities, signing poorly from the likes of Barcelona or Arsenal to play at being a super-club.

Hiring Lampard epitomises the club’s interest in style over substance.

Lampard’s principles lack detail

What defined Lampard’s Chelsea, and has already become clear at Everton, is a general philosophy of high pressing, an expansive shape, and short passing out from the back – with an emphasis on adventurous attacking football.

Alex Iwobi Everton GFX Getty Images

But unlike other managers who broadly follow this idea, Lampard teams do not appear to be coached in detail.

Chelsea were hopelessly open throughout his 18 months in charge; vulnerable to counterattacks, pressing without structure, and attacking in a seemingly improvised manner.

This is perhaps unsurprising considering Lampard spent his entire playing career under managers with a hands-off approach – and who do not fit the modern necessity of structuring attacks in minute detail.

Having become a manager himself within a year of retiring, Lampard is highly unlikely to have received the teaching needed to coach to the required level, be it the intricacies of defensive organisation from within a high line to the positional specificity of the ‘automatisms’ that make up on-the-ball routines.

Where Everton are struggling

Given that this led to passive, individualistic, and Swiss-cheese football with a team as strong as Chelsea’s, it should come as no surprise Lampard’s problems are even more acute at Everton. 

Aside from short waves of intensity that are more psychological than tactical (such as the final 15 minutes against Newcastle) Everton consistently look flat both on and off the ball. It is a side effect of low confidence, but largely a result of being given too few instructions.

Worse still, Everton are easy to play through due to the disorganisation of their pressing. Players are charging down in ones and twos and without a discernible pattern, which only serves to create holes in the system and further destabilise the shape.

They are also very open between the lines, decompressed in a way that speaks to the freedom Lampard gives his players in attack.

They spread out when on the ball, which means opponents can easily counterattack after winning back possession. Again, it is the sign of a coaching problem. 

Dele Alli Everton GFX Getty Images

This was seen most poignantly in the 5-0 defeat to Tottenham, who were allowed to play their natural counterattacking game because of Lampard’s accommodating high defensive line and an absence of concerted or organised pressure on the ball. 

In this match, and most others under Lampard so far, the distances between the defensive and midfield lines has been far short of what is required in the tactically-complex Premier League of 2022. 

This disconnect is just as much an attacking problem as a defensive one, because the players are not close enough to each other (and lack any pre-set moves to enact) to build with speed into the final third.

Formation changes are further destabilising

The chief problem is in central midfield, where Lampard has often selected a two and watched as they a) become isolated from the defensive and attacking lines and b) passively shuffle across, unable to control the match.

This has not been helped by a trial-and-error approach to selecting a formation. Lampard has deployed four distinct formations in just nine matches in charge and generally decides to stick or twist depending on the most recent result – rather than as a reaction to the upcoming opponent’s specific threats.

Frank Lampard Everton Southampton Premier League 2021-22 GFXGetty/GOAL

To take just one example, when a 4-4-2 worked in a 3-0 victory over Leeds – whose emptying of midfield under Marcelo Bielsa allowed for Everton deploying two in the middle – Lampard stuck with it for a game at Southampton, whose extreme narrowness naturally overwhelmed Allan and Donny van der Beek in a 2-0 win.

It has been clear for a while that without the tactical sophistication required to make Everton a coherent hole, Lampard at least needs to settle on one system so that his players can begin to work out their own patterns and relationships.

And it has also been clear that the system needed to have three in midfield...

Newcastle win may not be a springboard

Everton’s 4-2-3-1 on Thursday evening was a step in the right direction; the first time Lampard had used the formation and the first example of some solidity through the centre of the pitch, even if it was an uninspiring performance prior to that wild final 15.

However, a note of caution.

It is highly likely that the lesson Everton will learn from this win – one built on commitment and bravery, on pushing forward against the odds – will be the wrong one. Lampard needs to dial down the gung-ho, not lean into it.

The only way for Everton to improve is to become more conservative, finding compression between the lines by dropping a bit deeper and pressing with less frequency.

It is no coincidence that their best performance under Lampard so far was the 1-0 defeat to Manchester City, who held 69 percent possession, or that Lampard’s Chelsea were always at their best using a Mourinho-inspired approach in ‘Big Six’ matches.

“We were kind of waiting for this moment,” Lampard said after the match. “A night of togetherness and a night of spirit.”

To an extent, he is right. But “spirit” alone will not solve Everton’s crisis, and part of the problem with Lampard throughout his short managerial career has been “waiting” for things to happen; for individuals to paper over tactical shortcomings.