I’m not really sure how, but it feels like the addition of the UEFA Nations League this season has somehow made international breaks feel worse.
The breaks were bad enough before when they were composed solely of international friendlies, which we knew not to care about. But now, to have a “legitimate” competition take its place, and yet still feel completely and utterly meaningless somehow makes it...more boring?
So, instead of devoting any thought or energy to the San Marino v. Moldova barn-burner in League D, let’s take some time to look ahead at something that actually matters — Everton’s upcoming schedule.
We are now 12/38ths of the way through the Premier League season — 6/19ths for those of you who prefer your fractions simplified — and I think this time of year is probably the most interesting.
Through the first 10-12 matches of the season, we generally look at a club’s record with some level of caution. We think things like: “Club A’s schedule has been really easy,” “Club B has dealt with so many injuries,” or “Club C’s underlying stats suggest they’ve been unlucky and will probably be fine in the long term.”
Those are perfectly reasonable assumptions to make through the opening third of the season, but as you inch closer and closer to the halfway mark of the campaign, you start to exit “well, let’s think about what this team has gone through” territory and enter “you are what your record says you are” territory.
And that is what makes the upcoming month and a half so interesting in the Premier League. Between now and the end of the day on January 1, 2019, Everton will play nine matches — that’s basically a quarter of the season’s games squished into 39 days.
We come out of the November international break still relatively unsure of what Everton’s true ceiling is. We will enter the next break of Premier League matches — the big FA Cup weekend in the second week of January — very sure of where Everton really stands this season.
So, with all that said, let’s take a look at the club’s next nine matches and try to figure out where we might find ourselves when that time comes.
- November 24 — Cardiff City (H)
- December 2 — Liverpool (A)
- December 5 — Newcastle United (H)
- December 10 — Watford (H)
- December 15 — Manchester City (A)
- December 23 — Tottenham Hotspur (H)
- December 26 — Burnley (A)
- December 29 — Brighton and Hove Albion (A)
- January 1 — Leicester City (H)
To me, this run of fixtures divides itself pretty nicely into four groups: elite opponents away, winnable matches away, tricky matches at home, and winnable matches at home. Let’s break them down into those categories, and see how many points Everton takes from each in a best-case and worst-case scenario.
Elite Opponents Away
- December 2 — Liverpool
- December 15 — Manchester City
On the one hand, it’s tempting to be optimistic about these matches — at least insofar as optimism is relative. The Toffees just took a point away to Chelsea, and look the better team during stretches of matches at Arsenal and Manchester United. Yes, Everton’s form over the past decade against top-six teams is bad, but there are clear signs of improvement.
On the other hand, it seems safe to say that Liverpool and Manchester City are easily the best two teams in the Premier League right now, and that both are a cut above the other traditional top-six teams. City is operating with a cool +31 goal differential, and Liverpool, whose defense was supposed to be its weakness, has the joint-best defensive record in the league with 5 goals conceded.
So yes, there’s been improvement in Everton’s play in these kind of matches. But Marco Silva’s side hasn’t played teams of this quality yet, and they haven’t shown signs of being able to truly compete at this level.
Best-case scenario: 1 point out of 6
Worst-case scenario: 0 points out of 6
Winnable Away Matches
- December 26 — Burnley
- December 29 — Brighton & Hove Albion
Everton recently beat Brighton pretty handily at home, and Sean Dyche’s Burnley have been absolutely devoured by the regression monster so far this season. On quality alone, these should absolutely be two wins for Everton.
But the Toffees yet have only one away win this season — at Leicester City on October 6. The two most comparable matches — away to Wolves to open the season and away to AFC Bournemouth two weeks later — don’t exactly provide ideal context though.
Everton went down to 10 men during both matches, and Wolves and Bournemouth are better by significant but not enormous degrees than Burnley and Brighton. It’s a lot of different data points to take into consideration, making this the most difficult group of matches to predict.
Best-case scenario: 4 points out of 6 (I want to say 6, I really do — but we just don’t have enough evidence that Everton’s road form is good enough yet, especially when you consider the fact that these matches are in the middle of the most congested period of the season.)
Worst-case scenario: 2 points out of 6
Tricky Home Matches
- December 23 — Tottenham Hotspur
- January 1 — Leicester City
Allow me to make a confession — I don’t think Spurs are particularly good. Their situation in the center of midfield is messy even when they’re healthy (which they aren’t), and Harry Kane’s underlying stats and conversion rate have dropped off a cliff.
I still think Tottenham has the upper hand on Everton, mind you, but there’s a big gap in quality between the top three and Spurs right now, even if the table doesn’t show it yet. It’s also worth noting that Tottenham faces Arsenal in a League Cup quarterfinal on December 19 — further congesting an already congested period.
Leicester remains the same team they’ve always been — tricky (hence the title of this group) despite a growing lack of quality. The Foxes recent form has been questionable, and Claude Puel insists on playing Wes Morgan even though Jonny Evans is a blatantly better option. At the end of the gauntlet that is the festive period, Leicester represents a potential stumbling block, but one the Toffees should be able to avoid.
Best-case scenario: 6 points out of 6
Worst-case scenario: 2 points out of 6
Winnable Home Matches
- November 24 — Cardiff
- December 5 — Newcastle
- December 10 — Watford
Cardiff and Newcastle simply aren’t very good, and should be comfortable wins for Everton at home. Last year, a lot of matches that should have been comfortable home wins weren’t, but Silva has pretty immediately righted that wrong.
Watford is certainly a bigger challenge than either of the others in this group, but their place in the Premier League table (7th) is primarily a result of a 9-points-out-of-9 start that came against three pretty mediocre sides. Watford’s last six matches include a 2-0 loss at Arsenal, a 4-0 home loss to Bournemouth, a 1-0 loss at Newcastle, and a 1-1 draw at Southampton.
The Hornets’ form, in short, is pretty poor — and their away form is even worse.
Best-case scenario: 9 points out of 9
Worst-case scenario: 5 points out of 9
Let’s tally up the points, shall we?
Best-case scenario: 20 points out of 27 — puts Everton at 39 points through 20 matches
Worst-case scenario: 9 points out of 27 — puts Everton at 28 points through 20 matches
At 39 points through 20 matches, Everton would be averaging 1.95 points per match. That rate, extrapolated out over the rest of the season? 74 points — which in an average season is good for somewhere between fourth and sixth place.
At 28 points through 20 matches, Everton would be averaging 1.4 points per match. That rate would put the Toffees at 53 points by season’s end — a five-point improvement over last season, which would probably see Everton finish seventh or eighth.
The reality, as always, probably lies somewhere between the two extremes. While it’s easy to see a path for Everton to accrue as many as 20 points or as few as 9 in this stretch, you’d be hard-pressed to call either of those scenarios likely.
How many points will Everton pick up in the next nine games?
This poll is closed
< 9 pts
> 20 pts
Instead, I’d probably put my money on around 15 points from this stretch, setting the Toffees up to potentially wrestle the “best of the rest” title away from Watford (whose recent form, as we just discussed, is middling) and Bournemouth (who faces five of the big-six clubs between now and January 1).
Whether or not they can feasibly do any better than that by season’s end will probably depend more on the form of the most gettable of the big-six teams (Manchester United, Arsenal, and Tottenham) than Everton’s play.
But, if at the start of the season, you’d offered any Everton supporter a clear path to “best of the rest” status, along with an outside shot at the top six and a clear improvement in the style of football coming out of Goodison Park, they’d have taken it in a heartbeat.
Based on the remainder of the 2018 schedule, that future is more than attainable.