Forgotten man Delph answering Everton’s midfield conundrum

It was the 39th minute at a misty Molineux when Allan sportingly kicked the ball out of play so that Hwang Hee-chan could receive treatment. In truth, it was more of a tactical surrender from the overworked Everton midfielder.

Even playing against a side with a man down, Allan knew that greater benefit lay in taking some respite; the visitors had been run ragged during an opening period in which Wolves could well have been out of sight.

Allan came across to the near touchline, as he has so often done during these early eventful months of the Rafa Benitez era, to have a lengthy discussion with his manager.

It was a chance for Benitez to get a forlorn message across to his players and to someone whom he trusts, having worked together at Napoli. Everton were 2-0 down and something had to change.

Allan had his hands full against Wolves
Image: Allan had his hands full against Wolves

Allan had indeed already shown his displeasure during a break in play on 17 minutes with the game somehow still goalless, aware that it was only a matter of time before Wolves capitalised on a system that simply wasn’t working.

He was seen in heated discussion with Michael Keane shortly after Hwang had a goal disallowed for offside upon a VAR review. Allan was calling for greater compactness between the defence and midfield to negate the frequent attempts at finding pockets of space that were more like chasms.

Afterwards, the Brazilian turned to his midfield partner Jean-Philippe Gbamin in a bid to wake him up following the fortunate reprieve, but it was to no avail.

How Everton have suffered without Doucoure

Abdoulaye Doucoure celebrates scoring Everton's second goal of the game
Image: Abdoulaye Doucoure has missed the past three games

Abdoulaye Doucoure remains out with a stress fracture to his foot, and his absence has been sorely felt in Everton’s midfield during the course of the past three winless games, which have tarnished the good work of the early weeks of the season and the goodwill generated around Benitez’s divisive appointment.

The Spaniard initially sought to address the issue with a direct replacement, and three minutes into the home game against Watford it appeared to be working when Tom Davies met Demarai Gray’s cross to score following the type of driving run you would normally associate with the absent Doucoure.

But Everton subsequently lost control badly and Benitez cited his team’s failure to manage the situation. In desperately attempting to win a game for a third time, mistakes were made at an ever-increasing rate.

“We missed tackles and didn’t keep possession,” the Everton boss said after the eventual 5-2 defeat. “It was too many things added together.”

Everton's Tom Davies (right) celebrates scoring their side's first goal of the game
Image: Tom Davies scored against Watford but is now also injured

The expectation was that there would be a strong response at Wolves after a full week of work at Finch Farm.

But the four goals conceded in the final 12 minutes during the collapse at home to the Hornets, coupled with the two shipped in the first half in the Midlands, made it six conceded in 44 minutes. Belatedly at half-time, Benitez had seen enough and knew he had to do something to prevent another embarrassment.

Having already switched from an open 4-4-2 system to a more rigid 4-1-4-1 set-up, the Allan-Gbamin midfield axis was shelved. Ivory Coast international Gbamin was making just his second league start since his arrival in summer 2019, and it was a night to forget for the 26-year-old.

His lack of sharpness was horribly evident as he failed to make a single key pass or complete any dribbles, while he also managed just one tackle.

Delph replaced Jean-Philippe Gbamin at half-time against Wolves
Image: Delph replaced Jean-Philippe Gbamin against Wolves

To an extent, it was understandable given the length of time Gbamin had missed through injury – the best part of two seasons – and here was an unforgiving example of the long road that still lies ahead for him in reaching the very standards which led to Everton spending £25m on his services.

It wasn’t just down to the midfield that they were second best during the opening period at Wolves at the start of this month.

Everton’s vulnerability at defending set pieces has been a recurring theme this term in the absence of Yerry Mina, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison – three key assets Benitez has used in his part zonal, part man-marking system – and this was once more exposed for Wolves’ first goal.

But certainly the second-half response owed a lot to Gbamin’s replacement.

How Delph made a difference

Delph was a second-half substitute at Molineux
Image: Delph was a second-half substitute at Molineux

It is fair to say that when Fabian Delph was summoned from the bench, those hardened souls that had made the trip on a Monday night to Molineux returned to their seats with low expectations.

