Everton’s season stumbles on closer towards its merciful end when they host Aston Villa on Thursday.
The Blues must try to rectify a galling week of three horrific performances and a solitary point, but will be facing a fired-up Villa who are four points away from safety with three games to go.
Dean Smith’s men won their first game since the Premier League’s return in their last match; a 2-0 home win over Crystal Palace on Sunday courtesy of a Trezeguet brace.
Villa will also be out for a league double over Everton, having beaten them 2-0 at Villa Park back in August in the third game of the season.
Ahead of Thursday’s game, we spoke to Phil Vogel, from SB Nation’s dedicated Villa blog, 7500 to Holte:
RBM: Firstly, Villa are four points adrift with three games left. Do they simply have to go all out for the win here?
Phil: Yes, with a ‘but’. Palace was a must-win - Everton is a must-win - and the final fixture against West Ham is a must-win. 36 points means a decent chance at safety. The remaining match against Arsenal is a toss-up, because who knows what Arsenal team will show up. Going for the win is a must.
But, much to the frustration of some Villa supporters, the concentration of the restarted season has been keeping it tight at the back. I expect that to continue to be the case — play with a solid defence and then try to make the chances count.
RBM: Aside from scoring more goals than the opposition for the first time since the restart, what did Villa do differently in beating Crystal Palace on Sunday?
Phil: An attacking player actually took his chance. When Trezeguet scored against Palace, it was the first time in 11 matches that Villa scored not though a defender or an own goal. Villa’s two rotating forwards have been not ideal finishers, to be very kind. If Villa are going to pose a threat, the wide players - Trezeguet, Jack Grealish, Anwar El Ghazi - are the ones who are most likely to score in open play.
The second thing Villa did right was get the service correct. Conor Hourihane is our main set-piece taker and he can do the job very well on his day. He can target either the near and far post for crosses, and score if the positioning is right. The addition of Ahmed Elmohamedy - albeit forced by a pre-match injury - meant quality early crosses from the right-back.
RBM: How much of Villa’s struggles are down to too many signings at once last summer and a failure to gel a new team so quickly?
Phil: The lack of team cohesion has contributed significantly to the rough year. Villa released a dozen players or so in the summer because of contracts, which was going to happen in the Championship or in the Premier League. The massive funds were spent on basically a new squad and making a team gel while adjusting to the top league proved too much.
The one veteran presence was [goalkeeper] Tom Heaton, and he went down with a season-ending injury at the beginning of January. Villa have only won twice since. So combine youth, inexperience, and a bunch of players who haven’t played in the league or together, and you get a relegation fight.
RBM: Villa also had the joint-most matches to play in Project Restart, with ten games over the 39-day period. How much has fatigue also taken its toll on them lately?
Phil: Since the restart Villa have picked up five points. If matches ended at 60 minutes, Villa would have picked up 14 points with a win against Chelsea and draws versus Newcastle, Wolves and Liverpool. That means survival.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming the schedule makers for the relegation fight - Villa have been throwing away leads since the season-opener against Tottenham - but the packed fixtures have hurt.
The tough schedule, combined with a huge layoff and our ‘energy’ midfielder John McGinn coming back from a significant ankle injury, have killed Villa. The issue has been compounded by almost zero depth with Premier League talent — and Dean Smith’s habit of not making subs until after conceding a dumb goal.
RBM: Norwich spent hardly any money and since their relegation, manager Daniel Farke has said their future is still bright. How disastrous would relegation be for Villa?
Phil: Disastrous, no. Villa were in a disastrous scenario two years ago in the summer of 2018 after losing the play-off final to Fulham.
A quick recap of that for your Everton readers that weren’t following us in the Championship: at the time, Villa were owned by Chinese businessman Tony Xia, who spent big money on terrible signings, then stopped spending any money — including paying staff or taxes. There was a real possibility of administration/liquidation/disaster. New owners came in that summer and saved the club.
Relegation wouldn’t be pleasant, but I no longer fear for the future of my beloved club. If the owners leave out of frustration due to relegation, things could get bad again, but hopefully nowhere near the 2018 summer scare of Aston Villa not existing.
RBM: Should Dean Smith be Villa manager at the start of next season regardless of whether he keeps them in the Premier League?
Phil: Yes. Smith was let down by recruitment in my view. He is just trying to survive, and that makes for some ugly football. Many of the dropped points were just dumb mistakes by players. Smith has not been faultless, but I want him in charge of the club in either division to help push towards a better future.
But for goodness sake - make subs before the 75th minute!
RBM: How do you expect Villa to set up on Thursday?
Phil: (4-3-3) Reina; Elmohamady, Konsa, Mings, Targett; Hourihane, Luiz, McGinn; Trezeguet, Samatta, Grealish.
Grealish goes where he wants but will mostly be on the left. Smith could go back to playing Ezri Konsa out of position at right back and Kortney Hause in the middle - but I hope not.
Up top, it could be either Keinan Davis or Mbwana Samatta - they have been rotating. Davis is more of a hold-up player who is very good at holding off defenders, turning, and passing the ball. He has never scored in the Premier League. Samatta will make diagonal runs from the middle toward the corners and will be offside about half the time. A good header of the ball. Neither look likely to score.
RBM: Who do you think could cause Everton the most problems?
Phil: Douglas Luiz will be the best player for Villa, as he has been since the restart. But that will be mostly in breaking up Everton attacks and starting counters. He won’t cause the direct threat. But I wanted to flag him because he is playing very well right now.
Villa need Grealish to be the biggest threat. He needs to carry the ball up the left and through the middle. He will get fouled, he will go down easy when fouled, and I will continue taking a drink every time he does so - and I welcome all to join the Grealish drinking game.
From those set pieces, Hourihane needs to create quality chances and hopefully someone bundles the ball into the net. It isn’t pretty, it isn’t sexy, but that is the likely route to a goal.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Thursday’s game?
Phil: I was correct in August when I went for a Villa win here on the blog. So I’ll stick with that. 2-1 Villa. And hope I’m right again.
Our thanks to Phil for his time.