Football Features

How kicking the ‘Hollywood signings’ habit could reshape Everton’s style of play

By Chris Smith

Published: 14:48, 23 July 2021

With players coming through the door, it’s safe to say Rafael Benitez has his feet firmly under the desk at Everton.

Asmir Begovic has arrived to provide back-up and competition between the sticks for Jordan Pickford, who may need to be brought back down to earth after an immense showing at Euro 2020 with England.

But the most eye-catching deal so far is the signing of winger Andros Townsend from Crystal Palace. Despite now being 30, the former Tottenham Hotspur man could prove a shrewd signing from both on-field and business perspectives.

Townsend was second only to Eberechi Eze for chances created (40) and assists (5) among Palace players in the Premier League last season, while he was fourth for completed dribbles (44) and first for completed crosses (55). A 13-time England international, Townsend comes with almost 250 games of Premier League experience and can play on either flank, making his arrival on a free transfer seem much more astute than on first glance.

Former Leicester City winger Demarai Gray was next through the door at Goodison Park in a £1.5m transfer move. After an initially positive start to life in Germany following his arrival in January, scoring once and assisting twice across his first three appearances, Gray was never able to overhaul the considerable talents of Leon Bailey and Moussa Diaby in the Leverkusen first-team and was restricted to just 440 minutes of Bundesliga football across 10 outings.

But this is a player who, though he played a fringe role as an emerging talent that season, has a Premier League medal with Leicester City, while time and again he’s shown a willingness to take risks and be positive in terms of trying spectacular shots and getting crosses into the box.

Like Townsend, Gray can play on either flank, meaning Benitez could choose to play them on their stronger sides to hug the touchline and provide crosses for Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who is arguably the best aerial striker in Europe right now. Despite Calvert-Lewin being responsible for 16 of Everton’s 47 Premier League goals last season (34%), the Toffees only ranked 12th for crosses attempted with 662.


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  • Diogo Jota – 16/1
  • Gabriel Jesus – 16/1

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Increased service in this area would no doubt be likely to boost the output of Calvert-Lewin, whose seven-goal figure for headed goals last season was the highest in the Premier League. And it’s in keeping with Benitez’s approach in his previous tenure at Newcastle United, who ranked sixth in the Premier League for crosses attempted (711) during his final campaign in charge in 2018/19.

This approach would also be in direct contrast to what the Toffees have at their disposal now, too, with the likes of Alex Iwobi, Bernard and Richarlison very much excelling as inside forwards, the former being more likely than most to drift inside and find space centrally.

It sounds rudimentary, but if it’s effective, Evertonians won’t care one bit given the turgid football they’ve endured under the likes of Sam Allardyce and Carlo Ancelotti in recent years.

Three ways Everton could line up with Townsend and Gray

4-2-3-1

During his most successful spell in England as manager of fierce rivals Liverpool, Benitez most often deployed a 4-2-3-1 system with two screening midfielders and a No.10 (usually Steven Gerrard) linking with an out-and-out goalscorer (Fernando Torres). Given the personnel he has at his disposal at Everton, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this be the case once again.

Reports suggest the Toffees are also closing in on the signing of Dutch right-back Denzel Dumfries, so he goes into this line-up. But how does he get the best from his other new arrivals in this system?

In this particular scenario, we’ve placed Townsend on the right flank where he can cut inside onto his left foot to get shots on goal, or drive to the byline to provide cut-backs for the likes of James Rodriguez. That said, Richarlison has plenty of experience playing on either side, so the two could swap if more width is provided. Gray would be the stick of dynamite Benitez could throw off the bench, with his pace and directness injecting an element of unpredictability into the Toffees.

4-4-2

Benitez is primarily known as a pragmatist, so there’s every chance he’ll go for a 4-4-2 at Goodison Park, leaning on the compactness and stability this system provides.

This would prove the perfect opportunity to play Townsend and Gray on their strong sides, hugging the touchline to stretch the opposition and provide crosses when Everton have the ball, while tucking in as part of a solid block without it. Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin played as a partnership extensively under Ancelotti so should know each other’s games well enough by now.

James Rodriguez has world-class technical ability but desperately needs his minutes and fitness managed so, should he remain at Everton, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Benitez use him as a super sub, introducing the Colombian when his side is in need of more guile in the final third.

3-4-3

Arguably the best way for Benitez to combine defensive solidity with genuine attacking threat is to deploy a 3-4-3. At the back, three of Everton’s four centre-backs (probably Ben Godfrey, Yerry Mina and Michael Keane) will provide a physically dominant and no-nonsense approach to defending, while their numbers would allow wing-backs Lucas Digne and Dumfries (or Seamus Coleman) to get forward. Further protection would be provided by Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure in front.

Again, Calvert-Lewin is the central threat, with Richarlison on the right. In this system, you’d once again be most likely to see Townsend and Rodriguez rotated, with Gray primarily used as an impact sub.

Have Everton adapted their recruitment model?

Ever since the arrival of Farhad Moshiri as majority shareholder, Everton have been the Premier League’s club to spend huge sums but yield little success, with accusations of paying over the odds for average players following them around over the past five years.

“We must manage the financial restrictions while still being ambitious,” Benitez said during his opening press conference as Everton manager.

Even just taking into account the aforementioned Iwobi, £35m is a monumental sum of money to pay for a winger who had just 11 goals and 19 assists in 100 Premier League appearances for Arsenal prior to his arrival, and only two of each in 55 games since.

By contrast, and including the Begovic signing, Everton have added three players with immense experience and the ability to both slot into the starting XI and provide the bench with genuine quality for a sum total of £1.5m. Interestingly, it was through this model that the Toffees last sustained a real challenge on the upper reaches of the Premier League table, with the likes of Tim Cahill, Leighton Baines, Joleon Lescott and Marouane Fellaini all arriving at Goodison Park for modest fees before going on to be great successes, the latter two also fetching handsome profits when they moved onto Man City and Man Utd, respectively.

Perhaps this is also telling of the approach that director of football Marcel Brands would prefer to employ, using money wisely to sign the right players for specific roles, rather than throwing the big bucks at ‘Hollywood signings’.

A frugal future might not be one that excites Everton fans too much. But if it’s one that allows them to taste genuine success in reality rather than a pipedream, then it’s one supporters will take in a heartbeat.

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