The goal that saved Everton seemed typical of Dominic Calvert-Lewin. A diving header from a dominant presence in the air defeated Crystal Palace, completed a comeback and brought a happy ending to his own troubled season.
Without it, they may face the forthcoming season in a different division and him at a new club. Instead, he assumes a still greater importance for a squad shorn of his sidekick, the sold Richarlison. It makes the signing of a left winger particularly instructive.
Calvert-Lewin scored the most headed goals in the Premier League in 2020-21; had he got one more, he would have had the joint-most the previous season, too.
Meanwhile, Dwight McNeil delivered the second most crosses in the division last year. Amid an enduring question about what Frank Lampard’s style of play is – and after attempts to embrace a passing game and play higher up the pitch backfired last season, he kept Everton up by instead embracing pragmatism and defending deep – one possible answer could be supplied by the sight of McNeil crossing to Calvert-Lewin again and again.
Certainly wingers will play a prominent part: Demarai Gray was Everton’s signing of last season and the taker of the free-kick Calvert-Lewin headed in against Palace, Anthony Gordon their player of the year and talisman.
McNeil’s game is based more around crossing than either and Lampard, whose introduction to Goodison Park as a manager came when Calvert-Lewin battered his Chelsea defence during Duncan Ferguson’s first game in caretaker charge in 2019, has first-hand evidence of how effective a target man can be.
There are, nevertheless, a couple of caveats. McNeil scored arguably his finest goal for Burnley at Goodison Park but last season he failed to find the net; his 111 crosses yielded a solitary assist. The fee Everton have paid is both less than it would have been a year earlier and had Burnley stayed up and a considerable sum, given the lack of end product.
He has voiced his ambition to improve his statistics. But if the inability to convert his crosses amounts to a failure on the part of Chris Wood and Wout Weghorst, McNeil also felt stuck in a straitjacket by Sean Dyche, liberated only in the final few games of the season by the caretaker Mike Jackson when a player who is not as one-dimensional as his role on the touchline indicated and who harbours aspirations to become a No. 1, was allowed to wander infield and create.
That could have a pertinence. Rather than a Dyche-esque 4-4-2 or the 4-3-3 he often used at Chelsea, Lampard is likely to start the season playing 3-4-3; not necessarily through an ideological preference for three centre-backs as much as necessity, with his requests to sign a No. 6 as yet unanswered and a shortage of central midfielders he really trusts.
The lack of a playmaker also suggests any aspirations to become a possession team may need to be put on hold, though James Tarkowski should at least help pass the ball out from the back. McNeil may help them win it back; his addition means they now have four of the 16 players responsible for the most pressures in the league last season, with Abdoulaye Doucoure, Allan and Gordon, and he could replace Richarlison as a harrier if not a scorer. Pressing principles may mean Everton are able to spend less time on the back foot.
If Lampardism remains a vague construct at the moment, it seems to stand for youth and energy, whereas a problem he had last season was that Everton’s squad seemed split into those who could run and those who could not and the departed Richarlison was prominent in the group of the mobile. McNeil adds to the collection of runners while he and Tarkowski suggest a general willingness to trust in the English, which Lampard’s time at Chelsea showed, buying British is one thing, buying Burnley another. A club who nearly went down have now put their faith in two players who did, albeit a pair with top-flight quality and the talent to adapt to another style of play.
Whether Lampard can implement it and whether Everton can get the results to afford them the chance to effect change to a more progressive blueprint remain to be seen. Lampard harboured attacking ambitions last season but a couple of thrashings and the threat of relegation forced him to adopt a defensive gameplan. Now Everton’s lack of a central creator could make crosses more important and their greatest threat comes from the latest in their tradition of their fearsome No. 9s. It is easy to imagine McNeil being primed to feed Calvert-Lewin a diet of crosses. As they aim to climb the table, Everton’s next direction could involve a direct approach.