Frank Lampard was quick to deflect praise for Everton’s dramatic 3-2 comeback win against Crystal Palace onto his players and supporters, but to ignore his own role would be underselling its importance.
The Toffees needed a win over the Eagles to ensure their fight for Premier League survival wouldn’t go down to the final day, with Everton facing a difficult trip to Arsenal while relegation rivals Burnley and Leeds United play at home to Newcastle and away at Brentford respectively.
As he has done throughout Everton‘s recent revival, Lampard lined his team up in a 3-4-3 formation, aiming to provide strength in numbers at the back, stifle Palace‘s exciting attacking players such as Wilfried Zaha and Eberechi Eze, and still leave enough in attack to be dangerous in transition.
Things didn’t go to plan, though. Within 36 minutes, Everton were 2-0 down thanks to goals from Jean-Philippe Mateta and Jordan Ayew. Their defending was shambolic, almost laughable at times. But the biggest problem was in midfield.
Throughout the opening 45 minutes, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Andre Gomes were outnumbered by a trio of Palace midfielders. The latter looked especially off the pace, unable to match his opponents physically.
By the end of the first half, Gomes had lost all six of his attempted duels – five on the ground and one in the air – lost possession seven times and committed three fouls. Crystal Palace were taking full advantage, consistently targetting the Portugal international when building attacks.
Of course, Gomes and Doucoure were massively hindered by that aforementioned numerical mismatch.
“I think we started the game with five at the back and they were overloading us in midfield and it was difficult for us to press. I think you could see that. We wanted to go but the gaps were too big,” striker and match-winner Dominic Calvert-Lewin said after the match.
Lampard had made an error and something needed to change but, to his credit, the former Chelsea and Derby County boss recognised the problem and began making repairs.
Shortly before half-time, Alex Iwobi was moved from right-wing-back to the point of a midfield trio, just behind Calvert-Lewin. From there, he was able to closely mark deep-lying midfielder Will Hughes, who was previously an easy target for the Palace defenders to play through as they progressed the ball up the pitch.
Suddenly, Everton had the numbers to press and the energetic quartet of Iwobi, Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin and Anthony Gordon got to work on unsettling Patrick Vieira’s team.
Palace were forced to start going long and when the ball was put up in the air, there was no way Michael Keane, Mason Holgate and Seamus Coleman were going to lose out.
Of course, Everton still needed more. At 2-0 down and lacking creativity, they needed a spark and someone to start playing the game on their terms.
Enter Dele Alli.
The England international has been sparingly used so far since joining Everton in January, perhaps seen more as a player Lampard can improve over the summer than one to pull them out of immediate danger.
But his half-time introduction in place of Gomes was an inspired move.
Everton took a mere 34% share of possession during the first half, increasing to 52% after the break. Their completed passes went up to 152 from 92, completed dribbles four from two and duels won 46 from 28.
Granted, Palace backed off in the second half, but that was largely as a result of the increased pressure put on them by Everton’s tactical switch and the effect Dele had on the game – the 26-year-old dropped deep to progress the ball rather than launching it long, made intelligent runs forward and was always looking to unlock the Palace defence.
His composure and ability to control the tempo of Everton’s possession also had a positive effect on Doucoure, who improved dramatically after a nervous, frantic first half.
Though he was only credited with creating one chance, Dele’s role in Richarlison’s equaliser cannot be understated, keeping the ball alive in the box following an overhit Seamus Coleman cross.
“The manager switched it to a 4-3-3. Alex Iwobi came in midfield and Dele, [a] forward-thinking player. I think ultimately that made the difference,” Calvert-Lewin noted.
“I thought Dele was excellent when he came on. He’s had to wait for his chance and he’s taken his chance in the biggest moment of the season. The change in system was the big difference and we knew that we had to get the first goal and once we got that, it was a domino effect.”
Much has been made about Lampard’s connection with the Everton fanbase and that has undoubtedly made a huge difference in their fight for survival.
But from switching to a more pragmatic style of play following the away defeat to Burnley in April to adjusting back to a 4-3-3 formation as they stared into the abyss on Thursday – not forgetting his game-changing substitution – Lampard has proved there is an astute tactical brain to go alongside his rallying cries.