Everton will be keen to put Wednesday’s EFL Cup disappointment behind them and make it four straight Premier League wins when they visit Sheffield United on Boxing Day.
Carlo Ancelotti’s men delivered excellent, resilient performances in beating Chelsea, Leicester and Arsenal, but their quarter-final at home to Manchester United proved a game too far.
But there’s no let-up in the festive schedule as ever, with the Blues’ next assignment a visit to the rock-bottom Blades.
After finishing ninth in their first season back in the top-flight last term, Chris Wilder’s men have struggled desperately so far, and their winless start of two points from 14 games is the worst made by any side in Premier League history.
Ahead of the Boxing Day clash, we spoke to Jon Bradley from the Sheffield United podcast, Four Blades In The Pub:
RBM: Firstly, with just two points from 14 games, Sheff Utd are ten adrift of safety already. Do you have any hope they can turn it around and stay up?
Jon: With Chris Wilder, who knows, but if we don’t turn it round soon the already hefty task will become an impossible one.
RBM: Chris Wilder is obviously enormously popular at Bramall Lane, having led his boyhood club from League One to ninth in the Premier League last year. Do you think he’s under any pressure, and should he be?
Jon: He has, we hope, a job for life. Our owners back him, but you never know and they could get their head turned. Most importantly, he has more than enough good faith among our support for him not to go anywhere.
But in modern football, who knows? We could be sitting here for the reverse fixture and Alan Pardew is in charge. Let’s hope that’s not the case, though.
RBM: Sheff Utd fans and players have built up a great bond with each other under Wilder, and have just three home league wins since football resumed in June. Do you think they’ve suffered from empty stadiums more than most?
Jon: Without a doubt. It’s been very difficult to watch recently and not be in the trenches with the players. The saying is ‘football without fans means nothing’ - it’s corny, but bang on.
We have spoken at length on the podcast about feeling detached from it all due to not being able to go to the game. We’re almost certain the gaffer and the players would want us back as much as we want to be back.
RBM: How much of Sheff Utd’s struggles this season do you think have been down to missing injured Jack O’Connell at the back and former loanee Dean Henderson in goal?
Jon: Any side who loses two of their best players will struggle. We knew O’Connell was good, but the void he has left at both ends of the pitch has been huge.
Henderson inspired a confidence in those in front of him and had a great relationship with supporters; he is hugely missed, but he wasn’t our player. Some of our fans should remember that. It’s like looking through your former missus’ Instagram account; get over it, lads.
Combined with some rotten luck, some strange selection and substitution decisions, it has not been a great start.
RBM: Jordan Pickford has been erratic for a while at Everton, but has improved since he was dropped for a game last month. Is Aaron Ramsdale in a similar slump, and do you think he might benefit from similar treatment at Sheff Utd?
Jon: The difference with Ramsdale and Pickford is we have seen Pickford performing on the highest stage for England and in the Premier League for Sunderland in a similar situation to we are in currently. Ramsdale isn’t at the level, yet.
You won’t find a less divisive discussion among Blades fans as to if he is up to the job. Wilder is fiercely loyal and at times stubborn. As a result, I think Ramsdale won’t face the same treatment. He very rarely drops players and I doubt he will drop his £18 million goalkeeper. Furthermore, given our options in reserve, nor should he!
RBM: How much encouragement did you take from their 1-1 draw at Brighton last weekend, when they were minutes away from their first win of the season?
Jon: The performance at Brighton was fantastic. There seemed to be a degree of balance in the side, which has not been seen for a while. A dodgy red card [to midfielder John Lundstram] aside, we would have got the elusive win.
Most pleasingly, that performance suggests that we are not giving up without a fight.
RBM: How do you expect Sheff Utd to set up on Saturday?
Jon: 3-5-2 with Ramsdale in goal. The defence picks itself but after that, who knows. In midfield, Lundstram and Sander Berge are both out. Oliver Norwood, who was a mainstay last year, is out of favour, and John Fleck seems to be struggling for form more than most.
Jayden Bogle did himself no harm on Sunday but he’s a right back. Up front also gives Wilder some choices should Oli McBurnie be back from his shoulder injury.
RBM: Who do you think can cause Everton the most problems?
Jon: Oliver Burke. The lad needs some longer studs and maybe an hour with a bag of balls after training but he is a defender’s nightmare.
It might take a while but I think Wilder will buff the edges and turn him from great prospect to a proper player. His pace is frightening.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Saturday’s game?
Jon: 1-0 to the Blades. A late Christmas present for us.
Our thanks to Jon for his time.