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Everton at Chelsea: The Opposition View

We spoke to Chelsea blogger Jimmy Funnell prior to Sunday’s clash at Stamford Bridge

Chelsea v Everton - Premier League
Chelsea beat Everton 2-0 at Stamford Bridge early last season
Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

Everton will look to end a 24-year wait for a win at Stamford Bridge when they visit Chelsea on Sunday. The Blues’ last victory at the Bridge came in November 1994, when Paul Rideout sealed a 1-0 win in only Joe Royle’s second game in charge.

It has since been a sorry story for Everton, particularly in recent years; they were hammered 5-0 at the Bridge by the eventual champions in 2016/17, and lost twice there last campaign in both the Premier League and the EFL Cup.

On paper, it seems an uphill task for the Toffees to break their duck this weekend - Chelsea are yet to lose in the league under new manager Maurizio Sarri, who replaced the sacked Antonio Conte in July.

After slumping to fifth in 2017/18, 30 points behind runaway winners Manchester City, they look well-equipped for a title challenge this year under Sarri, whose only defeat in all competitions this season came against City in the Community Shield.

Ahead of Sunday’s game, RBM spoke to Jimmy Funnell (@JimmyFunnellCFC), from SB Nation’s Chelsea blog, We Ain’t Got No History, on what he has made of Sarri’s Chelsea, and what he expects from the encounter:

RBM: Firstly, sum up the job Maurizio Sarri has done so far. What are the main differences between Chelsea under him and Chelsea under his predecessor, Antonio Conte?

Jimmy: Sarri joined Chelsea very late in the transfer window and barely had any time to prepare the team for what was ahead, with the full squad only returning a week prior to the start of the Premier League season.

Taking this, as well as Sarri’s past starting difficulties and Chelsea’s sub-par performances last season, into account, the Italian’s exceeded all our expectations and has done a truly phenomenal job of keeping us unbeaten in all competitions. We’re gradually buying into his brand of football and moving it up a gear in terms of goals, fluidity and the required amount of pressing off the ball.

The main differences to Chelsea under Antonio Conte are simple: pretty much everything. From the change in formation to Sarri’s philosophy of having fun instead of “suffering” to the free-flowing attacking play and constantly dominating possession instead of inviting pressure, everything’s got the feeling of being the exact opposite to the team from last season.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful to Conte for everything the Italian did for Chelsea Football Club, but the current vibe around the club is the best I’ve seen since the times of Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and the rest of the old guard.

Burnley FC v Chelsea FC - Premier League
Sarri, 59, is the latest manager to walk through Chelsea’s revolving door
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

RBM: Sarri has never won a trophy as a manager. Does this concern you at all?

Jimmy: A tricky question as Chelsea fans were pretty much split on the matter before Sarri was eventually appointed. Personally, I don’t mind as we’ve constantly had serial winners walk through the door at Stamford Bridge to nevertheless get sacked two years later.

All the trophies in the world weren’t able to save these managers’ jobs, so why not try something ‘new’ which is simultaneously very easy on the eyes? Sarri may not have won any titles as of yet but he’s exactly what the club needs right now.

Chelsea’s current transfer policy of no longer being able to keep up with the financial might of clubs like Manchester City or Real Madrid means that the manager will more often than not have to resort to the players he has at his disposal, and this is one of Sarri’s most vital virtues.

The Italian actually coaches his players and does so with great success, as can be seen with Lorenzo Insigne or Dries Mertens at Napoli. This is a quality many well-known managers lack nowadays and the often-stingy Chelsea board will thank him for it. At some point, his personal drought has to end and I’m optimistic that it could even happen this year.

RBM: Previous Chelsea managers have faded after excellent starts and have paid for it by quickly losing their jobs (e.g. Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto di Matteo, José Mourinho, Conte too). Does Chelsea’s short-termism bother you?

Jimmy: In short, no it doesn’t, and as long as we continue to win trophies, this isn’t going to change anytime soon. Of course I’d love for Sarri to stay here for many years, win Chelsea some titles, and build a legacy of beautiful football at Stamford Bridge.

History, however, tells us a different story so I can’t say I’m overly optimistic about the Italian’s long-term future.

RBM: Table-topping Manchester City currently look as imperious as ever, but are just two points clear of joint-second Chelsea and Liverpool. Are Chelsea good enough to beat them to the title this season?

Jimmy: My heart says yes, but my brain says no. I’m aware that people like to throw Chelsea into the mix of title contenders at the moment, and you can’t really blame them after our fantastic start to the season, but realistically our squad depth can’t be compared to that of City.

Our good run of form also obscures the fact that we’re still at the beginning of internalizing Sarri’s philosophy of football while Pep Guardiola’s team has been able to do so for over 2 years now.

Then again, if you had asked Chelsea fans at the start of the season whether they saw their team featuring in the title race come November then I can assure you that each of them would have answered with a firm no, so who knows.

RBM: Eden Hazard has made a blistering start to the campaign and is joint-top scorer in the Premier League with seven goals. How far away is he from being talked in the same bracket as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, if not already?

Jimmy: One of the major points of criticism directed at Eden Hazard in the past has always been his reluctance to shoot as he tends to over-complicate things by laying it off to his teammates despite being in good positions to pull the trigger.

