It is difficult to tell what was more depressing about Everton’s 2-0 defeat to Liverpool: the fact that it left the Toffees two points from safety (albeit with one game in hand on their relegation rivals) or the egregious defeatism that underpinned the performance on the day.
Iwobi is the sliver of light in the bleakness of Lampard’s Everton
The Toffees are sliding inexorably toward relegation, but Iwobi's renewed relevance has been one of the season's few success stories under Frank Lampard
Even allowing for the intensity that often defines local rivalries – and in the case of the Merseyside derby there is more needle than in most others – what Frank Lampard’s side produced was anti-football in its most naked, shameless guise.
Everton amassed a whopping 18 per cent share of the possession, which tells its own story: generally, their attacking, when they could be bothered to engage in such sorcery, was guerilla-style, with no more than three players (usually Richarlison, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Anthony Gordon) staging raids behind enemy lines, the halfway line being the point of no return as it were.
Oh, there was a lot of kicking too, and that not necessarily of the ball.
It was, in many ways, a microcosm of the Lampard tenure in the blue half of Merseyside. In simple terms, it has been an utter disaster. From being four points clear of the relegation zone, Everton now officially delineate it; they have won only three of his 12 league matches in charge, and under the Chelsea legend they have already doubled their tally of red cards this season. This brutal, reductive expression is clearly approved of.
The one area in which Lampard seems to have wrought something closely approximating decent coaching is in the revival and deployment of Alex Iwobi.
The former Arsenal man has been the subject of much criticism since his arrival at Everton; to dredge up all of the ugliness thrown in his direction by a disappointed fanbase would be going over old ground.
However, while some of it was justified – a substantial transfer fee, in the region of £34 million, should elicit decisive performances, at the very least – the overall flavour of it seemed to miss an important point. In order to appraise a player, it is necessary to understand precisely what the player is to begin with.
In this sense, Iwobi’s positional versatility and selflessness have done him no favours. Having spent time playing as a striker at youth level, the Nigeria international made his debut at senior level for Arsenal as a n.10, before fulfilling roles on both the left and the right of the Gunners’ attack. It is in these latter positions, but especially on the right, that he has most frequently featured since swapping the Emirates for Goodison Park, and in doing so he has struggled for impact and consistency.
Often on the periphery of matches, Iwobi has become a lightning rod for the fans’ frustrations over the club’s activity in the transfer market. Last August, following a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Manchester United, he was famously described by a fan online as “one of the worst Everton players I have seen wear the jersey.”
During Everton’s 4-1 loss in the reverse Merseyside derby in December, the 25-year-old was singled out for his actions on the bench, where he was pictured laughing, and despite scoring a late winner to keep the Toffees’ hopes of survival intact against Newcastle, he was singled out for criticism in the very next match against West Ham by irate fans.
However, that is slowly starting to change.
The key to that has been a positional shift, with Iwobi now regularly turning out in a central midfield position. As a n.8, the Nigeria international has been reborn, able to contribute to the team’s build-up, progression of the ball and defensive compactness. While it is not a role he played while at Arsenal, it is one with which his best attributes align – his work rate without the ball is deceptively high, and his uncanny understanding of angles and timing makes him a strong presser of the ball.
While Everton have not suddenly morphed into the gold standard for attractive, effective football as a result (Sunday’s derby a case in point), Iwobi has nevertheless come into his own. There have been false dawns before, specks of copper pyrites lodged in the muck. This time though, it seems to be different, even if only for the sheer continuity of his improvement.
Dele Alli and Donnie van de Beek, signed on loan deals at the end of the winter window from Tottenham and Manchester United respectively, have struggled to get a look in edgewise, which just paints the picture in lurid detail. “Alex is one I rely on,” Lampard said recently, a pointed barb, but also an acknowledgement of Iwobi’s central role, both literally and figuratively. The Chelsea legend is clearly a huge fan.
Suddenly, it appears the former Arsenal man is the beating heart of this Everton side: aside his late winner against Newcastle, there have been star turns against the likes of Leeds, West Ham (no one was more involved and apt to move the ball into threatening areas, as his team-high tally for touches, progressive carries and passes attested) and Manchester United (when he ran his rear end off as the Toffees earned a grueling win, outsprinting every player on the pitch).
For many, the past three months will have come as a massive surprise, but it was always clear that Iwobi is more of a facilitator, a prompter than a decider. He even said as much, famously prompting former manager Carlo Ancelotti to reply, “Tell me, I am your manager, tell me where you want to play.”
Lampard may not have many bright ideas, but he at least has been smart enough to realise what others needed pointed out to them. In the face of relegation, this moment of clarity may be his lasting Everton legacy.