Aside from a late cameo against Leeds in August, he hadn’t featured in any other game this season. But with the pressure off to some degree, Delph brought a control to proceedings which lay the foundations for an unlikely comeback.

Andros Townsend was brought in more centrally alongside a more advanced Allan, with Delph operating as the midfield anchor in front of the defence, collecting the ball frequently from the centre-backs to start attacks.

With the deficit cut to one in the final five minutes, a Wolves counterattack was ended by a barnstorming challenge by Delph on Rayan Ait-Nouri in front of the away end, raising the decibels in the Steve Bull Stand.

Ultimately, Everton would fall short but Delph’s re-emergence was certainly a positive Benitez could take back to Merseyside.

A first start in 11 months

The midfielder impressed in the Spurs stalemate
Image: The midfielder impressed in the Spurs stalemate

The focus was unsurprisingly on Antonio Conte and his first Premier League game in charge of Tottenham, but much of the talk among Evertonians heading into their last outing prior to the international break centred on Delph’s inclusion from the start being a necessity.

It came as no surprise therefore that Benitez’s starting XI included the former England international, and yet the stalemate a fortnight ago was Delph’s first Premier League start in nearly 11 months – stretching back to the 1-1 draw against Burnley in early December 2020.

He left the pitch on that occasion at Turf Moor after 29 minutes through injury and didn’t return until April’s 1-0 win at Arsenal.

Injuries have plagued his Everton career following his £9m arrival from Manchester City and given his big wages, he has not received too much sympathy from supporters when he has been available and called upon during ineffectual displays.

Delph - highlighted in green - has had a positive impact on Everton's average positions in the past two games
Image: Delph – highlighted in green – has had a positive impact on Everton’s average positions in the past two games

But with Doucoure joined by Andre Gomes (calf) and most recently Tom Davies (knee) in being among the midfielders absent through injury, Delph – who has 20 England caps – is aware of the responsibility on his shoulders.

Everton hosted Spurs in desperate need of a result following three straight losses, but amid a fraught atmosphere at Goodison Park, it was he who brought class and a tenacity both in and out of possession.

Indeed the midfielder, who turns 32 at the Etihad on Sunday, completed the most tackles of anyone on the pitch (three) and ended with a pass completion rate of 87 per cent.

Such was Delph’s impressive performance in only his 25th Premier League start for the club, Benitez moved to protect him in what felt like a pre-planned change on the hour-mark following so long out of the game with his various setbacks.

Delph positioned himself in between midfield and defence
Image: Delph positioned himself in between midfield and defence
Delph goes to squeeze Heung-Min Son
Image: Delph goes to squeeze Heung-Min Son as Spurs work it wide

Cristian Fernandez last month became the club’s new first-team rehabilitation fitness coach, having worked with Benitez at Newcastle, and the hope is that Delph can be one of the early chief beneficiaries of the appointment.

The Yorkshireman’s sudden resurgence may be viewed in some quarters as the return of the forgotten man, but Benitez was said to be very impressed by the midfielder before a dislocated shoulder meant his progress was put back by six weeks earlier this campaign.

Speaking in September about Delph, Benitez said: “I know people talk about him not doing well or having injuries, and I had the impression when I came he was not a player who did not play much because of injuries.

“But I have no doubt about his quality and I will say his commitment in every training session from day one was really good.”

How Delph overcame previous setbacks

Delph with the second of his Premier League winners' medal
Image: Delph with the second of his Premier League winners’ medal

Delph returns to the scene of his club career’s greatest triumphs this weekend as Everton visit Man City, live on Sky Sports.

In helping City lift the Premier League in 2018, the midfielder revealed how a vegan diet and mindfulness exercises helped him grow both on and off the pitch.

It came as little surprise when he formed part of Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the World Cup that summer in Russia, given his versatility as an auxiliary left-back.

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It was at this point that Delph contributed to a new book – Soccology: Inside The Hearts And Minds Of The Professionals On The Pitch – which explores the mental aspect of life as a professional sportsman.