While this has certainly improved (as his seven-goal league tally illustrates), there are still many situations in which the Belgian is simply not ruthless enough in front of goal. Until he’s able to change this and contribute consistently over a lengthy period of time, I personally wouldn’t put him in the same bracket as Messi and Ronaldo.

Eden Hazard Wins the EA Sports Player of the Month Award - September 2018
Hazard won Premier League player of the month in September
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

RBM: Chelsea’s youngsters have long struggled for game time; more than 35 of them are currently out on loan. Is this something you’d like to see change, or is this just not viable given owner Roman Abramovich’s hunger for instant success?

Jimmy: This has been a heatedly-debated topic among Chelsea fans for nearly a decade now and there’s no easy answer to the question. Generally I do want this situation to change as we’ve got some highly promising talents in Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ethan Ampadu, among many others.

The problem is that there is a host of factors which come into play in regard to why Chelsea’s youth players aren’t getting the chances they need and arguably deserve. Simply put, things need to change from top to bottom in order to facilitate the breaking of this long, ongoing cycle.

RBM: One such loanee, centre-back Kurt Zouma, has made a huge impression among Evertonians and has really solidified a defence that was extremely porous last season. How likely do you think a permanent move to Goodison Park is for Zouma?

Jimmy: While Kurt Zouma is certainly loved by almost everyone at Chelsea on a personal level, he’s found himself drop down the pecking order ever since Antonio Conte joined back in 2016.

Zouma was once seen as being destined for greatness at Chelsea, maybe even following in the footsteps of former greats like John Terry; however, ever since the horrific injury he sustained against Manchester United [in February 2016], one’s had the feeling that Kurt’s Chelsea career is more or less over.

Yes, Conte did use him occasionally during our title winning season, but since then Zouma’s never really been in contention for a spot in our back three or four, primarily due to the return of Andreas Christensen. If things don’t take a surprising turn, I can definitely see Chelsea doing business with Everton here.

Everton FC v West Ham United - Premier League
Zouma, who joined Chelsea for £12 million in 2014, has been an excellent loan signing for Everton
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

RBM: Ross Barkley left Everton for Chelsea in acrimonious circumstances in January, but after a slow start, is finally finding his feet. What do you make of him, and is he good enough for a title-challenging side like Chelsea?

Jimmy: I’ve been thrilled with Ross Barkley’s development since Sarri came in. According to the players themselves, he’s even been the one who’s invested the most work on the training ground in order to take to Sarri’s brand of football as soon as possible.

Ross did start the season a bit slowly and sometimes still exhibits a few of his past deficiencies, but ever since the start of October he’s virtually exploded and is showcasing at every given opportunity exactly why he was held in such high regard at Goodison Park.

Barkley’s improved in almost every area of his game and he’s definitely never been in better shape than he is currently. If he can now do this on a consistent basis then we’ve got ourselves one heck of player. Hence, Chelsea fans expect great things of him this season.

RBM: A gripe many Evertonians had with Barkley during his time at Goodison was that his end product was lacking. Is this a concern you share about him?

Jimmy: I did initially. We’ve been crying out for a goalscoring midfielder for years now and the most forward central midfielder of our three should contribute a large amount of goals in Sarri’s system.

This was initially a big problem for us as our strikers rarely bag a goal and Real Madrid loanee Mateo Kovačić may have many qualities, but scoring isn’t one of them. Ross Barkley’s become far more clinical and his decision-making in the final third has improved dramatically.

Whether Ross will be able to make this season his most prolific one yet remains to be seen; the early signs are certainly promising, though.

Burnley FC v Chelsea FC - Premier League
Barkley never managed goals in three consecutive league games for Everton, but did so with Chelsea in October
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

RBM: How do you expect Chelsea to set up on Sunday?

Jimmy: The only way we now know nowadays: continually keep possession and spray the ball around until the opportunity arises to make a decisive pass to one of our forwards; if we concede possession, we’ll immediately try to harass and press Everton relentlessly until we regain possession, at least that’s the ideal scenario.

Whether you guys will allow us to do so is, of course, an entirely different story, but Sarri definitely won’t change the way he’s set up the team up until now.

Predicted lineup, 4-3-3: Kepa; Alonso, Luiz, Rüdiger, Azpilicueta; Jorginho, Kanté, Kovačić; Hazard, Morata, Willian.

RBM: Hazard aside, who do you think could cause Everton the most problems?

Jimmy: I’ve got to say Chelsea’s midfield. I know this isn’t a specific player but our trio of Jorginho, Kovačić and Kanté have been tremendous and given us a degree of quality and depth in the middle of the park that we’ve been sorely missing for quite a while.

If I’d have to pick one of them then it’d definitely be Jorginho, who will be dictating play as he loves to do.

RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Sunday’s game?

Jimmy: Normally, I’d be pretty pessimistic going into a game against Everton as we always seem to struggle against you lot but as this season hasn’t involved any of our notorious slip-ups, I’m actually cautiously optimistic and will go with a hard-fought 3-1 win in favour of Chelsea, with Álvaro Morata scoring at least one of them.

Our thanks to Jimmy for his time.