Everton begin a grim run of December fixtures when they host high-flying Chelsea at Goodison Park on Saturday evening.
The game will be the first to host fans at Goodison since March, with 2,000 Evertonians set to be in attendance for the visit of Frank Lampard’s men.
This fixture evokes happy recent memories for Everton; it is almost a year to the day since caretaker boss Duncan Ferguson led them to an unforgettable 3-1 home win over Chelsea after Marco Silva’s sacking.
But Carlo Ancelotti’s former club will provide a stern test for his current outfit, with Lampard’s side two points and places off the top and the second-highest scorers with 25 goals in 11 games.
Ahead of Saturday’s game, we spoke to Dávid Pásztor, writer for SB Nation’s Chelsea blog, We Ain’t Got No History:
RBM: Firstly, Edouard Mendy has nine clean sheets in 14 Chelsea games since the goalkeeper’s summer move from Rennes. In what ways is he an improvement on Kepa Arrizabalaga?
Dávid: In what way isn’t he an improvement? That’s probably the real question. And one with a very short answer.
Mendy has been an improvement over Kepa in just about every conceivable way, from the physical (height, wingspan, strength, etc.) to the mental (anticipation, bravery, confidence, etc.) to the actual goalkeeping bits (reflexes, strong wrists, command of area and airspace, communication, etc.).
Kepa probably has the better ball-playing skills, but it’s by a small margin, and even if he’s not as bad as he’s been made out to be, he just doesn’t inspire confidence from anyone involved (or watching), which really nullifies any advantage he might have otherwise.
There’s undoubtedly a good goalkeeper inside Kepa. Not the world’s most expensive one, but still a pretty good one. Alas, he’s in the witness protection program and needs a change of scenery.
RBM: Aside from in goal, where else do you think Chelsea have most improved on last season?
Dávid: It’s a similar answer to the first question, as Chelsea have improved across the board.
We’ve stopped leaking goals, we’ve established a sense of control in midfield, and we’ve been finishing our chances much better than last season. Some of that improvement has come from new signings, but also from tactical and personnel role changes as well.
RBM: Since Chelsea tightened up at the back, have they still been just as enjoyable to watch as they ever have been under Lampard?
Dávid: It might’ve made for great viewing for the neutral, but 3-3 draws and wins by an odd goal in five or seven weren’t necessarily enjoyable as a Chelsea fan.
We appreciate the fewer heartaches and heart attacks and of course the greater amount of wins — even if some of those come under more controlled circumstances or more defensive approaches.
RBM: With such a wealth of options particularly in attack, how far away do you think Lampard is from deciding on his best XI?
Dávid: Thanks to our steady stream of injuries, Lampard has yet to really have all his attacking options available all at the same time.
We have settled on a back four, and at least two of the midfield three, but the front three is more often than not a case of who’s available and who’s fit.
The Timo Werner-Tammy Abraham-Hakim Ziyech trio looked to have emerged in recent weeks, but then Olivier Giroud staked his claim ahead of Abraham, Ziyech got hurt, and someone stole all of Werner’s shooting boots. So we’re pretty much back to the drawing board.
RBM: As someone who saw Carlo Ancelotti bring great success to your club, how do you rate the job he’s done at Everton so far?
Dávid: Carlo is remembered with great fondness at the Bridge, especially now, almost a decade removed from his last season.
I think he’s done a fine job at Everton — and is unsurprisingly bringing out the best in your attacking players. But Ancelotti’s time at Chelsea was also marred by what he called ‘bad moments’ and that’s what seems to be happening at Everton now as well.
In his two seasons at Chelsea, he once managed to get out quickly from such a bad moment, and would go on to win the title, and once he did not, and would end up getting the boot in the Goodison tunnel, incidentally.
RBM: Ancelotti has so far appeared very calm and mild-mannered, but has recently come in for some criticism for constant tinkering and odd choices in team selection. Is this at all reminiscent of the Ancelotti you saw at Chelsea?
Dávid: I don’t recall Ancelotti being much of a constant tinkerer. If anything, he stuck to his tactics a bit too stubbornly (which were famously exploited in our Champions League campaigns by first Jose Mourinho in 2009-10 and then Sir Alex Ferguson in 2010-11).
Memories do fade, and he did try a couple things that were a bit odd at the time (such as playing Deco as a deep-lying playmaker, or forcingDidier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka to play together), but by and large, he kept the players happy and his tactics quite constant.
RBM: How do you expect Chelsea to set up on Saturday?
Dávid: Lampard has found a setup that works, a 4-3-3 with two number eights either side of a deeper anchor in an inverted midfield triangle, and has stuck to it for most of the past couple months.
Back four: Thiago Silva and Kurt Zouma in the middle, Reece James and Ben Chilwell as full-backs (attacking or defensive, as needed)
Anchor: N’Golo Kanté
Two number eights: Mason Mount and one of Mateo Kovacic or Kai Havertz
Center forward: Abraham or Giroud (with the latter getting the nod last weekend)
Wing-forwards: Werner and Christian Pulisic are the only two who aren’t injured. Havertz can play there as well, as can young Tino Anjorin, just as they did in the midweek game.
RBM: Who do you think could cause Everton the most problems?
Dávid: If Pulisic is fully fit - he just returned from his latest hamstring injury - then he’s the one to watch.
He made Chelsea tick during Project Restart, and with a more solid base to work from, he could do so once again. His season has been blighted by injury, again, so if he’s still affected by that, then we might have a bit more of a grind on our hands.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Saturday’s game?
Dávid: Goodison Park is not a happy place for us, but I’m feeling strangely optimistic, so I’d say 2-1 Chelsea, with Werner on a counter and Zouma from a corner on the scoresheet.
Our thanks to Dávid for his time.