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Conservative approach called for again versus City

Everton sat back and managed a draw last time against Guardiola

Manchester City v Everton - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Last weekend’s FA Cup exit means that Everton are effectively out of the silverware hunt for yet another season. The attention turns back to the league now, where they are consolidating their 7th place position following an impressive victory against Southampton two weeks ago. Meanwhile, Manchester City sit in 4th place, level with Spurs on points but lagging in goal differential.

Manchester City overview

Pep Guardiola has had an up-and-down time thus far in his first year in the Premier League. The Citizens won their first 6 matches, won just 1 of 4 in October, recovered in November, then lost 2 straight to Chelsea and Leicester in December. Consecutive wins against Watford, Arsenal, and Hull had them back on track until a narrow defeat at Liverpool on New Year’s Eve.

Despite having the 'world’s best manager' at their helm, the Premier League is rarely a cakewalk, especially with an aging squad and a ton of other managerial talent competing for the title. Still, City are loaded with world-class players and Everton need to treat them as such.

Tactically, much of what I said 3 months ago still applies. City remain the most frequent possessors of the ball in the Premier League, and spend more time than anyone else in the opponents’ third of the pitch. At its most basic, the idea is to play short from the back with an aim to getting the ball to an attacking midfielder in one of the half spaces. If that means circulating the ball around a bit, that’s fine; they have the technical ability in all positions required to do so. Once one of Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, et al. picks up the ball in a dangerous position, they have the technical ability and creativity to pick most defenses apart.

Recent struggles

City aren’t quite flying high into this match in terms of their league form. According to Michael Caley, each of their last 2 matches has seen them post an expected goals total of less than 1, which had yet to happen all season to that point. They were stifled by a different approach in each match.

Jürgen Klopp’s approach is detailed well in this Spielverlagerung article. It’s known that Liverpool are a tremendous pressing side; against Manchester City they used that energy and coordination to control City’s circulation. This meant dropping their forwards (the front line of the press) slightly deeper and more narrow than normal to prevent those dangerous balls upfield into Silva and De Bruyne. The result was something like this:

As we all know at this point, Everton don’t really have the squad or the understanding to be a quality pressing side. They tried it against Liverpool to some extent, but it quickly became chaotic and exhausting. That being said, they can still learn something from Liverpool’s approach. While they might not be able to press effectively from the front, they can still seek to clog the middle and cut out the passing lanes available to the center backs and defensive midfielders. The bad news is that their prime disruptor, Idrissa Gueye, is on African Cup of Nations Duty. The good news, though, is that they’ve signed one of the Premier League’s best destroyers in Morgan Schneiderlin:

It’s unclear, however, if he’ll be fit to start. This means that we could see something like a Barkley/Davies/Barry central midfield, which is.....well, I guess we’ll see.

Manchester City also struggled to generate opportunities in their most recent match against Burnley. Part of this was due to playing most of the game with 10 men, but a large part was also due to Burnley’s tactics, which essentially boiled down to a classic low block. Unlike in the first half against Liverpool, City were able to easily progress into Burnley’s third. There, however, they were met with high numbers of defenders. Sterling, De Bruyne, and Navas had plenty of the ball but had difficulty navigating the wall that Burnley put up around the box:

Matching up with Everton

Burnley’s approach is similar to what Everton did in their October meeting at the Etihad, and it’s probably going to happen, whether we like it or not, for large parts of this one as well. That’s okay, though—Everton have the personnel to play direct, especially if Koeman can get over whatever it is about Gerard Delofeu that is bugging him.

The manager has been quite a tinkerer with his formations this season, and while it’s a been a good month since the 4-3-3 has come out, we might see it again here. City, meanwhile, have settled into a 4-2-3-1 of sorts after playing quite a bit with a 3-man defense. One interesting feature of their recent tactical incarnation has been their right-side heaviness in the attacking third:

Courtesy of FourFourTwo Statszone
Courtesy of FourFourTwo Statszone

This is mostly down to personnel; against Liverpool Sterling was on the right wing and Silva on the left. Against Burnley it was Sterling on the left and Jesús Navas on the right. Sterling will tend to drift inside when out left, and Silva rarely acts as an out-and-out-winger. In any case, Everton will likewise try to force City out of the center and confine their attacks to a particular side. Whether they can actually do so effectively remains to be seen.

Everton seem in recent years to have always given a good fight against City, and we can all hope this will be another example. With that being said, a draw here would be excellent, and it’s unrealistic to hope for Everton to put together a polished performance of the sort they displayed in the second half against Southampton. Rather, they will likely defend deep and look to hit City on the break. With Gueye unavailable, Schneiderlin could be a key player. If he is unfit for action, Everton’s central midfield will have their work cut out.