Wednesday night’s 0-0 draw with Watford was the kind of result for Everton that does not need to be spoken of further. It was a point towards safety, doubling the distance between themselves and the relegation zone.
The game itself was grim. Frank Lampard admitted he’d have checked to see what was on the other channels had he been a neutral watching at home. Now, as he learns to love a different shade of blue, he took it on while stood in the Everton technical area, grimacing and hopping from one foot to the other like a man using a public bathroom.
He was sitting far more comfortably once it was over, with seven points from a possible nine since the derby loss to Liverpool, along with news of Leeds United’s 3-0 defeat to Chelsea. “If you offered us this situation a few weeks ago – (survival) in our hands, two games at Goodison before we go to Arsenal, we would have taken it. That’s a big plus and we have to understand that.”
As it happens, survival could be clinched on Sunday. If Leeds do anything other than win against Brighton, an Everton victory over Brentford later in the afternoon would mean a lead of greater than three points – insurmountable given Leeds only have one game left after this weekend.
Even a draw could be enough provided Leeds lose, opening a three-point gap that would effectively be enough barring a miracle, given there would be more than the 19 there currently is between them on goal difference in Everton’s favour.
Yes this is football, and of course The Premier League, but Everton are pretty much safe. They’d have been safer had Lampard been more adventurous against a side already relegated with seven first-teamers rotated out. Even at half-time, after he had caught wind Leeds were a goal and a man down against his former club, he kept things as is. He made a point that their structure – a 5-2-3 – had been working well for them, not least because the players adopting those positions, such as Alex Iwobi at right-wing-back, had been performing well. Both pre-match and in-game, he didn’t want to veer from what they had come to know, even if only for the last month. “If we had played a back four and lost 1-0, you’d probably be asking why I changed from a back three.” He probably has a point.
It will be fascinating to see where Lampard and Everton go from here. Next season presents a do-over of sorts. There are players to shift and, thus, those to bring in, all playing out under a boardroom struggle that will probably only get louder in the summer.
Then there are the patterns of play required for a cutting edge in the final third that was lacking today. The kind which requires constant grooving in pre-season: repetition at close to 100 percent to turn ideas into instinct. “At this point in the season, can you train like that? No because it’s too physical. You’re basically going with rest, recover, prep for the game and go again.”
Another aspect is dealing with possession. Everton’s best results under Lampard have come through ceding the ball and it was noticeable how cautious they were with more of it on Wednesday. Even against a Watford side so poor at retaining it that even their fans were sarcastically cheering on the odd occasions they won it back.
Even the travelling support from Merseyside, in good voice throughout, found it hard to suppress the odd groan at overloads that would lose steam and get played back.
Ultimately, given the situation Everton find themselves in, it is hard to focus too much on these issues at the moment. It’s a bit like worrying about the weeds in your garden while your house is on fire.
“I think as the team develops and hopefully we stay in this league and look forward to next season, we want to have more ball,” mused Lampard. “Then there are things we have to work on and things we have to consider when we are looking at recruitment.”
At full time, Lampard joined his players in saluting their supporters, who responded to him coming over by singing his name. Something that did not go unnoticed by the man himself.
“It’s something I never took for granted when I came to the club,” he said, “because you know, London boy, coming to manage Everton. You need to show them how much you want to firstly do the job well and how much you care about it.”
He went on to say the national media framing of the club, as one with a proud history who have spent vasts of money to boost the first team to no avail, isn’t entirely accurate given how things are right now. “I think Evertonians understood when I came in that we were fighting and fighting to stay in the Premier League and so history and what you spent means nothing. It’s how much you want to fight, how much you want to get results, organise the team, show passion and hopefully they see that I understand it a bit and see that from me.”
He is right. It’s easy to say Everton fans feel entitled to be better, when the reality is they have been promised a cut of the world and still find themselves subsisting on scraps. But there will be optimism of better days in 2022/23 to reclaim their top-half patch.
For now, credit for Everton’s revival can be attributed, personally, to Lampard fashioning this 5-2-3 system, Jordan Pickford’s work in goal, Iwobi’s diligence and supporters rallying for the cause. All forged from an acceptance that playing what many might term “good football” is beyond them at this juncture.
Lampard’s mantra of “if you can’t win, you don’t lose” has got them out of their hole. More will be required to climb back up to where they were.