Everton will look to build on Tuesday’s Carabao Cup win at Sheffield Wednesday when they host Manchester City in the Premier League on Saturday.
Defeat for the Blues would see them lose a third consecutive league game for the first time since February, a run which also included a home defeat to City.
Just like last season, Pep Guardiola’s side seem destined to be locked in a two-horse title race with Liverpool, who have won all of their six matches while City have lost and drawn in two of their games so far.
But since their shock defeat at Norwich City, the back-to-back champions have won all three of their matches by an aggregate score of 14-0, including last weekend’s 8-0 thrashing at home against Watford.
Prior to Saturday’s game, we spoke to football writer Kevin Nelson, who also blogs for and co-hosts a podcast at SB Nation’s City site, Bitter and Blue:
RBM: Firstly, how much has your confidence in City retaining the title again been dented by theirs and Liverpool’s respective starts to the season?
Kevin: I would still put my money on City to retain the title but my confidence has been shaken slightly. I had hopefully expected Liverpool to regress a bit and still believe they may given their performances against Southampton and Chelsea, yet they always find a way to get the three points.
The greater concern is whether the current state of City’s back line will allow them to stay within striking distance when Liverpool do slip up. I believe they’ll be up for the task and have always viewed Guardiola as the ultimate cheat code for situations just like this.
He’s already won two league titles with Fabian Delph and Oleksandr Zinchenko at left-back so I’m still betting on City, but I’m 55 per cent confident in my bet as opposed to 80 per cent one month ago.
RBM: Do you think privately, having won two league titles but never been champions of Europe with City, Guardiola’s top priority has become the Champions League?
Kevin: City are desperate to win their first Champions League but I still think Guardiola favours the Premier League above all else. The nature of knockout competitions is obviously different given how many variables control a team’s success.
Uncharacteristically poor finishing or a bad refereeing decision can derail even the most successful of campaigns and Guardiola is aware that prioritising the Champions League doesn’t reduce that variability. It’s not as if City haven’t fielded their best eleven in the knockout rounds in the past and I don’t expect much to change in their approach.
Guardiola has built a squad with tremendous depth, so he doesn’t have to prioritise one competition over another. Ideally, squad rotation can take place as necessary but without a drop in form.
RBM: City’s response to that Norwich defeat has been nothing short of emphatic. Do you think Guardiola or the team have done anything particularly differently since that match?
Kevin: Guardiola hasn’t changed anything tactically, but the mentality does seem to have intensified. Sometimes, City are able to find success so easily that they can become complacent and look past opponents or even drop a gear after getting an early lead. More often than not it doesn’t cost them, but there are occasions when teams will punch them in the mouth like Norwich did.
But City have shown an ability to react to these wake-up calls with a renewed hunger to destroy opponents and that’s what we’ve seen over the past week.
RBM: City currently have a real shortage of senior centre-backs, with Vincent Kompany having moved on and Aymeric Laporte and John Stones injured. Should Fernandinho partner Nicolás Otamendi on Saturday, how much faith do you have in this pairing?
Kevin: Fernandinho should absolutely partner Otamendi on Saturday, especially when you consider the other options are two teenagers (Eric García and Taylor Harwood-Bellis) and Kyle Walker.
I’m actually fairly confident that this centre-back pairing can hold down the fort until Stones and Laporte get back, though I already have more faith in Fernandinho than Otamendi despite the fact that the Brazilian is new to the position.
Otamendi is a good defender, but is prone to mental lapses, while Fernandinho is one of the most reliable players I have ever seen and I expect him to be a first choice centre-back by the season’s end even if everyone is healthy.
For the time being, there will be growing pains with this pairing, but Guardiola will likely adjust his tactics slightly to prevent them from being left isolated.
RBM: In hindsight, how big a mistake do you think it was from City not to sign another central defender in the summer?
Kevin: While it looks stupid at the moment that City decided against acquiring a centre-back, there’s a reasonable rationale for them not doing so. Fernandinho’s full-time move to central defence appears to have been the plan all along, so he would act as the Kompany replacement. The club also still rates Stones highly and views him as their first-choice centre-back of the present and future.
On top of that, I think Walker’s skill set translates well to central defence and the team had an eye at moving him there eventually, given the fact that they simultaneously extended his contract and brought in another starting quality right-back in João Cancelo.
With all these things in mind, the centre-back depth really wasn’t any worse than it was last season and City have just been hit with a large wave of bad luck with the injury crisis they face.
RBM: After starting in Tuesday’s EFL Cup win at Preston, are you surprised or disappointed that Phil Foden, arguably City’s most exciting youngster, has played only ten minutes of Premier League football so far this season?
Kevin: I’m disappointed that we haven’t seen more of Foden but not surprised at all he has not featured much this season. As much as City fans are desperate for him to play, Foden still has to earn his minutes, and there’s no way he deserves consideration over the likes of David Silva or Kevin De Bruyne.
Granted, there is likely a healthier minute distribution possible that will get Foden on the pitch more often and I expect Guardiola to reach that balance once the slew of midweek matches congests the schedule.
Yet without an injury, I don’t see the youngster getting too many Premier League starts this season. Next season will be the year Foden really has his breakout as he can step into the minutes vacated by the departing Silva.
RBM: How do you expect City to set up at Goodison on Saturday?
Kevin: City’s lineup against Preston North End serves as a decent indicator of what we’ll see on Saturday. I’d expect the entire backline to change with the return of Walker, Otamendi, Fernandinho, and Zinchenko from right to left.
Rodri and De Bruyne will undoubtedly start, though the final player in City’s midfield three is up for debate. I’d wager on Bernardo Silva and David Silva sitting tomorrow out since they’ve started the last two matches.
İlkay Gündoğan would be next in line but actually think Foden, whose skill set gives the midfield a better balance, will get the rare start despite my answer to the previous question. The front three will likely be Raheem Sterling, Sergio Agüero, and Riyad Mahrez.
RBM: Which of City’s players do you think can cause Everton the most problems?
Kevin: De Bruyne gives everyone problems, so he’s the obvious answer to this question. His uncanny ability to pick out attackers on the far or near post from distance is unmatched by anyone in the league, perhaps even the world. Everton cannot allow him room on the ball anywhere on the pitch or he’ll split the defence open.
Mahrez is also a player to watch out for, given how much more dynamic and in tune with the team he’s looked this season. He’s also diversified the way he attacks defenders off the dribble and will likely have the benefit of overlapping runs from De Bruyne to create space down the right wing.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Saturday’s game?
Kevin: I predicted Everton would finish fifth at the start of the season so I make this prediction as someone who believed in the construction of talent in this squad. Unfortunately, their form so far has been less than inspiring and I can’t imagine City having any problems taking all three points despite the match being at Goodison Park.
If the Norwich loss hadn’t occurred, I’d be apt to suspect a slip up from City, but their recent wake-up call will continue to motivate them to continue their performances against Watford and Preston North End.
I predict a 3-1 victory for Manchester City, and for Delph to give away a penalty for old time’s sake.
Our thanks to Kevin for his time.