Everton will try to secure consecutive away league wins for the first time this season when they visit Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday.
The Blues responded perfectly to Sunday’s 6-2 trouncing against Tottenham Hotspur with a 5-1 Boxing Day victory at Burnley, and now face a Seagulls side who were comfortably dispatched at Goodison Park in November.
In their second year in the Premier League, Chris Hughton’s men sit 13th, a point better off at the halfway stage than this time last season.
But they welcome the Toffees on the back of just one point from their last four games, which came in Wednesday’s draw against Arsenal at the Amex Stadium.
Prior to Saturday’s match, we spoke to Jeremy Smith, Brighton fan and French football writer and podcaster at French Football Weekly:
RBM: Before we get into Saturday’s game, I wanted to ask you, as an avid follower of French football, what do you rate the chances of Everton midfielder Idrissa Gueye’s rumoured January move to Paris Saint-Germain materialising next month? Is he the sort of player the French champions need?
Jeremy: He is absolutely the type of player that PSG need. Although they impressed in the end in finishing top of their Champions League group, they are very short of central midfielders and Thomas Tuchel has said that he wants to sign at least one, possibly two – especially as Adrien Rabiot could be on his way out.
Gueye is definitely on their wanted list, but whether he goes or not depends on whether Everton are willing to sell, since PSG have put themselves in a difficult position Financial Fair Play-wise and can no longer pay silly money. Everton can always impose a price beyond PSG’s limits.
RBM: Brighton arrived at Goodison in November following three straight wins, but have since managed just two victories from their last nine games. Has anything gone drastically wrong, or was a dip in form always inevitable?
Jeremy: No, nothing has gone drastically wrong. We’re still struggling to show much away form – although coming from behind to win at Huddersfield Town, where we always struggle, was big – and the refereeing performance stymied us a bit against Cardiff City.
At home, two matches during that period have been against the ‘big teams’ – and we were unlucky not to get a draw against Chelsea. We’re generally competing well in every match, smashed Crystal Palace which is obviously massive, and are just a bit frustrated at a couple of points being left behind (e.g. Leicester City after leading and having a man advantage).
RBM: After three straight defeats, how encouraging was Boxing Day’s 1-1 draw at home to Arsenal?
Jeremy: Very encouraging. Although those defeats were two away and one very narrow one at home to Chelsea, we don’t want to get stuck in a downward spiral.
To come back from an early goal down and being outplayed for half an hour to end the match the better team and a little frustrated not to have won is a good boost, and shows that we can compete against the better teams.
RBM: Before the Goodison game we spoke about Brighton’s targets. They look a safe bet to stay up, sitting ten points above the drop zone, but is it too soon for a push for the top half?
Jeremy: We’re ten points above the drop zone, but also ten points off Europe! We’re not getting ahead of ourselves but the second half of the season looks better on paper (five of the current bottom six still have to come to the Amex), some of our summer signings are beginning to settle, so I don’t think top half is impossible, but maybe still unlikely for now.
RBM: Are there any areas that Brighton need to strengthen in the January transfer window?
Jeremy: We have a good, balanced, settled squad at the moment, with no obvious areas that need strengthening for now. We have good cover in most positions and just need our attacking players to help Glenn Murray out with the goalscoring, but both Florin Andone and Jürgen Locadia scoring recently bodes well.
RBM: Brighton’s strong home form last year has continued into this season, with their only two defeats of their nine league matches at the Amex coming against Spurs and Chelsea. What is it about the Seagulls which makes them so difficult to beat on their own turf?
Jeremy: We’ve got an excellent stadium which is generally full every week and a great crowd which, although it can get a bit grumbly, gets behind the team and – while I wouldn’t say makes it intimidating for the away team – gives the home side a boost.
There’s a great relationship between the crowd and the squad, dating back to the dark days and the years pushing for promotion and is still nurtured now – especially with Tony Bloom, who is the owner, but a fan first (he queued up with the other fans to go to the club store just before Christmas!).
I think that relationship transfers onto the pitch and whereas there is still a bit of an inferiority complex in some away matches, everyone feels they belong watching Premier League football at the Amex.
On the football side, we’re still built on strong defensive foundations and with teams perhaps less likely to place so much emphasis on attack away from home, it plays to our strengths and leaves us a little freer to attack.
The only frustration is that, with a strong defence and speedy, skilful wingers, we should be doing better as a counter-attacking team away from home.
RBM: Brighton goalkeeper Mat Ryan will miss the game, having departed for the Asia Cup to represent Australia. It is likely to be David Button in his place – how much does this concern you?
Jeremy: It is a concern. Whether it is Button or Jason Steele, both are solid, experienced keepers – but they are both new to the Albion this season and have played one full first-team match between them.
Ryan showed against Arsenal how important he is to the team and he has formed a great relationship with the defence (and the fans) so he will definitely be missed. I just hope that whoever comes in to replace him can settle as quickly as possible.
RBM: What areas of the pitch should Everton look to exploit on Saturday?
Jeremy: As just alluded to, it would probably be a good idea to test the new keeper with crosses and high balls early on. Other than that, it depends on who Hughton plays, but our right flank probably looks a little weaker in recent weeks. You outplayed us in central midfield last time, too.
RBM: Everton were fairly comfortable 3-1 winners over Brighton in November. Do you think that game will have any bearing on how Hughton sets his side up against the Blues?
Jeremy: I don’t think it will have too much bearing on formation but personnel may change. Davy Pröpper will be available this time and could be important in helping us maintain more control than last time in the centre.
Whether Hughton starts with Dale Stephens or Yves Bissouma in midfield will indicate his intentions: contain Everton or look to attack more.
RBM: Who, on current form, looks the likeliest to trouble Everton?
Jeremy: Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy are reunited, so that may trouble Everton’s attack. As for Brighton’s, it’s hard to look past Murray’s great goalscoring record at home, but Solly March is probably the Albion’s form player.
He struggled to adjust to the step up last year but is looking excellent this season, playmaking from a wide position – and he’s due a goal after coming close a couple of times against Arsenal.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Saturday’s game?
Jeremy: We’ve improved since last year’s fixture [1-1 draw], which we should have won, but then you’ve improved even more. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another draw, but higher-scoring than last time. I’ll say 2-2.
Our thanks to Jeremy for his time.