Everton’s first competitive fixture of the 2017-18 season is nearly upon us, and it’s a big one - the Blues return to European competition for the first time since 2014-15, this time against MFK Ruzomberok. The first leg of the Europa League’s 3rd qualifying round will be played at Goodison Park on Thursday, July 27, with the away leg in Slovakia on August 3.
With that in mind, one of the most prominent discussions from Everton’s first three preseason matches has been what we can glean regarding Ronald Koeman’s plan for Thursday’s game. Using the information at hand (fitness, performance, previous lineups and tactics), we assess how Everton might start the game against Ruzomberok.
Tactics and Formation
Before looking at the specific players we think will lineup for Everton on Thursday, it’s important to understand the tactics we expect to see the club employ not only this week, but for most of the season.
Following the acquisition of Morgan Schneiderlin in January of last season, we started to see in more detail exactly what Koeman’s preferred tactics and formation look like. The Frenchman was and still is the linchpin to the entire Everton setup, operating out of the center of midfield.
Koeman prefers a 4-3-3 — but one in which most of his players have very specific roles. That starts in the midfield trio, where each player has a very specific role. The deepest midfielder — Schneiderlin — is perhaps the most important player on the pitch. He is expected not only to break up attacks in front of his back four, but shoulders the bulk of the burden in transitioning his team from attack to defense.
In front of him, Everton deploys a box-to-box midfielder whose main purpose is to wreck havoc on his opponents in the midfield, before they can develop a serious attack. The most advanced central midfielder isn’t a true No. 10, but is rather a more advanced No. 8 — still expected to chase the ball down in midfield, but with a greater creative and goal-scoring role when the Toffees have the ball.
The wide attackers are expected to drift into the center to help offset the lack of a true No. 10, bringing creativity to the center of the final third. As a result, the full-backs must get into the attack and provide width, otherwise the Toffees’ attack gets bogged down in the middle of the pitch.
With that in mind, we expect to see the following starters and bench players on Thursday:
Below are a few words on each projected starter, as well as a rating from 1 to 10 as to his likelihood of starting.
Goalkeeper: Jordan Pickford - 8.5/10
Pickford is easily the best goalkeeper in the side, but he’s played limited minutes for the club in preseason after participating in the UEFA U-21 European Championship earlier this summer. We don’t anticipate that keeping him out of the lineup, but we can’t completely rule it out either.
Right-Back: Jonjoe Kenny - 5/10
Kenny and the right-back position are easily the most in flux at this stage. Obviously, the right side of defense is Seamus Coleman’s once he returns from injury. But, until then, there are three players vying for this spot.
We give the leg up to Kenny for now — he was very impressive at the U-20 World Cup this summer and is likely the best attacking option from right-back that Everton has right now.
Cuco Martina probably isn’t ever going to be the first-choice player at the position, and came to camp so late that he cannot possibly be ready to start. Mason Holgate filled in for Coleman last season, but he’s utterly dreadful in the final third, where the Toffees need their right-back to be able to contribute in their current setup.
Ashley Williams - 10/10 if Jagielka is still fighting injury, 8/10 if Jagielka is healthy
A slight knock kept Phil Jagielka out of the lineup Saturday — if it continues to ail him, there’s a 100% chance Williams gets the start on Thursday.
If not, we still very much expect Williams to get the start in the center of defense, but the Welshman has no experience playing in European competition — something that Jagielka has gained during his time at Everton. Koeman likely won’t factor that in too heavily, but it is something to consider.
Michael Keane - 10/10
The towering English center-back has been one of Everton’s best players this preseason, and he’s been in camp since training began. The 24-year-old is a lock to start.
Leighton Baines - 10/10
The 100% certainty in Baines’ starting place is a result of two factors. First, he had a solid 2016-17 season, and would be a good starting left-back for most Premier League teams.
Second, Everton has literally zero senior cover at left-back, with Callum Connolly the only real option at the position.
