Frank Lampard has built Everton’s resurgence on newfound defensive resilience

Safe hands: Lampard with Jordan Pickford and Conor Coady (Getty)
Safe hands: Lampard with Jordan Pickford and Conor Coady (Getty)

When Everton and Manchester United last met, a solitary goal separated them. As they prepare to reconvene at Goodison Park on Sunday, there is one goal between them again. Everton have conceded seven, United six. The difference is that, between them, Jordan Pickford and Asmir Begovic have had to retrieve the ball from the back of their net seven times this season. Last Sunday, David de Gea was beaten on six occasions in one afternoon.

Strange as it would have sounded a few months ago, Everton have the Premier League’s best defensive record. They are the only team who have only conceded two or more goals in a game once. In their last six matches, they have let in just four.

Indeed, they have become more stingy during a period when Frank Lampard has sacrificed a third centre-back to add another midfielder.

Last season, they ended up packing the defence. They still ended up conceding the fourth most goals in the division; that total of 66 was the joint most against them in a season since 1960-61. When they lost 5-1 at Arsenal on the final day, it was the 11th time they had let in at least three in a game.

A rapid turnaround has had an unlikely architect. Lampard’s reign at Chelsea earned him an unwanted reputation as a manager whose teams conceded too many goals, particularly on the counter-attack, so he may have seemed unlikely to resolve Everton’s issues. If Lampard now looks a defensive strategist, Everton’s greater frugality comes in part from an old ally as well as new signings, from the principles he sought to implement in his recruitment and from a shift in his own thinking.

If his Chelsea could be too open in midfield when they lost the ball, his Everton are not. They often have players behind the ball but they have those with the athleticism to get back behind it.

While Fabian Delph’s authoritative displays helped keep Everton up in spring, the former England man, Allan and Andre Gomes may have meant they had the least mobile central-midfield unit at times, with the energetic exception of Abdoulaye Doucoure.

Now few have more running power than Everton, with the additions of Idrissa Gueye and Amadou Onana and the reinvention of Alex Iwobi. Gueye’s status as a one-man wrecking ball makes him the new disruptor in chief. If Everton were easy to play against for much of last season, now they are tougher.

But if Gueye is one of the best defensive midfielders in the division’s recent history, Everton are benefitting from the input of one of its outstanding full-backs. Inside Goodison Park, much of the credit is being given to Ashley Cole.

Their problems began under Rafa Benitez and continued once Lampard assumed control but Everton conceded the joint most goals from set-pieces last season, 19. Now they have conceded just one, despite affording opponents the most corners so far, and stood firm against James Ward-Prowse’s expert deliveries at St Mary’s on Saturday.

Initially, Paul Clement was the member of Lampard’s backroom staff in charge of set-pieces; a summer switch meant Cole assumed those duties and improvement has followed.

Cole has had a second significance. The development of two young full-backs, Nathan Patterson and Vitalii Mykolenko, owes much to arguably the Premier League’s greatest left-back. He has worked with each on body shape and positioning; he reviews Patterson’s performances and sends the Scot video clips. Benitez, who signed each in January, argues he is vindicated, too.

Everton feel the full-backs are helped by both the communication and continuity in the centre of defence. Last season featured myriad combinations amid a series of injuries. Lampard targeted players with fine fitness records. Now Conor Coady and James Tarkowski are an established partnership, both forever talking to the inexperienced full-backs.

That the two centre-backs were acquired without a transfer fee – Coady loaned, Tarkowski signed – shows evidence of bargain-hunting. That Coady has been outstanding in a back four, in a role Bruno Lage doubted he could play, reflects badly on the manager Wolves sacked.

None shall pass: Pickford and James Tarkowski (Getty)
None shall pass: Pickford and James Tarkowski (Getty)

Coady is a flagship success, but Tarkowski, who Lampard had liked for years, is a statistical monster, a defensive workhorse. He tops the Premier League charts for blocked shots and clearances. That Anthony Gordon ranks second for pressures shows the defending starts at the front; that Patterson is third for pressures in the defensive third shows a collective commitment to making it difficult for opponents.

Yet if Everton have the sense of bloody-minded determination they lacked at times last season, if there is a real resilience and unity, they are also reliant on their goalkeepers.

Their woodwork has been hit three times apiece by Brentford and Liverpool. Their keepers have the highest save percentage (85.2) in the division. Pickford is second for saves, despite sitting out the West Ham game. He tops the table for post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed: in short, he has saved more goals, based on the quality of chances, than any other goalkeeper.

That has been necessary. Only Nottingham Forest and Fulham have afforded more shots on target than Everton and while many are low-calibre chances, they still have the fifth highest expected goals against, of 12.84. They concede a goal for every 0.14 shots on target; for every other club, it is at least every 0.21.

Having a fine goalkeeper is a legitimate tactic and, while Pickford has a reputation for playing better for country than club, he has actually been outstanding for Everton for a year. Yet the numbers contain a warning, that Everton’s defensive record is artificially good.

But for now, they can still savour the evidence of a remarkable transformation forged in the transfer market and on the training ground, with clarity of thought and commanding centre-backs, with a wonderful shot-stopper and a manager who has reinvented himself.

For years as a player, Frank Lampard specialised in scoring goals. Now he is finding ways to stop them.