Speaking about his fears of how injuries could put an end to his top-level career, Delph said: “Not being in the team and only being spoken about in terms of my injury was hard. Being injured massively affected my mental state – self-doubt crept in.

“I began to question whether I would ever play again and, if I were to play again, whether my performances would be as good.

Delph was handed the last of his 20 England caps in June 2019
Image: Delph was handed the last of his 20 England caps in June 2019

“When I began to train again, it took a while for me to adjust to my body’s changes as a result of the injury, find my confidence and get over my fear of breaking down. I decided to ignore my doubts and began to look at my body objectively, as if it were detached from me.

“I studied its weak parts, researched my injuries, began to strengthen my body and moved from rehab into pre-hab. I carried out mindfulness exercises like the moving meditation of Tai Chi. I changed the fuel I put into my body and switched to a vegan diet.”

Delph would leave City a year later with just 12 months left on his contract; he made just 11 appearance in the 2018/19 season following the signing of Rodri from Atletico for £63m.

The player, then 29, claimed that getting regular football was a factor in him moving away and stated that joining Everton was “too good of an opportunity” to turn down.

At his unveiling, he said: “I’m hungry. I don’t like losing. I see myself as a winner. I’m at an age now where I am probably one of the most experienced players, so hopefully I can bring that and try to help my teammates here to do better.

“Ultimately, the goal is to win something. I’ve not come here just to be here – I’ve come here with ambitions to win things.”

Hectic schedule means managing minutes

Fabian Delph heads to face former club Manchester City
Image: Delph heads to face former club Manchester City

Injury troubles have cruelly followed him, but the upside to the high turnover in managers at the club is that it offers the likes of Delph a fresh start. The early signs were that it would not come, however, at Everton.

There was an episode during the summer in which Delph shared an anti-vaccine message on his Instagram account, which was unhelpful given that contact with a Covid case forced him to miss Everton’s pre-season trip to Florida.

Benitez even went on record to confirm he was ready to sell the player, but Delph’s willingness to stay for the final year of his contract and work under the new manager in times of adversity is finally endearing him to the fanbase.

The right attitude and application was there in abundance against Tottenham, but it is his experience and quality that are the added ingredients required at the highest level and those which Everton will hope to now witness on a regular basis.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from the goalless draw between Everton and Tottenham

As Goodison rose its feet to issue a standing ovation upon his replacement, there was barely an acknowledgement from the player himself, but Delph would be the first to admit that this must be the start of something more tangible and not another false dawn in a royal blue shirt.

The fixture list doesn’t get any easier after facing Pep Guardiola’s City with games against Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Leicester on the horizon.

The hectic schedule will certainly lead to further minutes being heavily managed, and the good news is that Doucoure isn’t expected to be out for much longer.

In Fabian Delph, Everton may well have found a short-term solution to their conundrum in the middle of the park.

For the player, the club and its supporters, the hope is that he can build on his recent encouraging displays to form a more integral part when Benitez has his full compliment of midfield options back fit.

Watch Man City vs Everton live on Sky Sports Premier League from 1pm on Sunday; kick-off 2pm. Follow all the action with the Sky Sports website and App, then watch free match highlights shortly after full-time.

Premier League Preview – Souness on ‘angry’ Liverpool’s point to prove vs Arsenal | Delph’s impressive return | Kane’s confidence boost

Peter Smith is joined by Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness, and football writers Oliver Yew and Ben Grounds to look ahead to the Premier League weekend.

PART 1 | How will Liverpool respond after their first defeat of the season? Graeme Souness explains why they’ll be ‘full throttle’ against an Arsenal side who, he feels, are still a long way off, despite their recent unbeaten run

PART 2 | Oliver Yew and Ben Grounds look at the contrasting impacts of Jack Grealish and Gabriel Jesus this season, and discuss Fabien Delph’s surprise return to form with Everton, ahead of his side’s trip to a club he won two Premier League titles with

PART 3 | Harry Kane scored seven goals in two games during the international break but will that translate to the Premier League? We talk Tottenham ahead of Antonio Conte’s first home league game in charge, and explain the reasons behind Leeds’ slow start.

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