Morgan Schneiderlin - 10/10
As mentioned above, Everton’s entire setup hinges on the ability of its deep-lying midfielder to both break up opposing attacks and transition his team from defense to offense. Nobody does either of those things better than Schneiderlin.
Idrissa Gueye - 10/10
Gana plays the role of the true box-to-box midfielder with a tireless work rate and solid defensive skills. He’s got a tendency to get sucked out of position from time to time, but there’s no doubt he’s the best No. 8 Everton has right now — he’ll deservedly start on Thursday.
Davy Klaassen - 7/10
Klaassen is the new wrinkle in the Everton midfield trio, and without a doubt is a starter for this team going forward. He fits the prototype of “advanced, goal-scoring No. 8” perfectly — and his ability to work well with Gana and Schneiderlin may well define the team’s success this season.
But, Koeman also has a ready and willing Tom Davies, who is more familiar with the system having played with Everton last season. If Koeman wanted Davies to be the regular starter in that role, he wouldn’t have added Klaassen this offseason, but it isn’t impossible that the Dutchman prefers the academy product in this one on the basis of his experience with the club.
Kevin Mirallas - 7/10
This is where things start to get interesting. With the Gylfi Sigurdsson saga holding up any potential moves for wide attackers, Everton’s options are limited to youngsters and veterans likely more suited for a role off the bench going forward.
For now though, Mirallas, who possesses both experience playing a wide role under Koeman and in European competition, seems as sure a bet as any to play in the left winger role. Ademola Lookman, Kieran Dowell, and Aaron Lennon could all theoretically play here as well.
Sandro Ramirez - 6/10
Sandro doesn’t have experience on his side like Mirallas, so his role is a little less secure. Like Mirallas, Lookman, Dowell, or Lennon could all supplant him in the starting lineup — but Koeman clearly rates the player — so much so, in fact, that he must be viewed as the favorite for the right wing position.
He’s got a little more experience than Lookman and Dowell, and a little more to offer going forward than Lennon -- but don’t be surprised if you see any of those three players here instead.
Wayne Rooney - 10/10
Before you freak out, I’d rate the likelihood that Rooney is Everton’s top-choice striker on opening day of the Premier League at only around 3/10. But, they haven’t been able to secure a move for a better striker, so it’ll have to be Rooney at this early stage of the season.
The 31-year-old has shown well in preseason and still has the experience and talent to do well at this stage.
Selecting seven players for the bench proved substantially more difficult than the starters. Let’s start with the easy ones:
- Maarten Stekelenburg will be the back-up, provided Pickford starts. Joel Robles had his squad number stripped away from him in favor of Pickford, so it seems unlikely we’d see him.
- Gareth Barry is the only player who can at all replicate Morgan Schneiderlin’s work as a holding midfielder, so he’s a lock to make the bench.
- Tom Davies is the team’s best substitute option at both the Gueye and Klaassen role, so he’ll definitely make the matchday 18.
After that, things start to get a little more complicated. Let’s start in defense:
- Phil Jagielka will make the bench if healthy enough to do so. If not, I’d anticipate seeing Mason Holgate replace him.
- Speaking of Holgate, there’s a decision to be made regarding selecting either him or Cuco Martina to round out the back line — and that all assumes that Kenny is the starter, no sure thing. We think Martina’s experience ultimately wins him the spot over Holgate.
In attack, things are even tougher. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Dowell, Lookman, and Lennon all are left to fight over the final two spots. Our best guess is this:
- Dominic Calvert-Lewin makes the 18 largely because he’s the only player off the bench who looks to be a true striker. Lookman could come in for Rooney in a pinch, but DCL is clearly a more complete center forward.
- That leaves Dowell, Lookman, and Lennon left to compete for the final spot. We (tentatively) give it to Aaron Lennon who is comfortable in European football, can play on either side of the main striker, and will provide the most defensive cover — which could be important if his team takes an early lead and wants to hold onto the all-important home clean sheet.
So, there you have it. These are the 18 players we expect Ronald Koeman to ride with on Thursday evening under the lights at Goodison Park. Are there any changes that you would make, to the formation or personnel? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter @RBMersey.