Back-to-back 4-0 defeats by Man City and Chelsea have dented the Blues’ top-three ambitions – now the basement side must be more streetwise in defence if they’re to recover against Birmingham, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.
Perhaps the pre-season predictions that Everton could break into the top three stemmed more from hope than judgement. After all, there has long been a desire to see the triumvirate of Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal broken up. Whether to add an extra sense of jeopardy to the WSL or simply see a different team succeed, many have had their eye on Everton as the team to break the monopoly.
Their opening two matches have been a bitter disappointment to those who thought this would be the season. Back-to-back 4-0 losses to City and Chelsea showed an Everton side in serious disarray. It was not necessarily the result itself – last season Everton conceded on average 3.5 goals against the top three, so they have not technically regressed – but the manner. Their defensive errors left them with no hope of challenging last season’s first and second-placed finishers.
“I was surprised, disappointed, a little bit shocked at the time,” said manager Willie Kirk, reflecting on their opening two games this week. “I probably tried to do too much, too soon.”
As well as bringing eight new players into the Everton squad, Kirk has looked to switch his side into playing a back three. Against Manchester City, this caused considerable confusion, and the visitors were easily able to exploit the spaces that opened up as Everton’s centre-backs seemed unaware of who they were supposed to be picking up. But even more concerning was how easy City found it to nick the ball off the Toffees in their own defensive third. The visitors managed to score twice from these high turnovers, catching Everton’s back-line in total disarray, and leaving them with plenty of space to attack into.
The irony was that Everton had created similar opportunities against City earlier in the game. Kenza Dali’s chance after two minutes, which proved to be their best of the game, came as they forced Laura Coombs into giving the ball away, leaving the Toffees with a four on three attacking opportunity.
In the second half of the match against Manchester City, Kirk shifted to a back four which did seem to help. Of the expected goals they conceded, only 0.33 of the total 1.42 came in the second half. But as Everton visited Chelsea the week after, Kirk reverted to the back three, and there was more of the same.
Chelsea have one of the most aggressive high-presses in the WSL and, once again, Everton suffered a huge number of high turnovers. Despite the Blues not scoring from any of them, seven were shot-ending. Only three teams in WSL history have managed more shot-ending high turnovers in a game. When playing against Chelsea and City, behaving in this manner is the equivalent of handing a burglar the key to your front door. You are going to get robbed.
Everton’s inability to hold on to the ball effectively piled on huge amounts of additional pressure. Nowhere was this clearer than when, at the start of the second half, Megan Finnigan passed the ball to Sam Kerr to tap into an empty net.
Kirk has said that, moving forward, Everton will look to go “back to basics”, suggesting that they will switch back to the 4-2-3-1 they favoured last season. Next up on Saturday is Birmingham, who already looked nailed on for relegation. After two incredibly tricky opening fixtures, this should be an opportunity for Everton to get some confidence back.
Key for them moving forward this season will be to cut out the on-the-ball errors which let Chelsea and Manchester City in, and work to be more clinical going forward. They created next to nothing against the Blues, but their opportunities against City could have seen them 2-0 up. At the highest level of football, fate really can swing that quickly. Kirk has two matches to iron out some of these issues before they visit Arsenal at the start of October. It would be wise to be sceptical of their ability to beat Jonas Eidevall’s side, but they will at least hope to show a bit more backbone.
Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph