Everton kick off 2019 with the visit of Leicester City at Goodison Park on New Year’s Day.
The Blues, who lost 1-0 at Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday, have failed to win their last three home games, and managed just one victory from their seven December matches.
But their recent record against Foxes should inspire confidence; they left the King Power Stadium with three points in October after a 2-1 win, and have beaten Leicester on home soil in the previous two seasons.
Claude Puel’s side occupy eighth place in the Premier League, one point and two positions better off than Everton. Puel, whose position looked under threat before consecutive victories against Chelsea and Manchester City, saw his side fall to a 1-0 home defeat to Cardiff City on Saturday.
Ahead of the clash at Goodison, RBM spoke to Matt Cook (@TheRumFish), from SB Nation’s Leicester blog, Fosse Posse:
RBM: Firstly, how would you rate Leicester’s first half to the season?
Matt: I expected Leicester to be right around this area pushing for sixth place.
Had they won against Cardiff they would have been one point behind Manchester United [for the time being, before United’s 4-1 win over Bournemouth on Sunday] but ending the season in seventh place would be a great campaign in my opinion.
RBM: Leicester’s defeat against Cardiff was their third game in a week. Especially after facing Chelsea and Man City, was fatigue to blame more than anything?
Matt: Claude Puel pretty much said before the match that this would be a completely different game from Chelsea and Manchester City and basically called upon his team to answer the challenge.
I think it’s fair to say fatigue was a factor because they had some real chances they probably would’ve scored with a normal amount of rest. The missed penalty [by James Maddison] just is what is.
RBM: Does the Cardiff result still leave Claude Puel under pressure, even after the Chelsea and Man City victories? Should he have this much scrutiny on him?
Matt: I’m not sure what it is about Puel that most fans of the teams he manages just drives them crazy. I think he would’ve still had a job had he lost to both Chelsea and Manchester City and beaten Cardiff.
I think going into the holiday fixtures they would’ve said six out of 12 points is a great return, it just sucks they had a real opportunity to get 12 and slipped to another beauty of goal [by Víctor Camarasa].
I think the only pressure he is under is from the fans and I believe that there is still a lot of work to be done transitioning from the squad that won the title and the fans weren’t always going to be pleased by the manager, Puel or not.
RBM: What should Leicester be aiming for in the second half of the season?
Matt: I think you have to try and get as high up in the table as you can. An FA Cup run would be fun since the club’s never won it.
The team needs something to push for, so I’d say sixth place and an FA Cup semi-final or final would be amazing. Finishing any position below tenth would be disastrous.
RBM: Foxes striker Jamie Vardy admitted recently that Puel’s possession-based style of play does not suit him. How limited has his involvement been at times in games this season?
Matt: Jamie Vardy is having a very odd season. His xG [8.79] is way up but his goals [six] are down. His groin injury hasn’t helped much and he looked to be getting back to his old self against Chelsea and Manchester City.
Vardy has had trouble ever since teams figured out giving us more possession was the key to beating us. He’s a professional making a huge wage and is certainly good enough to change his play.
You can be possession-based and still make runs off the defenders; he just isn’t doing that enough. Another strange thing is so many of his opportunities have come to his left and ‘weaker’ foot. Put it on his right and he’ll start scoring more goals.
RBM: Vardy will be 32 in January. Is his age as much to do with his waning influence as Puel’s approach?
Matt: I think Claude Puel was sent here to change the style of Leicester City using young players who’s games can be moulded to his style.
We’re just living out the change week by week and it’s lazy for fans, and Vardy, to say, ‘let’s just go back to playing counter attacking football.’ We’ve allowed so many goals from outside our on box I can’t imagine giving up more possession to see the likes of Gylfi Sigurðsson score more goals from 25 yards out when we can’t nick the ball back.
I would be very surprised if we saw Jamie Vardy in a Leicester shirt next year.
RBM: Tell us about Hamza Choudhury, Leicester’s 21-year-old midfielder who was widely praised for his performances in the Chelsea and Man City wins. What does he add to the Foxes’ midfield?
Matt: I really enjoy watching Hamza and his awesome head of hair bounce around the King Power. I think he does a lot of the simple things right. He’s always in position, he tackles well, he’s calm on the ball, and most importantly makes Papy Mendy and Wilfried Ndidi better.
I think he’s the security blanket in midfield we’ve needed and hopefully finally have it.
RBM: How do you expect Leicester to set up at Goodison?
Matt: I think we’ll see a return of the lineup that faced Chelsea and Manchester City. That will depend, though, on health, as Wes Morgan and Jonny Evans were both out of the last match due to illness.
I also wouldn’t be surprised if Puel tricked us all and changed everyone but the goalkeeper.
RBM: Who do you think could cause Everton the most problems?
Matt: I think Ricardo Pereira is the one that could do the most damage. He didn’t have enough of the ball against Cardiff and is an absolute difference maker.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for the game?
Matt: 3-2 Leicester if I’m biased. 2-1 Everton will probably be the result.
Our thanks to Matt for his time.