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Watford draw a reminder of Everton’s weaknesses but result still a positive step

During Everton’s recent turnaround, a common theme has emerged: the willing surrender of possession.

The Toffees took 10 points from a possible 15 in games against Manchester United, Leicester City (twice), Liverpool and Chelsea; a run many marked them down to gain nothing from. Even the most optimistic Evertonians could only have hoped for three or four points on the board prior to that run.

But after that crushing 3-2 away defeat at Burnley, where Everton threw away two leads to leave Turf Moor empty-handed, something had to change.

Frank Lampard quickly binned all notion of trying to make Everton a stylish, possession-oriented side. The former Derby County and Chelsea boss clearly noted his team just didn’t have the creativity in midfield to break opponents down, but had strength in riding pressure and hitting teams on the break with the pace of Anthony Gordon, Richarlison and co.

During that five-game run, Everton’s single-game possession high was 37% in the 1-1 draw at home to Leicester. They even went as low as 18% in the 2-0 defeat at Anfield that was much-maligned by pundits, but showed Lampard and Evertonians that this team could compete with the best, if they were pragmatic and realistic.

Wednesday night’s trip to Vicarage Road, however, posed a completely different question to Everton. Already relegated and on a run of 11 straight home defeats, with an entire team out injured or suspended, Watford were low on confidence, low on numbers and low on reasons to take the game to their opponents.

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Everton were given a lofty 52% possession, asked to dictate and were installed as favourites. They failed to live up to the task.

The Toffees attempted 16 shots, but generated just 1.06 xG, more often than not taking on speculative efforts from distance or scuffed, low-quality shots that screamed of a lack of composure. A few dangerous Alex Iwobi crosses aside, Everton rarely worried Ben Foster or the Hornets’ defence despite 215 of their 386 passes coming in the Watford half – they only completed 481 passes in the opposition half during that entire aforementioned five-game run prior to Wednesday.

Lampard was unwilling to switch from the five-at-the-back system that has brought so much success recently when a more advisable approach may have been to put an extra body in midfield to help Everton move the ball better and press more efficiently.

But then, can you really blame Lampard? His midfield options right now are limited to the defence-minded Fabian Delph and Allan, an inconsistent Abdoulaye Doucoure and a nowhere near match-fit Dele Alli. That’s alongside the likes of Andre Gomes and Tom Davies, who have barely kicked a ball this season due to injury problems.

Regardless, Wednesday night saw Everton with time and space on the ball, but without the quality or structure to use it. The Toffees looked tired and off the pace; perhaps understandable given their recent heroics and Lampard did make that point in his post-match press conference.

“We played three days ago and the players put a lot into it. There was maybe a little bit of tiredness, and we maybe lacked a little bit of sharpness,” he said.

On the lack of quality in the final third, Lampard added: “I think we were a little bit tense. We created all the chances, but we didn’t create cutting-edge chances like we would have wanted to. We got into the final third a lot and I expected a bit more from the boys in that area, but it wasn’t quite there.”

All of that said, there are still reasons for Everton to be happy as they head back north.

If you’d have asked any player, coach or supporter if they’d have taken seven points from fixtures against Chelsea, Leicester and Watford, or four from two consecutive away games, they’d have snapped your hand off. It’s only the sequence in which those points came that lowers the tone.

But a point on the road is a point gained in almost all circumstances, especially in a relegation battle. Away results have been desperately hard to come by for Everton this season and the single point gained on Wednesday accounts for a massive 10% of their entire total this season away from Goodison Park.

“We’ve got seven points from the last nine. We’re still fighting, there’s still a lot to do and if you can’t win it, make sure you don’t lose it and we kept a clean sheet,” captain Seamus Coleman said.

Everton’s draw with Watford moves them two points clear of Burnley and Leeds United with a game in hand on the latter. It means the Whites must win at least one of their two remaining games against Brighton and Brentford to catch the Toffees given their inferior goal difference.

A matter of months ago, such a poor performance would have seen Everton leave Vicarage Road on the end of a two or three-goal hammering. Instead, they leave with a valuable point and know that ahead of two massive home games against Brentford and Crystal Palace, their Premier League fate remains fully in their own hands.

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