It said a great deal both about Everton’s plight and Manchester City’s superiority that, from a home perspective, the most important moment of Sunday’s 3-0 defeat came at half-time with the game already gone.
As he entered the Everton dressing room for the interval, Dominic Calvert-Lewin reported a tight groin and left Dyche with a decision to make. Should he risk his key man at 2-0 down in search of a way back into the game?
Or was this now all about protecting what they had ahead of the crucial matches against Wolves and Bournemouth that will decide their fate?
Calvert-Lewin wanted to continue, it is said, but Dyche erred on the side of caution. So much water has passed under the bridge with the striker — there have been so many setbacks — that the wise decision in the circumstances was to take him out of the firing line before any more damage was done. Even if that meant waving the white flag against City and replacing him with the ineffective Neal Maupay.
“I had to make a call on it because he had a tight groin,” Dyche said afterwards. “Tight groins can lead to damaged groins.
“It would’ve been a harder call if it was 0-0, if I’m honest. At 2-0, we had to make a decision. He wanted to give it a go, but I said ‘no’, and we made the decision to take him off.”
And with that, a game that started positively from an Everton perspective had already spun out of control.
Dyche has become accustomed to rolling with the punches during his short tenure to date. In this turbulent campaign, Murphy’s Law has often reigned supreme. Where Everton are concerned, whatever can go wrong often will go wrong.
Since Dyche’s arrival, there have been injuries to key players at inopportune moments; suspensions; individual mistakes; inexplicable misses in front of goal and alarming collective drop-offs on a semi-regular basis.
Sunday’s game proved another step too far.
Sat deep in an attempt to mirror the blueprint that brought resounding success against Brighton, Everton initially kept the league leaders at bay. City were stifled, the game plan was working and the trident of Calvert-Lewin, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Dwight McNeil threatened on the counter. Theirs was the outstanding chance of the first half, Mason Holgate shanking off target at the back post when well placed.
But three minutes later, City were ahead through Ilkay Gundogan’s superb improvised flick. Two mins later it was 2-0. 15 minutes after that, Calvert-Lewin failed to emerge for the second half and Everton’s race was run.
Facing the league leaders was always going to be an uphill struggle, even without the injury setbacks. To stop the City juggernaut, you need luck and quality in equal measure. Everton had none of the former and not enough of the latter to spring an upset.
Calvert-Lewin had led the line with aplomb before his substitution, turning meagre scraps into a platform for his side. As only he can for this side, he won headers, ran the channels and succeeded in getting them a foothold in the game.
Dyche will hope he has averted disaster — a Calvert-Lewin injury with just two weeks of the season remaining — at just the right time. But even before then, he had been left firefighting; attempting to paper over cracks that had appeared throughout the week.
A thigh injury to first-choice left-back Vitalii Mykolenko towards the end of Everton’s final training session of the week had already altered Dyche’s plans. With Ruben Vinagre and Seamus Coleman both ruled out through injury, Everton had no senior full-back cover in the squad to turn to.
Dyche and his staff had discussed a potential change of shape to cope with Mykolenko’s absence, but were left with minimal time to make such a drastic alteration. Instead, Holgate toiled as a like-for-like replacement for the Ukrainian. As well as missing the big chance, the former Barnsley defender was also beaten to the ball by Erling Haaland for City’s second and gave away possession in the build-up to their third. “Get him off” was the cry from one observer in Goodison’s Main Stand. Given the runaround by the dangerous Riyad Mahrez, Holgate’s eventual withdrawal before the hour felt like an act of mercy.
“It’s a big ask to change the shape with just 20 minutes left to work on it,” Dyche explained. “It was such a good performance against Brighton, and Mason has played that role before.
“We wanted to protect him in that role and get him to stay there, but it didn’t work as well as hoped. Unfortunately, Myko’s injury affected the balance of the group.”
Asked about the severity of Mykolenko’s injury, Dyche said it was too soon to know how long the Ukrainian would be out.
Everton at least stabilised after Dyche’s second-half changes. Conor Coady replaced Holgate and played in a back three, with McNeil — “outstanding,” according to Dyche — shifting to wing-back. Amadou Onana brought fresh legs and composure to the midfield. They looked more assured defensively and worked the ball into more advantageous areas, but rarely threatened from open play without Calvert-Lewin.
For all their neat passing combinations from the back, they looked like a side that knew they were playing without a focal point. Even when the long ball was on, they often neglected to use it. Crosses were initially overhit, as though Calvert-Lewin was on the pitch and not Maupay, and then finally underhit as they attempted to redress the balance.
None of this will have been lost on Dyche. It has, in essence, been the story for much of the season without Calvert-Lewin and will almost certainly have been in the back of his mind when weighing up whether to risk his star striker at half-time.
For all the signs of life both before City’s opener and in the new system towards the end, it could all fall down for Everton if Calvert-Lewin is unavailable for the final two. They could almost certainly deal with other setbacks, but not this.
Now for the anxious wait to see if Dyche’s half-time decision paid off.
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